Hello! I’ve been working from home for a long time now, including the last five years working a full time job from home. Knowing what a bumpy start I had, and how many problems I slowly solved, I thought I’d share some tips for folks suddenly thrown into this lifestyle. This is aimed at people who previously worked on a computer in an office and are now trying to do the same from home, I realise how lucky we are that our type of work gives us this ability.
I work for GitHub, a company with a very strong remote culture where my entire team is remote and spread over Europe and the east-coast of the US. We do meet-up occasionally, often in Amsterdam and the US, but 99% of our team’s interactions are in GitHub itself, Slack, and Zoom. We have amassed a lot of custom emoji and I think I’ve become pretty good at remote work.
You’ve got to be comfortable and able to concentrate! If you have a room in your house that you can designate as your “office”, do so immediately. You now have a boundary both for other people in your house but also for yourself, you now have the ability to go to work and leave work while still at home.
If you don’t have that luxury, still try and find somewhere that you can make into a workspace that you’ll only use for work. In my old flat, that was a desk in the corner of the living room.
Desk and chair are very important and it won’t be long before you discover if you’ve got that wrong. There’s a pretty simple set of guidelines for positioning equipment and yourself and there’s plenty of information online including these NHS guidelines.
If you can, find a good chair that will support you and that you don’t hate to sit in. Dining room chairs are horrible, will make you slouch, and will cause pain in places you didn’t know could be painful. I bounced between multiple chairs for years before finally buying a proper ergonomic chair this year and it is wonderful. It is more comfortable than my sofa and nothing hurts anymore. I do not really understand, it looks like it should be very uncomfortable, but I think I could sleep in this.
I have (proudly?) managed to find a way to sit in this chair cross-legged, to undo all the good it does, but it takes a lot of effort compared to sitting normally. I am mostly being good.
There’s a wide range of chairs and prices and I’d suggest you phone around retailers, ask colleagues (and me!) for advice and, if you can do so safely at the moment, get a chance to sit in one. Be wary of gaming chairs; they are rarely any good for you.
Keyboard and mouse are very important too. Over the course of six months, I developed horrible shooting pains up both my arms, from my elbow to my wrist. This would happen during work but also for hours afterwards. At that the time, I was using a very standard £5 squishy-keyed keyboard and colleagues recommended I try a mechanical keyboard. I’d previously thought that mechanical keyboards were just a way to show off and be noisy but after using one for a week, I had changed my mind. The action of the keys was so different and the pain went away almost immediately, I was amazed.
Laptop keyboards are usually bad and, if you can, attaching a good external keyboard, mouse, and monitor will serve you well. However, I find that laptop keyboards are still better than cheap external keyboards.
I also slowly changed mouse, initially from a standard mouse to an ergonomic one, and now I use a vertical mouse. It removes the need to always rotate your hand, it’s great!
Some workplaces will give you an allowance for setting up a home office. If they do, use it. Maybe you’ll love working from home and want to stay when this is all over and done with!
Calendars and alarms
As for actually “going to work” (hopefully in that new space you’ve established), it is rather too easy to lose all routine and get yourself in a mess. I usually start work at 7:30am and sometimes still get out of bed at 7:29am. Sometimes it’s laptop in bed. I’m very naughty.
My tactic for this was creating a new Google Calendar, called “day planner”, that has daily repeating tasks and breaks. I have this open on a monitor, in the day view, all day and as that little red line works through the day, I obey it.
As it’s my Google Calendar, and linked to work, meetings appear on it automatically and I can block off sections, such as breaks, when no one can schedule something with me (or at least, gets told off by Google if they do). At the end of each day, I look at the next day and I adjust those events, create new ones, and add reminders. I’ve been trialing this for a while now and it has been really helpful. Previously I might just sit down and “work” for eight hours straight, churning through issues and customer tickets, missing all the projects and tasks I should also be doing.
Something familiar to home-workers and office-workers is finishing the day and suddenly realising all the things you didn’t do. The problem for home-workers is that there’s no one to close your office so you’re probably just going to stay for an extra hour, right? Otherwise you’ve added more work for your next day.
I did this for a long time. In my first year at GitHub, as well as failing to sign off at all (I’ll get to that later), I’d finish my day and then find I’d stay working for at least another two hours. Sometimes that would be due to colleagues in the US coming online, and wanting to talk to them, but often because I’d allowed too much work to stack up.
My solution here is to finish an hour early. Don’t panic, bosses. On my calendar, I have a “wrap up” hour at the end of my day where I consider those straggling tasks and actually do them. If I don’t have anything like that to do, I’ll just do some regular work for that last hour.
It is so tempting to just work for eight hours straight. Sometimes I’ll actually do that on purpose and finish an hour earlier, if I’d otherwise just be eating at my desk, but I do try and schedule an hour break each day. Those go on the calendar and usually consist of relaxing in a different room, sitting in the garden, or (in less strange times) walking to Bournemouth or Westbourne and working the rest of the afternoon from a café.
I’ve recently been scheduling a “musical interlude” for an hour each day. This is an hour of piano practise and synth-wiggling. Sometimes I’ll make a self-evolving patch not-awful-enough that I’ll leave it running while I work in the afternoon.
So schedule time away from work, and try and stick to that, otherwise you risk exhausting yourself.
At the end of your day, close your laptop, shutdown your computer, and “go home” by leaving your work area. Good colleagues should either not contact you while you’re offline or should instead expect a response the next day. The more of your colleagues that become remote, the more they will appreciate this.
If, like me, you are a geek and your time spent not at work is still spent doing things on and to computers, then you have a few options. If you have it available, or like me you’re using a laptop from your work, then make sure that machine is only used for work.
I was terrible at this and always found myself thinking “Ooh, I wonder how that issue is getting along” and “did someone in the US reply to this yet?” and I’d find myself signed in and working. Or I’d have work-Slack open while working a personal project. My saviour, and what makes me a hypocrite for advising this at all, was switching to a personal laptop that I literally couldn’t use with work due to our security policies.
Regardless of my inability to switch off, I strongly suggest you do! Another option, if you have one computer in your house, is to make two different logins; one for work and one for personal.
Remember you’re at home
Also, remember that you are at home, and there are a lot of benefits and creature comforts that come with that. Play music, have the TV on, make exciting and experimental lunches, work from the sofa for a bit, buy exciting pyjamas and onesies to work from (I am currently a raccoon), and make the most of it.
Some people worry that working from home is less productive. We’ve never found that to be the case and once people are comfortable and setup, they work better because they are happier.
Oh no, video conferencing!
If you’re working from home for the first time, you might be video conferencing for the first time. Even worse, you might be video conferencing for the first time with a group of people who are also video conferencing for the first time.
My first tip is to mute yourself. Keep yourself on mute. Check that mute button every minute incase you’re not on mute. You don’t want to be the one rustling and creaking and mouth-breathing. In most video conferencing applications, you can see who is muted, and someone coming off mute is a great signal that you need to speak next. That and flapping your hand about.
Second, make sure someone is leading the meeting. Awkward silences are 10x more awkward on Zoom. They’re also normal, and to be laughed at, but you do need someone with an agenda who can move things on and end the meeting.
I’d also suggest you check your webcam image before you join the meeting. On a Mac, you can use “Photo booth” and on Windows, you can open “Camera”. Both will just show you what your webcam, and soon your colleagues, will see. I’ve joined far too many meetings to discover, via the tiny version of me on screen, that I look like I have birds nesting in my hair and have food on my teeth.
Some people are suggesting everyone leaves Zoom (other apps are available) on all day. I absolutely hate that idea, a webcam pointing at you is a lot more invasive than sitting in an office. If your team are working from home for the first time, and someone suggests this, understand that it’s normal to hate this idea and I have never done it. If they are pushy, suggest you join but leave your webcam off for periods of time.
You have new co-workers
Do you live with other people? If so, they are not going to immediately see the difference between work-you and home-you. Making a separate room or space into an office will help but that’s probably still going to be the dining room to them.
You can stop and have chats, that’s a really nice part of working from home, but you also need to a develop an understanding that what you’re doing is exactly the same as if you were back in your office. Your family don’t go there and start talking to you. It’s going to be very difficult for them to adjust so just be polite. I can say from experience that it feels awful to shut a conversation down like that but everyone will adapt.
If you’ve suddenly found yourself working from home, and your employer hasn’t set up things like Slack and video conferencing, do it yourself. Slack is actually free and services like Google Hangouts allow you to video conference for free too. Try and have fun. We have #cat-ops for people’s cats and #dogcom for dogs, I highly recommend getting pets involved both in Slack and especially in video calls. Nothing brightens my mood better than someone’s cat deciding to put its bum in someone’s face mid-call.
If you grew up on the internet, you basically now work in IRC, and there’s a lot of fun (and so many memes) that come with that.
In summary, I’ve been working from home for a very long time now and I love it. I often speak to colleagues about this and we cannot comprehend going back to working in an office. But just because I’m here raving about it, doesn’t mean it’s not going to be stressful when you’re suddenly pushed into it (especially with everything going on outside). I hope some of this proves useful but listen to your colleagues in the same situations, there’s going to be all sorts of tips and tricks specific to your work that they and you will be sharing.
Good luck, stay safe, and may we emerge with amazing beards/body hair/whatever-the-opposite-of-a-tan-is.