Working from home

I’m reviving this dead blog because people asked me to share this, so I will.  If you read this, please consider paying your barista/pilates instructor/cleaning person/yoga guru/tattoo artist/service person their regular fees this week, even if you don’t use them.  They will need it.

Hey folks who are new to working from home! I’ve been doing it for 15 years now, and I HAVE OPINIONS. This is obviously slanted towards those who work in areas similar to mine.

  • In the morning, follow your normal routines. Take a shower. Shave as appropriate. Eat breakfast. Get dressed as if you are going to the office. No sweatpants/t-shirts (unless that’s what you usually wear, in which case I should tell you the Unix server needs rebooting). PRETEND YOU ARE GOING TO THE OFFICE. Creating a “normal” routine is CRITICALLY IMPORTANT in the MORNING, because it sets up the rest of the day.

    DO NOT WORK IN YOUR PJs. It’s hard to express how important this is. Your brain needs triggers to signal that it’s work time, because the normal ones won’t be there. PJs tell your brain it is NOT work time.
  • You know what really helps? An actual physical break between work and home. After you’ve finished “getting ready for work”, go take a 10 minute walk outside, then come in and get into office mode right away. Psychological “tricks” are actually critical in moments like these: they help you get in the right frame of mind when your brain is saying “this isn’t my normal routine”.
  • Try as best you can to follow the normal times, too. Usually get into the office at 8? Start work at 8. Usually leave by 5:30? Shut the computer down at 5:30. Pretend you are going to the office and then pretend you are going home.
  • Make a space your “official” work space as much as possible. It’s for a short period of time, so sacrificing your D&D campaign setup table might be necessary. But don’t work in twenty different places around your house, and don’t have your “official” work space the same place where regular home activities happen. Your brain needs alignment.
  • Coffee. If you normally get it at work/Starbucks. you’ll be getting it at home. Don’t forget it because you’ll get a headache, and don’t overdo it: remember your home cup may have more caffeine than the office cup. Too much coffee becomes anxiety, and that’s not what we want right now.
  • Get up and walk around between meetings and calls, or at least once an hour. Sitting for too long is bad for a lot of reasons, and it’s worse if you’re not used to it. You’ll be sitting more than usual. Use a timer on your phone, your watch, or a website to remind yourself to move.
  • On conference calls, MUTE YOUR PHONE WHEN YOU ARE NOT TALKING. ALWAYS. ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAAAAAAAAYS. That way the sound of you masticating potato chips, your keyboard typing or your kids barking or the dogs shouting or the toilet flushing or your child yelling “DAD I POOPED IN THE POTTY” don’t become part of your office lore.

    Also, don’t go to the bathroom while you are on a conference call. You think you will remember to mute. One very memorable day you will NOT.
  • This is a tough one, as it has been key for me while working at home for this long, but these are extenuating circumstances so caveats apply: as much as possible, separate work and home. Yes, if you have children home from school this is hard, but try to distance the two a little. This means that if you aren’t usually available at home during the week to change a lightbulb, then you aren’t “at home” now. A physical boundary (e.g. a door that can be closed) helps.
  • However, BE REASONABLE. That rule above is really for me because normally I get into work “flows” or grooves that are hard to get into and easy to break, so the less interruption, the better. BUT THESE ARE NOT NORMAL TIMES. Your co-parent/spouse/partner is probably also under a lot of stress, and flexibility is key. If they need a break or some help or to vent, be there for them. You are dealing with this AS A FAMILY FIRST, as an employee second.
  • A good idea for your family, especially with younger kids, is a stoplight system: it can be just three colored pieces of paper you can stick on your door or the back of your laptop: red, yellow, green. Red just means “Kinda busy, only available for emergencies”.
  • Hydrate. Just, in general. When you’re not getting up and walking around between meetings, it’s easy to forget you haven’t had anything to drink since those three cups of coffee this morning.
  • Make yourself available (Slack, IM, phone, video) to your teammates to a similar degree you would usually be in the office, and probably a little more. BUT GIVE YOURSELF DOWNTIME to work on the things that need focus, just as you would in the office. Put some time on your schedule to focus without interruption.
  • You will miss the spontaneity of meeting people in the hallways and break rooms. That’s just natural, because you are human. There’s not much we can do about that right now other than reach out to people randomly just to say hi (see Slack, IM, phone, video), which isn’t great, but it does help. Interact with other humans, just at a distance.
  • Just because you have Netflix at home, doesn’t mean you can watch it. Keep work/home systems separate as much as possible. Just because your work laptop is in the room where you usually watch Hulu and check FB doesn’t mean you can watch Hulu and check FB on your work laptop. The temptation is strong. Don’t check social media all day if that’s not something you do at work. If it IS what you do at work, are you hiring?
  • Computer chargers/cables! Phone chargers/cables! USB cables! Where are they all? Do you have them?
  • The chair and desk you are working from at home was probably not built for long-term office use. Stand up and get out of it, move around and exercise your wrists, they aren’t used to being in this position for extended periods of time.
  • Get out of the house if the weather is nice. Don’t go to the mall, just go for a walk or a bike ride. I used to grab my laptop and go work at a coffeeshop when I got cabin fever: now that’s not really an option. But you can maintain pretty good social distancing by walking in the park.
  • Wash your hands. You may be working from home: the rest of your family may not be.
  • Be careful with those leftovers that have been sitting in the fridge for a week. Remember we are practicing social isolation NOT just to avoid COVID-19, but to avoid catching anything else that might send us to the hospital and put more strain on the system. Don’t get food poisoning and end up in an ER waiting room with 15 people who all have a fever and cough.
  • STAY OUT OF THE KITCHEN. The temptation to graze and stress eat is HUGE when I work from home. Eat at normal times. You will get hungry at 10:30am for no reason. STAY AWAY FROM THE SNACKS.
  • Do you have noise-cancelling headphones? They are awesome. Use them. You have background noise at the office that provides a hum your brain is used to, and now what you have are home noises (the laundry, the boiler, your family). They are different noises, and this will distract you. Headphones plus music can help, but try to figure out what kind of music gets you into your groove, and what kind distracts you. For some reason, old-school heavy metal helps me focus because I know the songs so well they are predictable and don’t distract me, but anything new keeps asking for my attention. Classical music just makes me drift.
  • TAKE BREAKS. You do this at work even if you don’t notice them (get up to go to the break room for coffee, go to the bathroom, check mail, you do that all day and stop and talk to people along the way). Keeping your sanity is going to be very important in the next few weeks.
  • Your “productivity periods” are going to be weird. The times you get stuff done at the office and the times you hit your stride at home will be different. Let it happen, figure it out and use it to your advantage.
  • If you have a work VPN but can do most of your work WITHOUT the VPN, do so. Leave the capacity for those who need it. I can do email, Slack, IM, BlueJeans, etc. without using VPN capacity, so I do. If I need to connect to a database, I then launch the VPN. There are lots more people stressing out the remote connection systems than usual, do what you can to reduce the load.
  • Take sick days if you need them. The temptation is strong to just stay at home and work if you’re not feeling great, especially if you are bored. But you need sick days to get better faster. Take them and REST. This one is a huge problem for me: I have taken maybe two sick days in the past five years because I just work through them, and I shouldn’t. Even though I can’t infect anyone else on a conference call, I still need recovery time. THIS IS ALL SELF-CARE, PEOPLE.
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself. Your attention will drift. You will find yourself checking social media too often. Some of your social media usage is replacing what you used to do at the office, so it’s OK. You will snap at someone. It’s OK. Take a break, forgive yourself and move on.
  • Be PATIENT and KIND above all else. You know that saying “Be good to other people: you don’t know what they are going through”? Well today we do know at least one thing they are going through, and it’s stressful and uncertain and has everyone pushed three inches to the left and their brains are struggling to reconcile the differences. Give people the space and time and love and patience they need now more than ever.

I’ll add more as I think of them.