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How to survive working from home
Due to the Coronavirus outbreak a large number of people will end up working from home when they have never done so before - here's some tips to help.
I’ve been working from home on /off for over 25 years. My github profile and twitter handle are @telecoda. This is a throwback to the early days as guinea pig “teleworker” in the mid 90’s. As I was a “coder” I called my self telecodA as is sounded far more “street”.
I used a 14,400 dialup modem to dial into the company’s network on my home phone line. It would then dial me back to save a horrendous phone bill and I got on with my daily work.
What follows is my list of tips for working effectively in this way that I have discovered over the years. One caveat is that these are tips that work for my particular role as a software engineer, and may not be applicable for all jobs.
Get used to working asynchronously
For some people this will take some time to adjust to. If you work in a busy synchronous workplace where there is chatter and an ongoing list of requests for “can you do this?” “can you do that?” etc. This will be a little shock.
When I was the guinea pig trying out teleworking I had this massive daemon on my shoulder whispering to me that everyone in the office assumed I was slacking off. Due to this self-imposed pressure upon myself I felt that every email or request I was receiving had to be responded to immediately and with great haste. In hindsight, this was just plain dumb and a rapid route to entire burnout.
You do NOT have to do everything NOW, but you do have to get things done efficiently and consistently. That will both motivate and stimulate you.
Also remember that if your colleagues are also working asynchronously, treat them in the same way as you would like. Ask them a question and let them respond when they are ready.
Make a list
This is normally the first thing I do at the beginning of a working day. I would say it do this MORE on the days I work from home than in the office.
This is probably because my schedule of work is more under my power at home than in an office environment.
So, write a list of ALL the things you’d like to do today. It’s best to start with a blank piece of paper. Keep it to less than 1 page. Make sure the tasks are small enough to do today.
- unit tests for module x
- release service A to staging / live
- review documentation PR
- insure car
- sprint planning meeting
- Mum’s birthday card
The best thing about lists is that they are very motivating. There is a strange sense of satisfaction when crossing things off. It becomes addictive so that you want to do more.
You may see a few surprises in there too. Add some “life admin” tasks in there as well. You CAN fit those in too and sometimes it’s worth switching to something else to change your state of mind.
Also include planned meetings in the list so you allow time on your list for attending those. It’s still a THING you’ve done today.
Be prepared to add more things to the list during the day. A piece of paper is a dynamic work balancing tool.
Sometimes things end up irrelevant, cross em off.
Don’t worry if you don’t do them all, your list was probably optimistically too long.
Eat the frog — As Mark Twain once said “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” … Eating the frog means to just do it, otherwise, the frog will eat you meaning that you’ll end up procrastinating it the whole day.
So do the boring (ones you are avoiding) tasks first.
Tomorrow, start a new list.
Be prompt to meetings
If your day does involve meetings, have the decency to turn up on time and prepared. Obviously these meetings will take place remotely either via telephone or video call.
Even though you are working remotely you really don’t have an excuse to miss these. If something HAS come up and you can’t make it, warn the attendees in advance instead of wasting their time waiting for your no show.
Even though you are working from home, it is better to get dressed so you are in work mode. Sure you can do it a little later in the morning and begin work in your robe. Just don’t spend the entire day like that, you’re a professional.
Show your face
This is a tip for your mental wellbeing as much as anything else. When in meetings if you can, show your face on the camera. It doesn’t have to be for the whole meeting, you may be sharing designs etc.
When working for extended periods at home I need occasional face to face just for general “banter” and some form of social contact.
By showing your face and seeing others you can pick up on more emotions when discussing ideas. This will help to see if someone is struggling or if someone really doesn’t agree with you.
If you have a big pile of ironing behind you, just move it for the duration of the meeting.
Go for a walk
If I work at home all day and stay in all day I usually end up with a headache. Therefore its good to get some fresh air and go for a walk. This could be to nip to the shops for a coffee, walk the dog. Or, during the current situation, even a few laps of the garden.
Amazingly I sometimes have my best ideas when I think that I’m not thinking about the job.
You are not slacking off
So at first, it may feel strange and odd, but you’ll gradually feel like you’re getting stuff done. Keep having daily standup meetings (you can sit if you like).
If you have nothing to update from the previous day you ARE slacking off. If you’ve spent the day working on something and not making much progress share that. Someone else may be able to lend a hand or offer advice.
Take a lunch break
You are now master of your own schedule. That does not mean you work non-stop from when you wake up until when you collapse onto your keyboard in darkness.
Try to avoid snacking, this is really hard when the kitchen is SO close.
Stick to a regular lunchtime if you can and eat away from your computer. Even enjoy an episode of something while you eat, or virtually meet your colleagues for lunch!
Listen to some music
Having some background music is great for motivation. My musical choices are often influenced by the task I am doing.
- Flat out coding — fast EDM
- Reading docs — something more chilled (no lyrics)
- etc. musical tastes differ massively
Try to avoid distractions
This one is almost as hard to avoid as the food in the kitchen.
I find getting distractions out of the way first can help. First thing in the morning I go through my personal / work email inboxes. Then I do a quick tour of the social media networks / news for anything interesting. I probably won’t check my email again for the rest of the day.
Don’t overuse things like slack.
Don’t endlessly check twitter, it will suck away your soul.
Feel free to ignore these
This list of tips are things that work for ME. We are all different people working in different jobs. Hopefully, though some of this will help you.
There is no single way to do things. Just be prepared to try stuff out and if it doesn’t work, think about why and try something different.
Last of all: WASH YOUR HANDS!