Working From Home - Tips and Tricks

27 March 2020 - Career , RemoteWork

Like probably most of you, I'm now working from home full-time. Or technically, from "the Everstack office", which is my house anyway. I've worked from home every Friday for a long time now, and also had a short period many years ago working from home full-time too. I've now been working from home for almost a month full-time due to the Coronavirus.

Whilst I clearly don't have vast amounts of experience working from home full-time, I still thought it worth sharing my findings so far, and the tips and tricks I've learnt that have helped me. Some points have come from many years of working from home on Fridays, and some have come from recent experiences from now doing this full-time.

Use tools like MSTeams, Slack, Zoom, etc.

Working from home can be very isolating, but unless you're a one-person-band, you are still a part of a team - even if you're separated physically. Modern technology makes a massive difference, allowing you to communicate much easier and more collaboratively than via email. Multiple people can discuss via text, share files, have face to face chats and meetings, screenshare - all at the click of a button. I even find a screensharing session in a video call easier than doing it in person, as you're both on your own computers and can investigate and try out different things, whilst still seeing the shared screen.

And remember that if your company uses Office365 - you already have Teams ready to go and you can login with your existing Microsoft credentials!

Turn on your webcam!

In a group chat or meeting, the more people who turn on their webcams, the more in-person and engaging those interactions feel. I know it might feel uncomfortable at first, but it's surprising how quickly it becomes a non-issue. Especially, if everyone does it. If the meeting is just one person giving a presentation - then think about which they're likely to prefer - being able to see, interact, and engage with their audience; or talking to a mindless webcam for half an hour. I know which I'd prefer!

Check your audio

When doing video/audio calls - audio quality is important! If the other person (or rest of the group) can barely hear you, then that's going to get frustrating for the other people really quickly. And if you can afford to splash out on a decent mic, then you're also going to stand out in those meetings - in a good way!

Even though my audio seems okay, people have commented that my in-built mic really picks up noises in other rooms. I decided to invest in a really decent mic, not only because of work video calls, but also because for the near future, I'll be hosting .NET Oxford as a virtual event, and also might do a bit more audio/video content creation too. I went with the Blue Yeti X, which hasn't yet arrived - but I'm looking forward to hearing the difference! Obviously a mic of that price is a bit accessive if you just want to improve the quality of your calls - but there are plenty of much cheaper options if you just want to have a step up from the built-in laptop mic.

If you do have lots of background noise, there is an app called Krisp that can help with this. I haven't tried this myself, but have heard very good things about it. I'll certainly be looking at this if my new YetiX mic doesn't fix my issues with background noise from other rooms.

Staying focused from home

I wrote quite a long blog post a couple of years ago on Developer Productivity (link). Whilst all the points in that post can help with your productivity, there are a few I'll pick out here that especially help with home working.

Headphones

It's really hard to stay focused when there's noise in the background, and having a good set of noise cancelling headphones is a must in my opinion whether in the office or at home. However, even when I'm at home alone (which doesn't happen now, but it used to do before you-know-what happened), so there is no background noise - I still find that when I have my headphones on, I notice a massive difference in productivity levels and focus. I don't even have to have music on (although, for me this helps). I also find that the size of headphones matter. My headphones are the Bose QC35 II, and are fairly big headphones covering my ears. For me, there's something about them covering my ears vs using in-ear headphones that make them much more immersive and helps me get and stay in the zone.

Pomodoro Technique

The Pomdoro Technique is where you set a timer for 25 minutes, and during that 25 minutes, you're focussed on a single task - you can't check emails, Twitter, Facebook, any notifications - it's all about that one task. After the 25 minutes, you get a 5 minute break. Then repeat.

It's much easier to stay focused if you know it's only for a short finite period of time, you can see that timer, and you know you get a break at the end of that short period. There are so many distractions at home, with no-one watching over your shoulder if you "pop on Twitter for a bit", or "quickly check the news", or even going to hang up the washing - it's all procrastination, which the human mind will try to do, especially if your current task isn't that exciting. I find the Pomodoro Technique really helps with staying focused, and getting stuff done.

Rest your eyes

Since working from home full-time, I'm suffering from eye-strain much more than when in an office. Then I realised that when in the office, I'm quite often at someone's desk discussing something, or in a meeting. I still do those things virtually now via MSTeams - but those things now involve a screen. So the entire day is now staring at my monitors with no break other than lunch and tea-breaks.

So now you're working from home, regular breaks from the screen are even more important! And this doesn't mean walk away from your computer just to switch to another screen (your phone). Look out of a window - if you have a garden, go outside for a few minutes.

Using a Pomodoro Timer (see above) is great for this. Make sure you avoid screens in your 5 minute break!

Have a dedicated workspace, and make it somewhere you want to be

However you setup your desk at home - you're going to be spending a lot of time there! It's important to make it somewhere you want to be. This is obviously easier for those who have a dedicated room, but even if you don't - it's important to make your area your own.

As mentioned earlier, I've worked from home on Fridays for many years. But the rest of my week was in a clients' office. Because it was just one day at home, my home-office was a mess. Now my full week is spent in this single room, I've spent a bit of time sorting it out, making it tidy and organised. It still needs more work, but it has made a massive difference.

I'm very lucky in that I have a dedicated office room with desk, swivel chair, multi-monitor setup, etc. I can't imagine working all day from a laptop on my lap on the sofa. I just don't see that being sustainable, productive, or good for you. So if you don't have a dedicated room, and you think you might be working from home for some time, then I'd recommend looking into a dedicated desk that you can fit somewhere in your home (you can get some pretty small compact desks), and making that area a place you want to spend your day.

If you need a bit of motivation, Scott Hanselman Tweeted out about his home office, asking everyone to share pictures of their setup. A LOT of people have replied with photos/videos of their setups - and there are some really nice ones too!

Loss of commute

One thing that's surprised me is how much I miss my commute. It's natural to think - "yay, I've just gained an hour or so of my life back every day!" - however, I've found that my commute (especially the return commute home) acted as a natural "wind-down". I think this especially applies to those who have kids. I used my commute to listen to podcasts and audio-books, and learn - it wasn't dead-time. Now, I finish work, and I'm already home, being jumped on by the kids. I certainly don't feel like I've suddenly gained 1.5 hours every day. And due to kids being at home all the time - I've also lost my freedom during my lunch-hour. I used to enjoy going to the gym and training at lunch. Now I spend it with the kids. This isn't a bad thing, and I'm really not complaining! I love them to bits, and have been enjoying playing frisbee and joining them on the trampoline in the garden at lunch. I certainly feel very lucky to have such an amazing family, decent sized house with garden, and not be alone - so this section isn't a complaint - it's more an observation that my commute wasn't dead-time after all, and had multiple benefits - eg. learning, and also a natural stop-gap at the end of the day. I've now started making sure I go for a morning walk before starting work (yes, I'm keeping WAY away from anyone else during that walk) - but that gives me some podcast listening time, and also a bit of freshair, and that 'stop-gap' before starting work.

Prove to your boss that WFH works!

Are you enjoying working from home? If haven't been allowed by your workplace in the past - now is the perfect time to show your boss how productive you can be working remotely! Be more productive than you were in the office - don't give your boss reason to refuse you working from home when all this blows over. If anything good can come out of this situation, I think a better understanding and acceptance of remote working will be one positive side-effect.

Also, as programmers, there is a lot of other stuff we have to do that isn't user-facing. If you're working on something that isn't directly visible to the business - make sure you make this work visible somehow. Whether this be a daily status update email, or a weekly show-and-tell to the team, it doesn't really matter - just don't do invisible work, leaving people wondering where all your time is going. Someone can be in the office, and get hardly any work done at all - but for some reason, managers feel happy that they can see staff are physically at desks or in meetings. When you're not physically visible, this can make a lot of managers feel really uncomfortable. The only real way to set their mind at ease, is to provide real visible value - and this is a good thing, both for the business and for your feeling of self-worth.

If your team uses a platform like MSTeams or Slack - then do make sure you keep active on it. Obviously don't use it to procrastinate - but do use it to (a) not be alone, and (b) show that you're not slacking off playing on your xbox. Let your team know what you're working on, help with questions that others are struggling on, ask questions if you're struggling on something. Be present.

Track your time

Another tip is to track your time. This doesn't need to be publically available to your work (unless it's an existing requirement of your workplace that is) - it can be just for your information. I always track my work time - even when in the office, and I find it provides valuable insights to where my time is spent. When you first start doing this - it can act as quite an eye-opener! Most things take longer than you expect, and when you first start doing this - you probably find that you do less than you think you do. I personally use Toggl.

Plan ahead of time and use todo lists

I read a great book a few years ago called How to Be a Productivity Ninja. One concept that was talked about was splitting yourself into two roles: manager and worker. When you're in manager mode - plan your work, create and prioritise your todo lists. When in worker mode, work from your plans and lists. When in worker mode, try to avoid unplanned work that your manager-self hasn't prioritised. This really helps you get your head down when in worker-mode, and also helps remove emotion (ie. 'I don't feel like doing this now') out of the equation.

Have a positive mindset

It's surprisingly easy to mentally switch from a negative mindset to a positive one about something. You just need to decide that you really want to do the task and it's going to be fun. Instead of looking with dread at that bug you need to debug - think of it as a challenge, a problem to solve - it's not going to beat you! Put your headphones on with some energetic music, and enjoy it. It's easy to get fed up with something, and let it drag you down and ruin your productivity for the entire day. Be self-aware when this is happening, and flick that mental switch!

Stay away from social media!

This will eat up your day! Now that you're working from home, you no longer have the awareness that someone might look over your shoulder and see you on Facebook, or browsing BBC News. So it's natural to struggle with self-control - after all sites like Facebook are designed to be addictive! Do try to not fall into this trap. If you do go on social media - include this as part of your time tracking (discussed above) - make sure that you can see at the end of the day exactly how much time you've lost to social media procrastination.

Try to stick to a normal working day

You're working from home - you're free to have "flexi-time" - you can do your laundry, tidy the house, etc. during the day because you're at home. You can always work a bit later to make it up, right? This just doesn't work, and if you track your time properly (see above section on time-tracking), you'll discover that you've turned into a part-time worker. Stick as close to office hours as you can.

Lastly, never forget how lucky we are in our industry at this difficult time!

I want to end this blog post with a reminder of how lucky we are. Our industry is ideal for remote work. Most of us are already used to using tools like MSTeams or Slack anyway, and for a lot of us, nothing much has changed except that we're at a desk at home rather than the office. For a lot of us, this is a great improvement, and we're much happier!

So make sure you appreciate the position you're in (unless you're not, but I suspect a lot of readers of this blog are). A lot of people can't work from home, or have been let go from work because of this situation and don't know how to pay for food, bills, etc for their family.

And also remember the much more unfortunate people who don't even have a roof over their heads. Having to rely on begging or busking, only to now find the streets are deserted, and food-banks are empty. I try to remind myself of how lucky I am each time I start to complain about silly things like not being able to go to the gym for a while. A great quote I saw recently (can't remember where from) said that our grandparents had to go away and fight in wars - we just have to wash our hands and stay at home.