Last March, my company moved to a fully remote workforce as a result of COVID-19. Indeed, most of my industry did. Working from home was not all that abnormal for me. For much of the last ten years, I worked in a startup, and we did not have formal office space for much of that time. We had some conference rooms we could use occasionally, but we worked virtually for the most part. After the startup was bought out, I worked for the company that acquired us remotely too for a bit. I was four years into a regular job when COVID struck. I worked out of the office four days each week, and on Friday worked from home. I loved Fridays. My commute was more than an hour in each direction, so I had two extra hours on Friday.
I am a software architect, and my work is software-based, development, configuration, troubleshooting, execution, support, etc., its all done on my laptop. From there, I can connect to every place I need to work. Even when I was at the office, many of my meetings were Zoom based. We had issues finding rooms or finding big enough rooms. We have many locations worldwide too. Many tech companies are like this, I would imagine.
I have learned some lessons from working from home, more in the last year than ever before. It is different being required to work from home rather than choosing to work from home. Over the Christmas break, I reworked my home office with a focus on work life balance.
Create an Area for Work
Initially, my work laptop found a space on my home office desk. I had a desk with some extra space, two large monitors, and both had two inputs. I got a couple of USB-C to HDMI/Display port cables and a mouse and keyboard so I could switch between my home PC and my work Mac with a button press. Quick setup, easy, and I was going. It did not take long to realize the mac took too much of my desk away. I moved the mac to various locations, most of which rendered the camera useless. Who would have thought it would be impossible to find webcams? They were rarer than toilet paper for a while. I eventually got a functional setup working, but I never really liked it.
The problem with using the same workstation for work and home is that it is all too easy to blend work and play. Often I found myself working late into the night and then not having time for home activities. I eventually got used to shutting the laptop down at the end of the day, but it was still easy to boot it up, and it was a pain to turn it on each morning. I found myself sitting for most of the day, not even trying to get away from my desk.
Realizing there was a problem, I eventually got permission to go into our physical office and bring my work monitors, chair, and other things home. I set up a separate area in my office for work. While it was suitable for a while, the only desk I had was a small pneumatic standing desk that did not effectively weight my office monitors. But it was separate, and it was easier to forget work at the end of the day. I eventually bought a decent standing desk with a better surface area. I now stand for as much of the day that I sit.
Get a Green Screen
I spend a lot of my time in meetings. A green screen significantly improves your webcam, especially coupled with good lighting. More importantly, though, a green screen can instantly shut out your private home life from work. No longer do you need to worry about the mess you left on the other side of the office or worry about someone coming into the office or walking by. It also allows you to hide your office from yourself at times. Green screens can be relatively compact and set up in seconds, depending on the type you get. Sadly, the green screen does not help with the foreground, so personal grooming is still necessary.
I have found that sometimes it is useful to transition from the morning home activities to work activities. This used to be easily achieved and took the form of a commute. Long ago, I found I used to subconsciously plan my day, ponder problems, and even solve problems while commuting. It also provided a way to wind down from home stresses and ease into a frame of mind for work. I’d often get in the car, drive to Starbucks, and then drive a twenty-odd minute loop around my neighborhood. I literally left home, got a coffee, and drank the coffee on a drive and pondered things. I commuted to my home from my home. I found a nice scenic loop in my area with no traffic and just drove it each morning that I wanted a transition. I ended up looking forward to the commute.
Careful, though, by working from home, not having a commute is a significant benefit. Even though I would often do a commute in the morning, I never had the desire to do one in the evening. I never had a passion for a long commute. For most people, not commuting would save at least an hour or more each day. You will save gas, put fewer miles on your car, etc. It is essential to plan what to do with the extra time and the money you will save. Some will get some extra sleep. Others will help out more with morning activities. This time is useful, do not merely extend your workday with it, although the extra time can help with work. Sometimes you can start earlier and end earlier too.
Believe it or not, the office chair you have at home is only designed for about four hours of use per day, if that. Chairs at the office are designed for extended use and years of abuse. If you use your chair for work and home activities, you can accumulate ten or more hours of usage every day. This time will take its toll on a chair. Further, your chair will take a toll on the floor it is on. Get a floor protector for your chair. Likewise, keyboards wear out, and mice wear out. If you can, bring your office chair, keyboard, mouse home. If you can’t, buy some extras, you may even be able to get your company to help. It is crucial to have the right functional equipment.
Many home offices do not have good WiFi. Poor WiFi may be tolerable for home use but become annoying for work. Poor WiFi causes all sorts of virtual meeting problems that waste time. It may be necessary to buy a home networking mesh. There are some great options available. They are all somewhat expensive but likely a good investment if you need good WiFi. I can highly recommend the Netgear Orbi!
If you need to scan things occasionally, a modern phone can be a lifesaver for quick scans. If you have a printer that scans, it is often easier to use the phone anyway. Lighting can be a pain; it is hard to take a photo of a document, keeping it straight and not getting the phone’s shadow in the picture. I set up a small scanning station. I bought a simple tripod with a flex head for holding a phone and a magnetic led light, again with the head on a flexible cable. I can place the phone in the phone holder and shine the LED light on the document and efficiently scan multiple pages. Combined with the right app, it is even possible to generate PDFs of the scan. You can find the tripod and light on amazon for around fifty dollars. Super useful.
Another thing to keep in mind is that home office lighting may not be designed for prolonged use. Your light may have a flicker or maybe dimmer than required, or there perhaps an irritating glare around. It is useful to fix all those issues, get some brighter light bulbs, or switch out to LED bulbs. Adjust some angles of lights or monitors, etc. Its often easy to tolerate things like this for a few hours here and there, but for eight or more hours each day, it can become troublesome.
You burn more calories than you realize at work, going to the break room, walking to a lunch location, wandering around to and from conference rooms, sometimes up and down floors via stairs even. It all adds up. None of that happens at home, and distances are shorter, stairs are not involved, etc. It is vital to make this up. Getting out for a walk before, after, or during work, is highly recommended. You will find that working 100% at home allows you to plan your hours more efficiently too. It’s easily possible to arrange an early exit on Wednesday so you can play a round of golf with a friend, or go on a long jog, etc. It’s the ultimate flex-time, even if your company does not have a flex-time policy in place.
Expenses can be a tricky area for some. You will both spend more money in some areas and spend less money in other areas. Some of those areas your company should be able to help you cover. Expect your internet usage to increase, most internet providers added 25% capacity to everyone’s plans when COVID-19 started, but it may not be enough depending on your job. Further, many people needed to upgrade their internet for faster speeds to handle work and virtual learning. Some of that cost may be offset by the company. As mentioned above, all your home equipment will have additional wear and tear. Chairs, keyboards, mice are obvious. Not so obvious will be A/C usage, microwave usage, printer usage. If you have a job that requires a printer, be very aware that any home printer (i.e., any printer you can afford) is not rated to print more than a few pages at a time, and the printer’s life expectancy is far smaller than most realize. Printer ink/toner is also expensive and hard to find at times now too. Many things need batteries; keep some on hand.
There will be tremendous saving opportunities too, less gas costs, auto insurance may be lower, and cars’ maintenance events will happen less. Lunch costs may go down considerably, especially when you start planning meals to have a leftover portion for lunch. The savings will likely offset the expenses, which will ease the pain if your company does not help out.
My job involves downloading lots of artifacts to my laptop to be able to develop things. Downloading artifacts can cause considerable internet usage. Many companies can offer virtual desktop environments. If you can organize your work on a virtual desktop and use your work productivity machine to connect to this environment, it can save a lot of internet usage.
Plan your Days
It is essential to plan your days out. Set a start time and an end time. Try to reserve certain hours for real work, cram all your meetings into different hours. It will be possible to be flexible with the start and end of the day, but be mindful that you likely get paid for forty hours each week, and you don’t want to fall into doing 60 hours with 20 aimless hours in the mix. Depending on your role, you may need to set specific times to help the team or have a group brainstorming call. These should be all planned. It can be advantageous to have a meeting-free day also.
Plan for downtime too. There will be times when you have equipment failure, or an internet outage. Try to keep some work available that can fill these outages. This type of work can also be useful while picking up a child from school and having to wait. It is an excellent time to get some work related reading or research in.
Eliminate the Cat!
If you have a cat, it will crash the most important meetings. It will walk over your keyboard, jump in your lap, attack your microphone. It might be useful to plan for that at times. Similar issues can occur with your family.
My company has moved to a “Remote First” working policy now. Working remotely for COVID has been so successful, they are planning to close some offices and convert others into less office space and more shared spaces after COVID. We always had issues finding conference rooms. Whilst I miss going to the office, I certainly will not go back to the office full time if I can choose. Having the option of working from work less and working from home more is certainly welcome, but do be sure to remove some of the friction and balance work/home.