Working From Home: A Guide to Success March 16, 2020
For years, it's become increasingly common for developers to get to work from home a few days a week or even full-time, as members of "virtual" teams. During the current novel coronavirus pandemic, many tech firms are adopting WFH policies to allow their staff to practice "social distancing", where people limit their contact to fewer people, to help reduce the spread the COVID-19 virus. Many of our readers may be at companies already doing this or will adopt this soon.
Working from home can have some obvious benefits:
- no time spent commuting: you won't need to drive, bike, or use public transit to get to work. For many people, this can save hours every week, and also reduce the number of potentially-ill people you might be exposed to.
There are some challenges people face when moving to working from home.
Work Time Expectations
Many developers have somewhat flexible hours in offices; many companies don't have a strict start time or leave time for face-to-face workers. But there's often typically an expectation, like "you should try to be here no later than 11, and stick around until at least 5", or something like that. With working from home, you company may expect you to keep those expectations. Given the time-free commute, some companies might expect that window of availability to slightly wider ("start work no later than 10"). Sometimes, working from home can provide more flexibility in time, especially if you work on projects solo or have long tasks to do independently. That may lead to less restrictive working times. *Useful tip*: talk with your team lead about the time expectations for working from home. Are they the same as they were? Or they more time-based now? Less?
Getting Help & Being Social
For many people, it may be easier to communicate by leaning across your desk to chat with a colleague or get help from another developer. It's often easy to tell if someone can handle a question by their posture or attention, whereas it can be harder to do so online. *Useful tip*: encourage members of your team to adopt a way to signal whether or not they're in a good place to chat or answer non-urgent questions. Some organizations do this by having special chat channels for chatting or answering these questions, separate from the critical chat channels everyone should be in.
Self-Motivating and "Starting The Day"
If you're used to a commute or a morning staff meeting, you may have some rituals to help you and your body know the day is starting: a fast bike ride through the city, or a morning coffee from the company kitchen. When you start working from home, it can be too easy to not know "when you're working". It can be tempting to putter around, half-working, half-checking social media, or procrasting on when to log into Slack. *Useful tip*: keep some of your previous rituals: you can go for a bike ride around your neighborhood to "start work", or walk to your local coffee shop to buy a coffee and when you get home, you're working.
You may also find it useful to do other things: a friend of mine found that when she lounged around in PJs working from home, she didn't have the same energy. She found that showering and changing into work clothes make her perk up and draw a clearer line for when she's working.
Ending the Day
The other end of the day can also be problematic. It's easy to get so into your development task that hours can pass, and you can work later than you're expected to. Having coworkers start leaving the office can be something you've always noticed to signal that it's time to wrap up. When you're working from home, it may be difficult to have a clean break at the end of the day, so you don't find yourself spending a lot of your evening working or thinking about work. *Useful tip*: Decide on a time and ritual for ending your workday.
When I was a consultant, I often had flexible hours. I used to make the starting of dinner the time where I needed to end work. Sometimes that might at 5pm, sometimes at 7pm--but as soon as I started cooking, the computer was closed and I shifted my mind to something else. Find a ritual like this that will work for you.
Your office may have lots of physical things that may work easy, like snack bars, quiet areas, and whiteboards. Not having these things may make it harder to take short breaks or think about tough problems.*Useful tip*: find analogs for these in your home. Buy healthy snacks you can keep near your desk so you can still have that afternoon piece of fruit. If you don't have a whiteboard at home, you can use whiteboard markers on your bedroom or bathroom mirror---sketch in a notebook with colored pencils. Noise-canceling headphones might be a worthwhile investment if you live with family or housemates.
Especially for those of us who live alone or require a lot of extroversion in our lives, a sudden switch to working from home can feel isolated or gloomy. Particularly given that many of us will be seeking more social isolation because of concerns around COVID-19, maximizing the value of the interactions you can have may be helpful. *Useful tip*: Spending more structured time with housemates or close friends may be helpful. Plan a regular movie night or board game night, where you can spend time with close friends or family, rather than going to large public events, where you may get less meaningful interaction and more exposure to contagion. Having quality online chats with non-work friends during the day can help with the sense of "I'm spending all day by myself, day after day".
If you're working from home because of COVID-19 changes, your company may be more flexible about working from home in the future. Make observations now about how well this works for you--are you finding good strategies to make this more enjoyable? Or are you waiting for the moment when you can spend work in an office with colleagues? Now can be a good time to learn about what works for you, so you can plan future work plans.
Written by Joel