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Work from home, the Heidi Way

There are approximately one millionty WFH articles out right now, including a great one from my teammate Dawn – Setting yourself up for success while working remotely. I think it’s vital that we gather a lot of data points about best practices, and ideas we might not have had.

I just had a work/technical discussion about best practices, and the thing about them is — nothing is a best practice for everyone. Maybe that naming convention is not going to meet your needs — it’s cool.  So when you’re looking at all these open browser tabs of best practices for working from home, I think it’s useful if those of us who have been living La Vida Pajama Pants for decades don’t just talk about Best Practices, but rather, Our Practices, which may be useful to you, or may not. We need both kinds of information.

Schedule

When I’m home, I’m two hours ahead of the main office in Oakland. What that means for me, since I am not so much with the mornings, is that I aim to roll into work around 10 Central time, which still gives me a quiet hour or so before the California people show up online.

I similarly displace my lunch so that I don’t lose 2 hours in the middle of the day to my lunch and their lunch. Works out ok for me because my morning meds make me not-very hungry.

I have an alarm on my phone that goes off at 6 PM, and I usually stop working then or close to it. Does that make my days a bit shy of 8 hours? Yes. Do I think it matters? No. The alarm is important because things are still happening online, and my instinct is to keep talking to people about cool stuff, work things, etc. When my alarm goes off, though, I don’t go right upstairs to talk to my family. Instead, I have a sacred “commute” time, where I take half an hour and read a book, play a game, or have a nap to reset, so I am a pleasant human when my family sees me. I think I learned this from my dad, who would always come in the door and disappear into his room for 20-30 minutes after work. My mom’s version was pretty much the same, except that once she became a pastor, she also added a nap after church – The Liturgical Nap, as it is known in my family. Because church is a lot of peopling.

My two teenagers and wife and I all tend to eat a sort of European-hour dinner — 7 or 8 is fine. The kids are starving when they come home, so they have a big snack, and I ate lunch at 2ish, so dinner at 5 or 6 seems too soon. This is one way my schedule affects them.

Stuff

Hello, fellow middle-aged people. You are very likely to experience Intense Regret in the low-backular region if you work from home:

  • sitting on your comfy tv-watching couch
  • using a laptop on a kitchen table while sitting in a straight chair
  • using a laptop in your lap

Your employer is not buying hella expensive desk chairs because it’s a status symbol (well, maybe a little), it’s because good ergonomics mean you can work more effectively. So when you’re work from home, think about preserving function.

Here’s my setup:

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(My home office, I think I set it up so you can zoom in and read my embarrassing details)

You’ll notice I don’t have a desk, as such. Instead I’m using a rocking chair to sit in, and an external ergonomic keyboard which rests in my lap. This pretty much only works because there’s a touchpad in the center of the keyboard, so I don’t have a mouse. At all. I haven’t used a mouse since the Great RSI Debacle of 2000 (yes, really). The giant monitor (which I managed to get a dead line in last week, argh) is on a swing arm so that it is exactly at eye height and about a meter away. My feet are up on a footrest which also rocks. Ergonomically, my back is straight and supported, my elbows and wrists are neutral and supported, my head is not tipped. It’s unorthodox, but it’s also what I’ve been using for over 5 years now. I have to remember not to rock when I’m on webcam, but I find the motion is soothing for my ADD brain when I’m thinking through something.

I do have a standing desk that I frequently use for recording podcasts and video, taking calls, or practicing my penmanship. I seldom compose at it, but I could. The standing desk mat is a really important part of this setup, because otherwise standing a lot in bare/slipper feet is unpleasant, to say the least. The standing desk itself is built out of PVC and an offcut of plywood, and including the fabric, it cost me about $40. Get you a tinkergnome as cool as mine. Or there are plans online. Because of the monitor swing arm, I can move the monitor over to the standing desk without adjusting anything.

That pile of paper behind my chair is my “desk”, and it serves for both the household and the few pieces of paper I deal with for work. I also have a water bottle (yes, you do want to buy a SodaStream, totally worth it for WFH), glasses cleaner, headphones, charger cords, and M&Ms to bribe myself on tough writing days. The whiteboard behind my chair is visible to the webcam, and I can swivel around and draw on it if I’m in a meeting and want to show something.

In the corner, currently collapsed, I have a support system, lights, and fabric for a green screen. I set that up if we are recording a webcast or zoom, but sadly not all my teleconferencing softwares (so many) support a chromakey backdrop, and I’m pretty sure they picked that green because it’s too ugly for people to use in ordinary life. I also have a Blue Yeti mic with a pop filter and a moderately good webcam. I use a HyperX gamer headset, because those things are sturdy and built to be comfortable for hours of use.

I have 3 USB hubs that support wired internet, and I switch between them, because for reasons I am super unclear on, sometimes they overheat? Or stop working? But if you put them in timeout for a couple weeks, they work again. Everything is plugged into a surge protector, because you don’t need it until you do, and I live in the US midwest, where lightning storms are a thing.

The blanket is an electric throw blanket, because my office is in the basement, and it’s not that it’s cold when it’s really really cold out, it’s cold in all the in-between times. We figured out this was cheaper and more efficient than a space heater.

Social

Here’s the thing you’re going to find out about working from home when your spouse or kids are also home — you don’t have enough bandwidth. I’m sure someone, somewhere sells enough bandwidth, but I have not yet been able to purchase enough for

  • I am streaming/recording/in a video meeting
  • My spouse is playing Age of War with voicechat
  • My daughter is playing Sims while watching a Twitch stream
  • My son is playing Crusader Kings and yelling BRO at his friends on Discord

You do not have the bandwidth for that. I re-learn this every summer. So let me suggest that right now you set the rules for who gets priority bandwidth. Like, “anyone earning money that feeds the household has 80% of the sweet sweet internet nectar and anyone who is not in that category can schedule their Discord-yelling for non-work-hours or make do with the 20%”. Set it at the router, with your IP addresses. Anyone who complains will be told to Read a Book or Maybe Do Your Chores. Because I assure you, this is the turf war you don’t know is coming.

When I’m not at home, I travel a ton, so I usually get adult human socialization, but it’s a good idea to connect with the outside world at least once a week. Go buy a mentee coffee, have dinner with a friend, have a #stayinghomeclub quartet. I mean, obviously not if you’re sick, but in general, it’s good to see the daystar and eat with someone you are not legally obligated to.

Donut is a cute slackbot that pairs people up for conversations, but you don’t have to wait. Ask someone if you can put time on their calendar. Set up standing meetings to gossip with your friends in other departments 1-1. Offer office hours remotely. Don’t be afraid to ping someone and say, “How does git even? Can you spend 10 minutes explaining it to me again?”. Because that’s what we do when we’re co-located, after all. You stop by and ask things, and people either tell you to buzz off if they’re busy, or turn around to help you.

Random observations

  • Costco sells Nautica pajama pants in the men’s stacks (you couldn’t call it a department). I own 9 pairs. I see no point in constrictive waistbands no one will see.
  • Don’t eat at your desk because you WILL end up with chocolate muffin on your chin on the video conference. Maybe put a mirror somewhere you can see it from your desk
  • If it’s not a cameras-on meeting, no one can tell if you are doing your tai-chi, physical therapy, or slow yoga next to your chair
  • You will be tempted to just tab to the window behind the meeting and read that one notification real quick. It makes for terrible meetings. Try to make the meeting full-screen and find something else to do with your hands and put your keyboard further away (unless you’re taking notes). I do a lot of knitting below the event horizon of the webcam, but at least I’m not reading something else.
  • The kids are out of school, too. That means even the co-worker who normally appears very buttoned up on television interviews will have a small agent of chaos burst into the room sometimes. We are all human. Don’t judge, lest your agent of chaos appear. My coworkers now know what my cat sounds like. It’s not really that different than “there’s a siren” or “road construction outside the office”.

And finally

We’re at a really interesting inflection point. This is not how we wanted it to happen, no one wanted this, but here we are. And we can either embrace working from home, find the bumps and smooth them out, or we can decide that if it’s hard for us, it’s too hard to sustain.

I hope we come to realize that butts in seats is not the only way to run a Knowledge Industry business, because we’ve been leaving a lot of people out based on some weird industrialist vision of co-presence. People with mobility issues, or geographical preferences, or neurodiversity. Lots and lots of people can’t work the office way, but if you can learn to work the remote way, maybe more of them/us can join you.

Heidi Waterhouse

Heidi is a mercenary technical writer and travelling salesperson of better process and product thinking. She loves writing herself out of a job and teaching people to save themselves from future pain.

Upcoming appearances

Velocity Berlin
Minneapolis DevOps Meetup
DeliveryConf

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