Remote work

Posted on Sun 15 March 2020 in Software Engineering

As I write this, Coronavirus / Covid-19 is on everyone's mind. For many, social distancing and self-quarantines will mean working from home for perhaps the first time. I've worked remotely for over 20 years. Let me share some of what has worked, and what hasn't for me.

I'll start with some general recommendations that concern mental and physical health as well as motivation. Then, I'll touch on some very specific tactics for remote working and teleconferencing. I'll finish up with some further tips to follow once life returns to a more normal (or "new normal") routine.

Health & well-being

Keep a regular routine — Remember, you're still working even if you're doing it at home. Get up, shower and get dressed, then get started on work just like you would if you were going into the office. Try to maintain consistent start and stop times for work. Take regular breaks, at least as often as you would at the office. Eat lunch on a regular schedule. Stop work when the day is done. Of course, you can be a little more flexible, but you'll keep up your motivation and focus if you keep a regular work routine.

Keeping a routine helps maintain a separation between work and personal time. Office workers get that separation thanks to the commute and physical separation between the office and home. You are not your job. Be sure to live your life.

Have a dedicated work space — Another way to maintain work/life separation is to have a dedicated work area in your home. It's best to have a separate room, with a door, especially if you live with family or others. Of course, not everyone has a spare room they can work in. Set up a dedicated area, a desk or table as separated from your relaxing spaces as you can manage. My preference is to not work from a bedroom or family room. Make sure to communicate to your family that when you're in that work spot, you shouldn't be disturbed because you're "at work."

Maintain your physical and mental health — Exercise, sleep right, eat well, and so forth. Get outside, even if for just a short time on your lunch break. Maintain your body, feed your soul.

Make time for socializing — Going hand-in-hand with the previous, socialize as much as you can, at least like you would have at the office. Chat with your co-workers, have virtual lunches (over a video link), set up a watercool chat mechanism, and so forth. I'm in multiple Slack groups — my work channel, a community group of fellow techies, a dedicated group for the robotics team I mentor, and so forth. Across those groups, I have access to channels to discuss hobbies, tech topics, and yes, even politics. These conversation channels help me maintain personal connections and not feel isolated.

If your job typically involves face-to-face interactions (meetings, one-on-ones, even office socializing) bias towards video conferencing over voice or chat. Even if you normally just hunker down in your cube, get in some face time (over video) with co-workers. Video conferencing helps maintain the personal connections you have with your co-workers, customers, and vendors.

Tactical tips

Mute yourself — Regardless of whether you're using audio or video channels, mute yourself if you're not talking to the group! As soon as you're done speaking, mute yourself again. Most of the videoconferencing systems enable you to mute attendees by default as they join the call. Use it.

Use a good headset — with a good mic, preferably a noise-canceling mic, for audio & video calls. Your co-workers will appreciate being able to hear you clearly and not hearing a ton of background noise and static. On the other hand, I like listening to music as I work. Specifically, I like to use speakers not headphones for this. YMMV.

Document and share — Document all decisions and take & share meeting minutes. It's harder to maintain focus and keep track of everything that goes on in a virtual meeting than an in-person meeting.

Start meetings on time — Whether you’re onsite or remote, show up on time. Attending meetings remotely is confusing enough already without the mess of random start times and late joiners.

When life returns to normal

Eventually, life will return to something close to its old routines. I hope this pandemic will foster more remote-friendly workplaces. With that in mind, you'll probably end up in a situation with a mix of on-site and remote workers. Here are some suggestions for when that time comes:

  • Get good A/V equipment for conference rooms — the mic on your laptop doesn't cut it. You need a proper room mic.
  • Make sure everyone in the office has proper headsets for those times when they have to participate in calls/meetings from their desks.
  • If you're the organizer or sitting closest to the room mic, use the good presenter technique of repeating questions so that those on the call can hear.
  • Avoid "hallway meetings" as a way of making decisions. And when that happens, make sure to inform your remote employees. Try to work in ways that include the remote employees (call them, quick grab a conference room and start a video chat, etc.)
  • Conduct all meetings as if everyone is remote. Try to not all gather in one room (meet from your desks).
  • Regularly check in with remote employees to make sure they know what tasks they're assigned, what roadblocks they've hit, etc.
  • Whatever you use for video conferencing, use it consistently. I worked at one place where it was random, sometimes Slack calls, sometimes Hangouts, sometimes Zoom, sometimes whatever freebie service the organizer had discovered someplace. That confusion sucks for everyone involved.
  • Practice good video conference hygiene — avoid stray noises, background conversations, mute yourself when not talking, let the remote person get a word in, ask them if they have input/questions. And for blessed sake, figure out connectivity and tech ahead of time so that not every call begins with “can you hear me?” and fumbling to get sound/video working. If a meeting must start late or early, make sure to let the remote folks know (and why).
  • If the office gets together for socializing, be sure to do something nice for the remotes. For example, send them a dinner gift certificate or movie tickets.
  • Avoid creating or working on teams where only one person is remote. It's too easy to leave them out or forget them, or bias your processes against remote employees.

There are literally whole books about working remotely and fostering remote-friendly workplaces. So, I'll end this here. Working remotely can be great. But it can also suck if it's not done right. Good luck! If you get totally down on this temporary situation, reach out. My social links are in the sidebar. We might be "socially distanced" but we're not alone.