Resources for Working From Home: Tips and Gear

In our current “social distancing” situation, many are working remotely in a serious way for the first time. As one who’s worked full time from home for the past four years, and frequently before that, I thought I should share some tips based on experience. Below are my top three tips and then some of the gear that I’ve used to set up a comfortable workspace.

But first to sum it all up, WFH works well for me. On a team of folks mostly working from home, we are engaged and productive, and have developed what I hope are lasting relationships with each other, although we rarely see each other in person.

Here is what has worked for me:

  • Stick to a routine
  • Be available, productive, and communicative
  • Cultivate a non-work social life
  • Set up a comfortable workspace
  • Proactively balance child care and work*

Stick to a routine

Before starting my WFH position, a friend who had worked from home for the same company pointedly told me to set a routine that rarely varies:

  • Always get up, dress, and have breakfast before logging on.
  • Block lunch on your schedule and stick to it (I’ve done that, although it has been a challenge sometimes in a “work through lunch” company culture).
  • Quit and disconnect on time.

Of course, when needed I will do what it takes to get the job done. The point is to keep separation between personal and professional life.

Be available, productive, and communicative

In our manage-by-walking-around culture many managers become disoriented when physically separated from their team. If you are a manager, learn to “focus on goals, not activity“. Remote work requires a leap of faith in the dedication of your staff to get the job done, and extra communication and support to ensure that each individual gets the support they need. Of course you hold those who aren’t meeting goals accountable, but the emphasis must be to enable and support, and assume each individual is dedicated.

Likewise, staff members must stay productive and over-communicate. I prepare a weekly status update for my manager that briefly outlines what I’ve achieved during the week, what I expect to next week, and notes about expected absences from work. You’ll find that not only does the weekly status inform your manager, it also helps you keep the weekly goal in mind through the week.

It’s also important to over-communicate and support your co-workers. Be available and communicative on on your team chat tool. Keep others in the loop. If you’re wondering whether a message needs a reply, go ahead and add a “thanks!” or a happy emoji. Always assume kind intent when others ask probing questions, and always reply kindly even if the motivations of the original message are in doubt.

Cultivate a non-work social life

It’s true that while working remotely you can still develop strong personal relationships with your coworkers, but the fact remains that full time remote workers may not see people all day long. Of course it’s nearly impossible as I write this due to social distancing guidelines, but I recommend that remote workers find a way to connect with others in person. Pursue an abiding or new interest by joining a club. Join a professional user group, or a charitable organization. In other words, find a way to connect with folks live and in person.

Set up a comfortable workspace

You’ll spend about eight hours a day working from home, so you’ll need a decent office space. Some references talk about getting out to coffee shops, libraries, and so on to vary your days, but I’d find that disorienting.

For me, the first priority is bandwidth. Living in an area with only cable, DSL, and cellular internet, I’ve subscribed to a 150 mbps cable connection. Not enough to break the bank but enough to support company VPN, screen share, and occasional downloads of half gigabyte Tableau data sources. Your needs may vary: if you’re remoting in to a virtual desktop, then you might get away with a lot less. If you have frequent interaction by video you might want more. (We rarely if ever video chat. In spite of this advice to the contrary, video isn’t part of our WFH culture, and in my experience in previous positions it has detracted from interaction rather than helping culture and communication.)

After a fast connection, you’ll want a spot to set up. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but you’ll want gear that’s comfortable enough to let you focus on your work. Here’s what I’ve got:

  • Desk: I’m currently working on a second hand desk found in a company bulletin board ad, but before getting the desk I had a larger 30″X72″ table that fit the bill perfectly.
  • Chair: There’s a bewildering array of options. I use an old armless secretary’s chair that I imagine is like this one. Arms are supposed to be better for your back but I find they get in the way.
  • Monitor: You absolutely need at least one external monitor, and I’d recommend getting as many as you can fit on your desk and your video card supports. I don’t have a recommendation; my company supplies me with two Dell P2217Hs that are great, but there are lots of less expensive, perfectly good options.
  • Monitor Stands: In order to both clear the clutter of wires on the desk and help get the monitors to eye level, you want monitor stands. Here are two choices — this and this.
  • Uninterrupted Power Supply: If you are working from home, you’re probably working on a laptop which will keep going on battery power if the power goes out. But if your battery is low, or if you have external disk drives, or of course if you’re working on a desktop, you’ll appreciate the 20 minutes or so of shutdown time a good UPS provides. I don’t have a recommendation, but I’ve been happy with one comparable to those in the $50-100 range on this page.
  • Music: I can’t always listen to music, but when not in a meeting and working on a routine task, putting on some jams helps compensate for missing office hustle and bustle. I use an old Bose Wave that only works as a speaker now, connected to this bluetooth receiver.

Proactively balance childcare and work*

Although this one no longer applies to me personally, many of us will juggle children and careers throughout the workday. This article offers solid advice both on managing the kids and managing expectations among those with whom you are audio and video chatting. One caveat: the article recommends many options for keeping children busy, all but one involving screen time. I can’t help but advise, based on experience and the literature, minimizing screen time by encouraging non-screen options like books, artwork, puzzles, etc.

Let’s all hope this coronavirus emergency passes soon and with as few casualties as possible. In the meantime best of luck as you work from home. Please use the comments to recount your experience and advice!

*added 5/22/2020 based on emailed feedback


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