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TIMO ZIMMERMANN

balancing software engineering & infosec

Working from home – things no one talks about

posted on Saturday 14th of March 2020 in , ,

With COVID-19 spreading more and more people will find themselves working from home over the next few weeks, and from what I can tell there is no real understanding when we will resume office hours as usual. This obviously is a challenge for people who never worked remotely and organisations who are not prepared for having all (or large parts) of their workforce remote or working from home. Once all of this is over companies will realise that some people can work effectively from anywhere or and some absolutely need an office environment to be productive.

I have seen quite a lot articles and discussions with advice on how to work remotely. Most of them are stating the obvious things like “get a proper screen and keyboard” or “get yourself a nice chair” – valuable advice you should follow when you are expected to work from home for an unknown amount of time. Get proper gear, your body will thank you. But there were some things I have not seen discussed a lot or at all which I – not having worked (sometimes visited) in an office in 20 years – consider worth knowing. Especially since they seem as obvious as getting a nice chair to me.

When talking about advice there are a three things to keep in mind:

  1. If an advice works for you depends solely on you. What works for me does not necessarily work for you – YMMV.
  2. Anything can be controversial if the crowd discussing a specific topic is large enough. Pick what makes sense to you and go with it.
  3. As everything in this blog the target audience is usually found working on a computer. Sorry, I do not have good advice on how to sell shoes remotely.

Everyone is talking about chairs and monitors. But please, for the sake of everyone on the call, get proper headphones. It does not have to be fancy, but eliminating background and potential typing noise for you and everyone on the call goes a long way to make the whole (video) conference experience more pleasant. You got AirPods? Great! You want to go all out fancy with Bose 700? Cool. Just want a solid pair for conferencing? Sennheiser HD 4.50 got your back.

If your company got video conferencing and you do not have an integrated webcam, then get one. The Logitech Brio is amazing – I would suggest dropping down to FullHD 60fps instead of 4k 30fps. Also a great one, but a lot cheaper, is the Logitech C920S. This will give you some perceived form of face time with your colleagues, read their reactions and helps people a little bit who feel isolated, alone or cut off. Turn on your video whenever you can.

While on the subject on people feeling isolated I would suggest setting up a channel in your company chat to just talk. Use it to talk about everything you would during your lunch break (or at the infamous water cooler). At first it might feel a bit awkward and for most people it will surely not be the same, but every little bit will help.

I would expect employers to reimburse expenses required to effectively work from home. But as many things I would expect to be true this might not be the case. The cost for a few items to make working from home healthy and an overall better experience are relatively small compared to many engineering salaries. If you have the financial means just get them. Consider it part of being a professional to deliver the best possible performance no matter the circumstances. Your boss may not send you a thank you card, the company may choose to ignore it, but your colleagues will most likely remember.

While talking about video conferencing, things will be less professional. Live with it and do not make a fuss about it every single time something happens. Remember, people may be forced to work from home. There will be kids, animals and other distracting things that are cute, strange, hilarious or all together. Get over it. If a cute dog appears on video a private message in your chat is most likely appreciated by everyone. Comments about a child eating a stuffed animal not so much. But please do not share your enthusiasm for the cat that looks like Garfield with everyone on the call.

I would also suggest doing one or two test calls with a colleague to make sure video and audio are working. It is 2020. Video conferencing is still not that good, but still: The first five minutes of a call should not consist of “CAN YOU HEAR ME NOOOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWWWW”.

One thing I have seen a lot of people miss over the years is their environment. The part of your home you are sharing on screen is now part of your work environment. I would suggest making sure it looks like that. Adult themed photos or pictures, toys you usually only share with someone special or items used for recreational activities should not appear in the background. Some of you may now think I am joking, but believe me, I am not.

Despite having seen the next advice more often I still want to add it here as I believe it is are critical for anyone transitioning from full time office to working from home.

Make sure you have a fixed schedule. Get up. Get ready. Do your job. Sign off. You may easily get lost playing a game, doing some chores, playing with the cat or walking the dog. You get some more time since you do not have to commute, use it wisely. A proper schedule is tremendously useful, especially when just making the transition.

If you are uncertain how to properly make sure you get a healthy lunch and dinner check “Fitness YouTube”. There are tons of videos around meal prep. You like Burritos and could eat them every day? Cool. Healthy Burritos for a whole week take half an hour to an hour to prepare and 5 minutes to warm up. You will surely find a recipe you like and thanks to the fitness and bodybuilding community the nutritional value is usually pretty good.

Make sure to get breaks. Being lost in work can happen and it happens a lot easier when you do not leave the office. I actually meant it when I said “sign off” a few sentences ago. Burning out during your work from home time will neither help you nor your company – with the later being the less relevant part in this sentence.

The whole situation is obviously far from optimal. Let us try to make the best out of it!