With most of us working from home for the first time (or for a long time), we thought it’d be a good idea to share our experiences and opinions on how to manage it. We discuss how to optimize your location, your schedule, your communications, and the rest of you life during these stressful times.
Rollbar – We move fast and fix things because of Rollbar. Resolve errors in minutes. Deploy with confidence. Learn more at rollbar.com/changelog.
Linode – Our cloud of choice and the home of Changelog.com. Deploy a fast, efficient, native SSD cloud server for only $5/month. Get 4 months free using the code
changelog2020. To learn more and get started head to linode.com/changelog.
Fastly – Our bandwidth partner. Fastly powers fast, secure, and scalable digital experiences. Move beyond your content delivery network to their powerful edge cloud platform. Learn more at fastly.com.
Notes & Links
- Listen to Go Time #123 on WFH
- Chris Hiller’s pro tips for devs working from home
- Jerod listens to musicforprogramming.net
- and suggests the Noizio app for macOS
- KBall goes for www.focusatwill.com
- thgaskill in the chat suggests krisp.ai
- Ever heard of brothel creepers. Brent in the chat has
- For more on comms, listen to Remember, people are humans
- Cal Newport’s work shutdown ritual
- Suz recommends 3 books:
- Deep Work by Cal Newport
- How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell
- Contact by Carl Sagan
- Check out Humu’s remote nudges
- Read Justin Searl’s Remote, but not alone
- ESNEXT CONF is fully remote
- Need help? Get Help Today
Click here to listen along while you enjoy the transcript. 🎧
What is up, party people? It’s your friends - it’s Jerod, it’s Suz, it’s Nick and it’s Kball. Say hi, friends!
We are calling in from a remote bunker, a.k.a. our houses… Which is new, and yet not new, because many of us do call in here from our houses… But mid-Coronavirus, or maybe beginning of Coronavirus; we don’t know how long this thing is gonna last, but… Many of us out there in the world either practicing social distancing by choice, or being told to do so by local authorities and our works, we thought it would be timely to talk about working from home. Because while many of us work from home, these days pretty much all of us are working from home, and that presents all kinds of challenges, and benefits, and there’s lots of ins, lots of outs… And we thought “Hey, let’s do a show all about it.”
I should mention, our sister podcast, our rivals, those gophers over there at Go Time also did a Work From Home episode this week; we’ll cross-link that. If you just can’t get enough of this stuff, you can go listen to Go Time… But don’t stay. It’s not very nice over there. [laughter] JS Party is where you wanna be.
Or you could just get both in the Master feed.
Ooooh… I like your style, Kball. I’ll give you your five bucks after the show, for saying that. [laughter]
Ironically, I’ve been writing more Go recently, so I feel like I should be over there, rather than over here today…
Oooh… Well, the water is warm on both sides of the fence. No, I’m mixing my metaphors…
Let’s get into the content before I say more ridiculous sentences, and talk about working from home. We should also mention, there’s another aspect to this particular time, in that we’re not all just working from home, we’re also in more stressful circumstances than ever. So as far as the panel here goes, and our lives, and how we do our work, maybe we just go around real quick and share what our normal day is like, and what we’re up to now. I’ll start…
[03:59] I’ve been working from home for my entire career, so I have a lot of experience at this. I’m thankful that my life right now doesn’t feel all that different than it usually does, so I’m probably the least affected from the isolation, because I’m so used to it… But I know I’m a little rare in that way. How about you, Suz - are you really a worker-from-homer?
I think Kball is actually in the same bucket as me. I did remote work at my last job for quite a bit, from both New York and from Seattle. Then I quit that job and got a new job. That job is in an office, so I’ve spent the last six months commuting into an office, and trying to rearrange my lifestyle around actually commuting in, and trying to optimize that commute, and things like that. I kind of really settled in. I have a plan on my desk, and everything… And then I’m back to remote. So that’s been my situation.
It hasn’t been enough time for me to really forget what it’s like, and because I’m naturally very introverted, it hasn’t really been a huge social toll on me. In fact, I’ve been trying to see the silver lining of it, given that it has given me a lot more time, sort of alone and quiet situation.
Yeah, so I worked from home for quite a while. I’ve been remote in different settings for different times of my career. I have been for the last almost five months now working at a company where I go in on-site; it’s a short commute, it’s a ten-minute bike ride, so it’s been lovely. I haven’t had to deal with the commute issue as much, so… I mean, that is one, as we get into pros and cons - one benefit for many folks of the work-from-home is dropping the commute.
So yeah, in a lot of ways the same habits and setup that I had I’ve been able to just reapply. Because of that juxtaposition, I have a very strong visual into why this is very different from typical work from home… Particularly because our schools are canceled, childcare is canceled, I’ve been dealing with health issues on my parents, and various other things… So there’s a lot of stuff that’s different this time around, and that’s very visible… But yeah, luckily on the work front I had kind of a routine I could fall back into.
Nick, I know you’ve been a remote worker for a while, but you are under extreme stress these days. Do you wanna share?
Sure. Yeah, I’ve been working since 2011 from home, and I really like it. I don’t wanna go back to an office, at least right now… But I don’t know, maybe that’s changed in the last three days.
Yeah, you kind of want to also, don’t you?
Yeah… I typically get my kids ready for daycare, and I take them, so I have a little bit of a commute to start my day off. Then I come back home and I get to work. I typically work until five, when they come home, and then I’m done working from there.
But with all of this, it’s kind of changed quite dramatically, because we’re in the same situation as Kball, with not childcare right now. My parents are around, but we don’t want them to watch them, because you know, older populations and such, with Coronavirus.
My wife is now also working from home. We have a one-year-old who kind of needs 24-hour attention. When he’s awake, he needs attention and needs to be watched, so he doesn’t do anything crazy… So it’s been tough.
I have switched my schedule now to starting at 4 AM and getting off around noon, 12:30(ish), and then helping with the kids in the evenings, when my wife takes the afternoons and evenings to work. So it’s been quite the change, from that regard. It’s basically two full-time jobs now, for each of us… And it’s been tough.
So you’re off work.
[unintelligible 00:07:33.09] the daytime shift… So one thing that’s nice at least is we’re not completely talking out of the air. All of us have extensive experience working from home, and have dealt with a lot of the challenges. There are benefits, there are drawbacks; as with anything in the world of software, it depends… So we thought we would talk a little bit about where we work, and then how we work, and then how we not work, and maybe some of the pros and cons, giving tips and tricks along the way, or sharing our experiences…
[08:11] I should also mention, a JS Party panelist that couldn’t make it today, but also has extensive experience and has written about it is Chris Hiller. He has a great post which we’ll put in the show notes called “Pro tips for devs working from home”, which he spoke about as I think a pro tip on an episode of JS Party called “You don’t have to dress up, but you do have to get dressed” I think is what it’s called… Which, Kball, you were on that episode…
I was, yeah.
So I’ll also link that up. Chris has a lot of good points, and I think we’ll probably echo some of those here today. But the first thing I wanna talk about is just the ware. I think this is one of the keys to success, to get your ware right… Because the ware is you’re at home, but the challenge is your home is your home, so it’s hard to make it your workplace. So I wanna turn to some tips on how to go about doing that.
Absolutely. I’ll jump in with the first really big one, which is just make sure you separate space, if you at all possibly can. I know for some people, if you’re stuck in a tiny apartment or something, this is not possible… But even if you can have the corner of the room, that is “This is the work corner” and you don’t go there where you’re not doing work, and you do when you’re working, it makes a huge difference for your mental ability to turn on and off, which is one of the big challenges with working from home - your boundaries can really blur.
So number one, any way you can possibly create this for yourself - separate out some workspace that is not the same as all the rest of space in your home.
I would agree with that. I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to build a new house… So I’ve been working from home, like I said, my entire career, and the first part of that entire is a bit much, like 95% of my career… And the first part of that I was in the basement, which at least has separation… But I also have many children, as you all know. Back then I had four children in that house; I have six children now in this house… But a non-tip is don’t be underneath children… [laughter]
So I had separation. I could go downstairs, and downstairs was I was working. I come upstairs, and upstairs I am living. And I think that’s so necessary. And a huge mistake to make is to just - I think Chris wrote about it in his post - roll over in the morning from your bed and get your laptop out and get to work… Because it’s just not sustainable.
But in the basement it was hellish. It was actually harder probably on my wife than myself, because her role in this endeavor was to keep the kids from not running around, especially during podcasts… But all the time there was just noise, there was distraction… So I was able to actually design a separate space. Now I’m in an office above the garage. It was a great opportunity to say “Okay, I’m gonna have a workspace. What should it be like? Where should it be? How much separation do I need?” and I’ll tell you, with six children, I can lock every door and nobody can get in. And that’s necessary, because it’s hard enough for me to separate work from life…
But for the kids, for them to understand - which we all just waved at Nick’s daughter as she walked through the room - they don’t get it. They just see their parent and they’re like “Hi!”, and it’s like “Well, you’ve just ruined my flow. It’s gonna take me 20 minutes to get back where I was. Thanks… But you’re cute, so I’ll forgive you.”
Yeah, that is a challenge. If you hear kids in the background, it’s because I have no choice right now. They can’t go anywhere, I can’t go anywhere… [laughter] But we’re all having fun together. I’m wearing Spiderman pajamas, she’s wearing Spiderman pajamas, so… You know, we’re having fun.
Yeah. And once again, many folks who are being thrust right now into working from home, at the last minute, no ability to prepare or do anything like that… I’ve seen some pretty inventive setups. I saw somebody set up a standing desk where they had a cardboard area supported by LaCroixs or something like that, and various other things… Like, you can be inventive; circumstances are less than ideal.
[12:14] If you’re working from home because of an emergency like this, you can’t go and build yourself a new room, like Jerod did, but you can think about how do you create that space, and at least a little bit of mental separation as much as possible.
Totally. And I think one thing that can go a long ways is a decent pair of headphones. With noise-canceling maybe. Being able to tune out what’s going on around you a little bit - that’ can really help. Even if you’re just playing white noise.
For sure. There’s a – like, I’ll listen to Spotify, but for some things I can’t have lyrics on. There’s a great service that I’ve used called Focus at Will, that plays music without lyrics, a variety of different things, where they’ve done a lot of tuning to try to set it up in such a way that it helps you focus, rather than interferes with your focus… I like that better than white noise. I think it is a paid service at this point, but there may be a free trial.
That sounds. I actually really despise white noise. I don’t know why; it’s just that my brain and my ears just absolutely hate it. And anytime anyone recommends it to me, it reminds me of how comforting it is to most people… But I can’t even stand the sound of a fan, or things like that. So music to me - it has to be variable enough, otherwise my brains just starts getting really annoyed. It’s very irritating to me.
So music has been so comforting… And I’m actually gonna check that one out. Even though lyrics are not as bad for me, as long as I’m familiar with the song already… But I do wanna check out that service. Thanks, Kball.
There is a website called MusicForProgramming.net, which I’ve been listening to for years, and tried to get the person that created it onto our shows, and never quite succeeded, because they’re very shy… But that’s another great one. It’s all ambient-style; the kind of music you wanna listen to when you’re programming, basically.
There’s also an app called Noizio, which is for macOS, and it goes up into your menu bar… And it’s kind of cool. You can toggle it on. Suz, you would hate it, because it’s basically all the kinds of white noise you might want. So you can have the coffee shop sounds, you can have rushing water, you can have lightning, frogs croaking… Basically everything. And then you can also turn on multiple at the same time. So you can be like “I’m at a coffee shop, but somehow there’s frogs in here.”
[laughs] It’s like a rainforest cafe, or something.
Yeah, exactly. But if you’re into that kind of thing, it’s a nice – it was free when I used it. I think it’s a free app for white noise.
I mean, I like nature sounds. It’s just like the manufactured white noise, I don’t like. Along these same veins, FreeCodeCamp’s online vibes are really good, too. They have a YouTube live, a channel that they play. And that music - it’s kind of just like downtempo hip hop beats, but I really like that a lot, too. It’s kind of like lounge music, I guess. Lounge music is definitely underrated as far as being able to chill and program.
One other thing that I remember noticing a lot the most recent time, prior to this - when I switched from in-the-office to work-from-home - was lighting. I was going from being in an office that was brightly-lit all the time, into my home office, which was not… And it took me a while to realize that my mood was substantially lower, because I was just in a less well-lit space for a long period of time… And I invested in getting some better lighting, and even just deliberately – I still don’t have great ambient lighting, but I’ve got one of those little stand lights, and I would even just like shine it on me, and it would make such a difference in terms of my mood through the day, of just having more light around.
I totally agree with that… And that’s not something that you would really think about too much. Or at least I didn’t.
It took me a season to figure it out. I was like “Why am I so much less happy through the day? Oh, shoot. It’s this lighting.”
[16:06] Yeah. I moved my office to the basement when my second kid was born, because he got the good room with all of the lighting in it… And it took me a long time to realize that maybe it was some lighting that’s missing from my life, that really would make me happier during workdays. So I did get one of those seasonal-affective light that’s supposed to simulate sunshine, and I’d just shine it on me occasionally.
I’m very sensitive to lighting, and I always have been. It’s just how I am, noise and lighting. So for me, I always get so upset immediately, and I’ll notice if the lighting is off. That’s almost like a gift in this particular scenario… Because the first thing I do – when i first move into this apartment that I’m currently in, I changed out every single light bulb to be the exact same temperature, and not to be “bad temperature”, and tried to put full-spectrum lighting. You don’t necessarily have to have those happy lights, because sometimes they’re a bit expensive, but if you buy a full-spectrum light, that can actually produce something very similar to sunlight, which is very therapeutic for humans.
So for me, I already become miserable just because I’m sort of tuned into spotting bad lighting situations. When I see apartments at night have that kind of greenish tinged, fluorescent light, I just wanna knock on their door and be like “How can you live with this?”, but I realize that different people are sensitive to different things, so… I’m a huge fan of tuning lighting to make yourself just feel so much better. But it’s so hard to notice if you haven’t played with that kind of thing before, so I’m really glad you brought that up.
Elaine in the chat says they hear that wearing shoes helps. I’m not sure if that helps at a standing desk…? Maybe there was some context that I missed there, but - yes, we do watch the chat. If you’re listening live, head to the JS Party channel in our team Slack. If you’re not, and you would like to participate, we love to have live listeners. Changelog.com/live, or Changelog.com/community. Hop into our Slack and participate.
I will say that I’m a big fan and advocate for “treating yourself” when it comes to the location of your work. So whether that’s your desk, your monitor, your speakers, wearing some nice shoes, or having a good throw rug, the lighting, the ambiance… I don’t understand feng-shui, I’m not feng-shui, but if that’s your thing, go ahead and take time and take effort and take money - hopefully you can take your company’s money, if they’re making you work from home - and spend it on the things that you’re going to use and be surrounded by on a day-to-day basis… Because you are going to be there, at that desk, hopefully, at a sustained pace, for a sustained amount of time, and it needs to be an enjoyable and habitable living space. It shouldn’t be a place you dread to be.
Anybody have any specific pics, or hardware, or anything in their space?
I think my favorite thing that I have, that I don’t have when I go into an office, is I have a space heater. [laughter]
Yeah. I just got one of those, and it’s made such a difference.
It’s amazing. I’m a warm weather type person, so I tend to like being very warm… But even things like “Okay, take your shoes off, wear socks, and stick your feet in front of the space heater…” - it’s like luxury, it’s amazing. It’s so much better.
I love that.
For me, I like to warm up a space aesthetically… And expanding on that, what I mean is just having things that doesn’t make it look like your room is very clinical. Because you’re in your own space, you can actually be a bit more creative than perhaps you’re allowed to be in an office… So even just things like a cork board - is that what you call it in America? Like a pinboard… And I put little knick-knacks and Polaroid photos and things up there, as well as the cheatsheet for OpenSCAD and things like that, that I constantly refer to. That makes me really happy.
[20:15] And as far as being able to just cover walls with things, especially if you’re in a rental - I have a giant tapestry, which is just like a piece of cotton with a printed design on it that I got from Society6. It’s pinned with two thumbtacks. Sorry, I’m trying to internationalize how I’m describing these items…
[laughs] You can localize them, no big deal…
So I use thumbtacks, because they’re so small and they’re so high up on the wall; they’re so close to the ceiling you would never notice those little walls… So I’ve been able to hang a tapestry that has just immediately brightened the room without actually damaging the walls, since I’m in a rental… Just little things like that.
If you have the budget to spend $100, you can do a lot to just make the space not feel like some really boring wall… And that’s been very helpful to me. And plants too, sorry. Plants - very important. I really like having plants around my space. So if you’re someone who doesn’t get anxious about the idea of caring for very easy to care for plants, that can really lift your mood as well.
I will echo that. Bring some green into the inside world. For those of you who can see my Zoom…
That’s a little bonsai.
I have behind me a little bonsai. I like to take care of that. And I also have access to a place where I can see outside, which is nice as well.
Any other furniture, decor…? I see in the notes standing desk - I’m an advocate for standing desks as well. It’s nice to have somewhere where you can sit down if you’re a stander… Because all day long can get to be long. Nick or Kball, any other–
It’s probably a longer-term investment, but having a good office chair makes a huge difference, at least for me, in terms of not having my back messed up at the end of the day, and things like that. When I was working from home for a longer period it was a must investment. Depending on where you are right now, you may be looking at shorter or longer periods of quarantine and isolation, and it may or may not be worth that investment… So if you can get your company to pay for it - because they are rather expensive if you get a good one - yes, it’s a very valuable investment.
If you’re thinking about working from home for the long-term, or you have been working from home and you have not invested in a good office chair, it will pay your body back so much.
Yeah, I would echo that as well. For standers, a good standing mat would be a good thing, as well. The one that I have has little bumps in it, to force you to move around a little bit and squirm, just to not stand in a bad posture all day. You kind of have to move around… Which I really like. And then I’ll just be completely crazy and hold up this thing… This is an under-desk elliptical.
Oh, my goodness…
It’s amazing for incredibly boring, incredibly long meetings that I sometimes have to take… [laughter]
Okay, so real quick, Nick - hold that up high. We’re gonna put into our show notes a picture of Nick with his Spiderman outfit, holding up his whatever that thing is. Underdesk elliptical. So you’re not missing out, you’ll find it in the show notes, and you definitely want to go to there.
So we talked about where we work, and how we decorate, or arrange that location… The other big aspect of working from home is managing how you work, because a lot of the rules change at your house, than at an office environment; some for the better, some for the worst. Some of this depends somewhat on personality types, with regards to scheduling, and getting up in the morning and working, or staying up late and working…
The power is in our hands, and of course, depending on where you work, you have to have certain overlaps; maybe your job dictates 8 to 5, with a one-hour lunch. Well, you don’t have much of a choice, and that’s what you’re gonna do. But many of us are in circumstances where we can work asynchronously; we have to sync up at meetings, but we can pick and choose, “Am I gonna take a longer lunch and work till 7 PM?”, or whatever it is… How do we deal with scheduling in a way that’s sustainable and beneficial, and doesn’t just wear us down when we’re working from home?
Well, I can highlight some of the things that I had to learn actually - not this time around, but the most recent time before this. There’s a lot of advice out there in the world about planning and scheduling and making sure that you list out what you’re trying to accomplish, and things like that… And a lot of times you can kind of skate by, if you’re in an office, without doing stuff, because the environment and other things keep you moving forward and making progress. I’ve found that for me at least, a lot of those things become much more critical working from home.
So it became much more critical to plan out when I was gonna do things and have stuff in a calendar, both for me, and also to coordinate with other people, because it wasn’t as easy to just drop by and figure something out. It was like “Okay, let’s schedule a time, let’s connect”, things like that.
The other thing around that was - or a huge thing around that - planning some parts of your day, each day, what you’re trying to accomplish. I think it’s valuable to plan things that are not just work-related. Like, yeah, you want your top three things that you need to get done on the work front, but also, what are the top three things you need to do personally? Whether it’s getting groceries, or taking care of kids, or just having some time for yourself to meditate, or relax, or go for a walk, or something. Plan those things out.
And the other thing - something that kind of came up a little bit during the break - we should probably be thinking about this as something that is at least a medium-term thing, and then we can be pleasantly surprised if it passes over quickly and we’re all back to the office soon… But plan for things that involve your growth and development as well.
The same way you might do in an office, think about what are you learning about, what are you focused on, what is gonna help you get to some place that is not the same place you are today, in six months or a year… So that you’re having not only “What I’ve gotta do to get through the day on my job, and what do I have to do to get through the day in my life”, but also “What am I doing to make myself a better human being? What am I doing to help me learn, whether it’s career-wise or not?”
I agree with this a lot. I think that when you work from home or you work remotely, the days can blur into each other a lot more… So keeping your eye on long-term goals can be a little bit harder. I feel that I had the double-whammy of all of a sudden working remotely for the first time when I started my job at Microsoft, but it was also my first almost fully autonomous role. So they would say “Here are the high-level metrics for this entire year. You have to fill in that entire year gap with what you’re going to do to achieve that.”
So imagine working from home, no one’s looking over your shoulder, but also you’re making up your own schedule for your own job at the same time. You might have maybe quarterly check-ins (at the most) with your manager for them to say “Yeah, you’re sort of like on the right track in general.” So I had to set up a very strict routine for myself in order to know what I was getting up in the morning for, if that makes sense.
[28:19] So if I wanted to have “Oh, I’d like to have this one IoT project that I do, that the end result will be that a whole bunch of people will actually learn Azure IoT in a way that’s approachable for them”, I had to break that down into lots of little tiny things in order for me to understand what I needed to get done every day… Because there was just no mandate coming from management in that way.
So even if you do work in a role where you’re peeling off JIRA tickets, especially if you’re a software engineer and you’re working on a larger feature, it’s very similar in that it would be good for you, especially if you’re having less meetings now, it would be good for you to just make a list of “Okay, I want to at least have this and this and this part done of the JIRA ticket today.” That would be similar to how you do things in an office, but you’d be surprised at how quickly that can unravel when you’re at home, as was being mentioned before.
One thing that I really do is try and make the first part of my day being setting goals, meaning I keep a pretty good to-do list, and I flag things that I wanna get done. Not too many - maybe three that I really wanna get done. And then I always try and work on the hardest one first, because I know that that’s gonna take most of the time, and I’m going to get side-tracked by meetings, and co-workers, and now kids, and everything…
Those other things, I try and squeeze in when I’m in a meeting and everybody who is now working remotely is trying to figure out how to use Zoom - then I can start working on other things. [laughs]
Oh, my goodness… My wife is in Academia, and they’re all remote, and oh, my gosh - some of those struggle with things like Zoom, and etiquette, and “Oh, you have to mute your microphone if you’re in a large Zoom meeting.” And it doesn’t necessarily make sense to just have people go around and say they can hear… All these little things that at this point I take for granted about meeting etiquette - like, you can see who’s there, there’s a list…
It’s interesting… And that’s not unique to Academia, though I think they’re probably way on one side of it. I feel like a lot of folks who have never had to deal with this are suddenly dealing with these types of etiquette questions. “How do I do this? How do I do that?”
One thing that I think is really interesting - people talk a lot about “Over-communicate, over-communicate”, but they don’t necessarily talk about what does that mean, and that that in itself can be a little overwhelming.
I think one of the big clarifications I’ve seen there that has been helpful is team member to team member you wanna over-communicate, meaning you wanna talk to each other more. Push yourself to do it, because there’s a lot of casual conversation that isn’t happening. Managers who don’t necessarily want to over-communicate, keep talking, keep harassing your reports - focus on clarity. Make sure that everything that you are communicating is crystal clear.
And then the other thing for all of this, every type of communication - write stuff down. A lot of us have this sort of habit of doing things by verbal agreement, which is error-prone enough in an in-person setting, but you don’t have the same feedback loops when you’re remote and you’re working more independently… So the more you can have things written down, and both of you agree that the written documents match your understanding of what’s going on, the better time you’re gonna have coordinating across people who are sometimes working in different timezones, sometimes working at different times… You know, your schedule may be shifted for any number of reasons, including childcare and other stuff… And just not having that in-person space to clear things up quickly.
[31:59] It’s hard to give scheduling advice that genericizes well, because we’re all in so many different circumstances, and we all thrive and work differently. So I guess a small bit of advice - which may sound cliché - is to really know yourself and know in what circumstances you get a lot done, in what circumstances you struggle to concentrate, and then try to devise a schedule a schedule around that. Now, this of course assumes that you are given some autonomy around some schedule.
Some people don’t have that, even if they’re working from home. They have to be on Zoom all day, and they have to be 8 to 5, or whatever that is. In that case, I guess, just do what you’ve gotta do, fully realizing that the manager’s schedule doesn’t match a maker’s schedule very well, and you’ll probably struggle under those circumstances… But if you’re given the autonomy to create your own schedule - well, go ahead and take the time to do that and analyze what’s working, what’s not working, and adjust… Because you know how well you can be productive when you’re inspired, energized and excited, and how hard it is when you’re not to power through.
The nice thing about working from home is if you have the autonomy, you can organize yourself around those moments and opportunities. And when you’re not being productive, and you’re distracted, and you’re not concentrating, you can just go outside, or you can just take a nap, or you can do whatever it is you wanna do. You don’t have to work during those times… So embrace that, because that’s an opportunity. It can be a struggle, but it can also be a huge opportunity.
I think if you’re a knowledge worker too, during this time, you’re gonna notice just that you aren’t as productive, and you can’t necessarily blame that on a transition to working remotely, too. This is a very unprecedented thing for a lot of people to go through, especially around the uncertainty. Your brain is gonna be constantly running these threads that they’ve never run before around “How long is this going to last? What can I expect? Am I gonna financially be able to pull through? The kids are distracting me. I’m not in a quiet environment, and things like that.”
You’re not necessarily being set up for success, so if you do have days where you just cannot dig out, that’s completely to be expected. And it’s very unfortunate, but having – if you are a manager, that is the most important thing to be able to communicate to your reports right now… That yes, accomplishing something every day at work will make you actually feel probably a lot more settled, and a lot more distracted from the realities of what’s happening right now. That can help so, so much… But you can’t necessarily perform at your optimum level every single day right now, if any day at all… So that’s something also that I want people to keep in mind.
Yes, give yourself a little grace. This is a terrifying time along many dimensions, and the blessing is there’s lots of signs for hope; there’s lots of good work being done. One of the things that I’ve seen about the working from home that I really liked is it can feel like “Okay, stuff is shutting down and we’re working from home. This is a terrible thing”, but actually this is a sign of hope, because what this is doing is it is all of us showing social solidarity to create the opportunity for our healthcare workers and our scientists to beat this thing.
All of this social distancing and everything like that - it feels really scary, but it is creating the possibility of winning against this thing in a way that is not as deadly, and so many more people survive.
It’s super-hard, it’s super-scary, but just by doing this, you are helping not just yourself, but everyone around you, and you’re helping the older folks, and the more at-risk folks. Lots of people are not obviously at risk than who are at risk. Somebody can look completely healthy and have an underlying condition that puts them at risk for this… So you are helping literally save your friends and co-workers. But yeah, that’s a lot of emotional burden to bear. Give yourself the grace that yeah, you might not be at your best. It’s okay.
[36:10] On the communication front, I will just go ahead and plug a previous episode that we did - because we did an entire episode on communication skills… Which didn’t assume remote work, but when you’re giving communication skill advice to software developers, you do assume a certain amount of remoteness, and text-based communication, and all these kinds of things. Kball, you led that episode, and it was one of my favorites the last year. It’s called “Remember, people are human” (episode 93). We will put that one in the show notes.
So if you want more on communicating while you’re at home, or with people in remote places, we did a whole hour (maybe an hour-twenty) on that, on a previous episode.
One of the hardest things about working from home is putting yourself to work… And that’s no surprise, right? Like, “Well, it’s hard to work, because I’m at home, and I don’t wanna work at home.” The surprising thing is sometimes just as hard is stopping working once you finally get it going… You’ve gotta stop. Because if you don’t stop, then you’re gonna die, I guess… I don’t know. Eventually, you have to stop to sleep, but – you know, it’s hard time to separate that out, so we wanna talk about how you not work when you’re at home… Because if your home is where you work, and you’re at home, you’re supposed to be working… But you’re not supposed to be working all the time. How do you all deal with that?
For me dinner is my hard stop.
Dinner is your hard stop.
I’m very food-motivated, and I’ll make sure that I have to spend time preparing… If you just reheat something in the microwave - which is totally valid, because you either have ordered take-out or you have something in the freezer that you thawed out - that two minutes is not enough for your brain to be like “Yeah, okay, I’m done.” It’s gonna rush back to the computer and keep working.
So for me, having to just do a few extra steps to prepare dinner gets me out of the mindset… So when I eat and come back, I’m like “No, I’m not gonna start work. I’ve been not working for a good half hour to forty-five minutes now. So that’s been the thing that’s rescued me. I always fall for it every time I have leftover curry that I made from yesterday and reheat it - I’ll always just go back to my desk and eat it there, which is really a bad habit.
I was gonna say, try not to eat at your desk, if at all possible… But I’m guilty of it. Don’t look at my desk. [laughs]
[40:03] Do as I say, not as I do…
Yeah, I think that’s the single most powerful thing - just don’t eat at your desk. Because it will enforce breaks.
Yeah. But sometimes it’s so easy to just be like “Oh, I’ll just work, and then during this meeting I’ll eat while on mute.”
And it sucks too, because you don’t enjoy the food. You’re just totally distracted while you’re eating.
Yeah, it’s more like just putting fuel into the container, you know…?
It’s like just filling up with gas.
I will say, if you are for example splitting childcare duties with someone… That’s a bad practice for general remote work, but if you’re working in compressed time, that is one way you can compress time a little bit.
Yeah, that’s true.
I’ll eat while I’m on a meeting, or something like that.
One point that I would put is set yourself a schedule. Jerod brought up that the nice thing is your schedule can probably flex a little bit more, because you’re at home… But that doesn’t mean it should flex infinitely. Piggybacking on something he said - figure out what are your body rhythms, when are you most productive… If you’re most productive at night, great; you can work at night. Don’t feel like you can’t do that. If you’re most productive early in the morning, work early in the morning… But set yourself an on and an off, and when you’re on, be on, and when you’re off, actually be off. Stop checking your email, stop looking at work Slack, stop doing all these things. Unplug and do something else.
That’s where some of that having a to-do items that is not just work-related, but is like “Here’s the things I need to do in my life” can help you… Because then when you unplug, it’s not like “Oh, what do I do now? Well, I’m just gonna scroll through news and get terrifying updates” or “I’m gonna scroll through work Slack”, or whatever. It’s like, “No, I have these things I’ve gotta get done for my life.”
I think that does lend a little bit of professionalism to your situation as well, because that’s something that you typically do - we’re creatures of habit, so we work a set time… And if you’re only working during those set times and not making exceptions, I think that comes off as being more professional. You will get things done during those hours, and you’re setting those levels of expectation. And then as you said, you can enforce that.
One thing that I do is I don’t have work-related stuff on my iPad or on my iPhone, so that I don’t get Slack messages, except for on my computer.
Right. I think the over-arching goal is to have a work mode and to have a life mode, and then to organize yourself so that it’s clear and distinct separation of church and state, so to speak. Work and life. So not work/life balance, but work/life separation. Maybe you need some social distancing from your work.
I think the two best tools we have is the location of our work, and the schedule; the things we’ve been talking about. So you need to have a distinct location and you need to have a distinct schedule. Whatever the location is, whatever the schedule is. Organize it for yourself… But those things are the two strongest indicators.
For me, when I’m in my office, I’m working. And when I’m not in my office, I’m not working. That’s not always true, as we are admitting - sometimes things do blend and merge - but that’s a very strong indicator, especially if you do have other people around you have to deal with this. For my children, if I’m in my office, I’m working. For them, that’s an indicator. And then also, I create a schedule. If it’s this time of the day, I’m working, generally. That’s very strong, and when that time is done - for Suz when it’s dinner time - that’s it. I’m done for the day.
So that, I think, is really the goal - to be able to have modes, and then to organize yourself so those modes are obvious and useful.
And I think barring any hard and fast limits, like kids coming home, for example, or a spouse coming home, something like that… Something that you can do, kind of like what I mentioned for getting started for the day, coming up with a list - that’s kind of like a routine that you go through. You can have a shut-down routine as well, or maybe you tidy things up around your desk, maybe you start working on what you want to accomplish tomorrow, you get code committed, things like that… And then from there, you kind of use that as a transition period between working and not working.
[44:09] This reminds me of a section from Cal Newport’s book where he was talking about – he has this really dorky verbalization when he’s done for the day, and I thought it was really cute. I’m trying to remember what it was, but I don’t… The book was about focus; I’m also trying to remember the title, but I’m sure one of you would be able to remember it. It’s not his minimalism one.
I don’t know, I’m just trying to imagine different sign-off phrases I would say, like “Well, all done for now…”
It was something like “Shut down”, or something like that. It was like “System shut down”, or something like that. He would verbalize it, and he said – Deep Work, that’s the book. So the book is called Deep Work, and he talks about trying to just do knowledge work with much, much greater focus, and part of that is also being able to switch off, so that next time that you switch back on, you’re all-in, rather than having this kind of blurry fatigue from not quite switching off. I forget what his verbalization was, but it was really cute and dorky. And he acknowledges that, but he said it was really helpful for him.
That’s cool. I need to come up with my own sign-off. So here’s another challenge, add a wrinkle to our struggle with work/life separation/balance… Is as knowledge workers, as web people, people who work on the web, many of us - and many here, as well - our hobbies are also related to these technical things. We enjoy writing software. We enjoy being on the internet. Maybe we even livestream as a hobby, which is very much also similar to some of this stuff you might do for your work. How do we manage that relationship when it comes time to separating from your work? It’s like “Well, I like to be doing this stuff”, so it’s really hard to stop, especially if you’re fortunate enough to have work that is really energizing and enjoyable, and mentally stimulating… It’s like, solving that problem feels really good, so “I don’t care if it’s past dinner time, I’ve just realized to solve it.” How do you all deal with that separation, and the ability to unplug that or not?
I think ebb and flow… Like, if I end up with a night like that, I’ll either try and reschedule meetings, or if I don’t have any meetings the next day, I will just enjoy a really luxurious, slow morning. So for me, it tends to be tit for tat… And I think that that sort of system happened as a result of me working remotely for Microsoft, where sometimes I would be speaking at meetups at night, so we were just expected to rebalance how much we worked that week based on the fact that we were working often till 10 PM that day… So we’d either sleep in the next morning, or we would have a slower start to that specific day.
And for me, the fact that you’re trying to always balance that actually makes you very aware of when you are overworking. So it means that you don’t end up burning out, because you’re affording yourself that extra time, if that makes sense. So being strict about that has really helped me a lot.
The other thing is having equally exciting hobbies, so that you can accomplish the work thing, but you know that you also have this really exciting thing the next day that you can switch off for… That really helps a lot, too.
Yes. Definitely. It ties into a concept that I had… I used to struggle greatly with work-life balance, and I think the biggest reason was I had this perception of it being something where balance was “Oh, I’d relax into this thing”, where it was like, okay, I’d have my time at work, and then I’d relax, and things would all feel good… And that never worked for me, because work is always pulling, and it always stretches, because my work is interesting, like y’all’s work… And it will pull more and more of your time.
When I reevaluated balance to be a dynamic tension, it got me thinking about “Okay, whatever I’m doing outside of work has to be pulling equally hard to how work is pulling.” It’s gotta pull my attention, it’s gotta pull for my time. Another thing that really did it for me more than anything was kids… Because kids will pull harder than anything else in your life.
[48:11] They will literally pull.
They will literally pull, yes. [laughter] So that shifted me further. And I’m not saying you can or should have kids in response to this change. That’s a choice that has many additional factors that go into it.. Though all this time stuck at home with partners –
I was gonna say, nine months from now we might have the Coronavirus generation.
I think it’s twofold. One of the things that they saw in Wuhan or in some parts of China was when they started reducing the restriction there was a surge in divorce filings… So if you get stuck in that space, it’s either gonna kill your relationship or make it stronger. Maybe there will be a whole bunch of divorces, and then on the other side a whole bunch of new babies. I don’t know. I don’t know… But anyway.
I’ve also seen unfortunately a rise in domestic violence, which is really scary.
That is really scary, yeah.
But anyways… That kills the mood there. Keep going.
I’ve seen some resources out there - if you’re in that type of situation or you’re afraid for that, there are resources that can help. I don’t know, maybe we can include a link for that. It’s off-topic for our show, but it’d be good.
But yeah, you need something - even if it’s not kids, you need something that’s gonna pull you out of that work mode.
I love that. 100% agree. Nick, anything to add?
No, I would just echo what everyone is saying. It’s important to try and set those boundaries, and there’s lots of different ways to do that. They’re all different right now. For me, my wife has to get her work done, so I have to finish what I’m doing quickly. There’s no going back, because she has to get work done, and our kids have to be looked after… So it’s different for everyone, it’s especially different right now. Just be aware of that. Everyone’s going through lots of different things.
Can I just say one off-topic thing? I’m very annoyed that Animal Crossing is launching in a couple of days, and there’s no online multiplayer. You have to do it in-person with each other…
And that is the worst timing for a game mechanic like that… And I’m so disappointed, because I was going to play locally with someone on their island, and now I can’t.
Nintendo, please fix this, just for us. I realize that, as a programmer, that is asking for the world. It’s like, “Just completely reprogram a whole new dynamic into the game and launch it next week. Cool. Thanks.” But yeah, I’m so sad, because I think that online community is now more important than ever, and having something exciting like that to kind of end your day with - it’s like, “Okay, it’s time for Animal Crossing now.” That’s kind of put a damper on things for me a bit.
Sad, but true. But let’s turn now to some additional resources. Of course, we’re not the end all be all talkers about this subject. As I mentioned, Go Time also giving their insights, people from around the web are sharing tips and tricks, advice, their thoughts… So there’s lots of other things out there, and other people to listen to and to communicate with about this thing that we’re all kind of going through right now… So we thought we’d share a few resources here, as we tail off this show, that you can follow up with.
Of course, everything’s in the show notes. If you’re listening not inside a podcast app, you can go to Changelog.com/jsparty/120 to find those notes. If you’re in a podcast app, you know how to pop those show notes open. So let’s do that now, and I’ll share one here… A post which I’m working my way through right now by Justin Searls of Test Double. It’s called “Remote, but not alone.”
[51:46] Justin’s entire firm, Test Double, has been remote since 2011. He is a smart guy, with lots of good insights, so he has a very good post on the Test Double blog, all about his thoughts on working remote, both as a human, as an employee, and as a manager. So if you’re in any of those perspectives, that’s a good one to read. We’ll put that one in there, and definitely submit that as a follow-up resource.
I’ll put one in… I’m shouting out some of my amazing colleagues at the company I work for called Humu. Our company is focused on behavior change and making work better for folks. Typically we work with large enterprises, but when all this remote work all of a sudden came out, a bunch of the scientists at the company quickly focused on building out a set of resources for folks who are working from home for the first time.
The way it works is you sign up with an email and you get a nudge every couple days; it’s building on this concept of nudges for behavior change, which is a big thing coming out of psychology. It gives you short, scientifically-backed suggestions to help you work from home. I’ll include a link to that, but… It’s super-cool stuff, and everyone one of these is backed in science and research, which is part of what I really appreciate about what the company is doing. We’re trying to make life better, but do it in a way that’s validated based on real research on human beings, not just opinions, and kind of “We make some software and see how it works.”
Awesome. Any others?
Yeah. This has been kind of what we alluded to… A lot of things are getting canceled right now; it’ll be interesting to see in terms of conferences and things what conferences come back, how the conference landscape will look… But in the meantime, there are some folks doing some cool stuff with online conferences, and experimenting with that. One of them is by a guest on this podcast before, Fred K. Schott from Pika, who is putting on ESNext Conf. It’s a five-day conference with 12 speakers. So it’s kind of spread out, optimized for remote over five days.
There’s a lot of different conferences like that as well, so definitely you’re not alone, and if you want to continue that learning, continue that networking, it’ll be interesting to see how networking and things like that work with online-only conferences. But I’m excited to see where we go.
I’m a book worm, so I have three books to recommend. The first one is Cal Newport’s Deep Work, which I mentioned before… And the next one is Jenny Odell’s “How To Do Nothing.” Jenny Odell is one of my favorite speakers. She speaks at I/O Festival over the last few years, and she’s an artist and she talks about the fact that the new hustle culture and things like that - it’s just constantly tearing at our personal time, our personal space, our mental well-being… And I think that right now I’m seeing a lot of that chatter on Twitter. It’s like “This is time for your side-project, now that you’re quarantined”, and “This is the time to do this and that”, and just not allowing people to ever take a break, because things are crappy. So I think that this book is particularly relevant. It’s very popular and it has really great reviews.
And then also Contact, by Carl Sagan. I’m seeing a lot of parallels in this book, compared to what we’re seeing now… So yes, it’s a science-fiction book, and it has nothing to do with a virus worldwide, but it has to do with worldwide cooperation, the breakdown of barriers between science and religion, as well as just watching different nations try to own different solutions.
I think that there are just so many themes that we’re seeing, and I think that Carl Sagan kind of thinks about this stuff the right way, and you might actually find it quite comforting to imagine ideologically what would be the greatest way that we could deal with this kind of thing right now.
So I think that those three books are particularly relevant. There’s the work, but there’s also “How do you then switch off and just treat yourself nicely, given that this is just quite an unprecedented experience to go through in your lifetime?”
Well, said. That is our show for this week. Hey, if you’re out there and you’re feeling particularly lonely, particularly isolated during this time, we hope this podcast and the podcasts that we produce plays a small role in keeping you connected to us. Of course, you can connect directly with us, hang out in Slack, be part of the Changelog community. Everyone is welcome here, there are no impostors… So that’s all free and available to you at Changelog.com/community. We’ll talk to you next time!
There might be a bit of background noise… Queen Anne is just absolutely blooming right now, so there’s a lot of gas-powered landscaping going on.
I can’t hear it from where I’m standing, so…
That’s good. That’s so good. It is just like a constant drone though. It’s not like the really annoying leaf-blowing…
Yeah, exactly. Constant drones are easy to gate out or noise-reduce.
They sound more like whipper-snippers, which is what we call weed-whackers…
I was gonna say, internationalize that, please…
That’s a wonderful name.
Because it whips and it snips.
Yeah, I love that.
I love that.
Onomatopoeia in a wonderful way.
I really love some Australian words, and I didn’t realize how colloquial they were until I moved here, which was really great. Whipper-snipper is one that Americans absolutely love. It’s just like a universal joy-bringing word.
It is. Well, we say whipper-snappers, or at least in Nebraska… My parents used to say whipper-snappers. And that is like darnit little kids, like “Ah, those little whipper-snappers…”, like when they’re causing trouble… I don’t know where that comes from, but whipper-snipper is –
I’ve heard that, too.
You’ve heard that one?
I feel like whipper-snipper makes infinitely more sense, even though I heard whipper-snapper a lot…
Yeah, it’s like somebody who makes noise maybe… But whipper-snipper is like – dude, that’s so good.
I’ll use it.
It’s much better than saying “trim the hedges”, or what do we say…?
Weed-whacker, weed-eater… I’m gonna start saying “I need a whipper-snipper”.
Our transcripts are open source on GitHub. Improvements are welcome. 💚