Showing all posts tagged wfh:

How I Work From Home

Even though travel is (gradually) opening up, I still opted to invest in my home office setup, and I think you should too. Here’s why.

I have been fully-remote for fifteen years now, with only brief interruptions. By that I mean that I have not had a team-mate, let alone a manager, in the same country, and frequently not even in the same time-zone, for that entire time. It’s true that for most of it I have had colleagues in-country, and even offices of varying dimensions and permanence, but they were always in adjacent functions: sales, services, field marketing, and all the back-office functions required to keep an international enterprise functioning.

This means that I am very used to going into an office only rarely, and a setup that lets me work from home has been a requirement for that entire time. The details of my setup have evolved and improved over the years, with increased resources available, and increased permanence to plan for.

The biggest recent change has been recognition that the home office is now a much more permanent part of life. In the Before Times, I would spend a good 50% of my time (if not more) on the road, so the home office was for occasional work. Now, it’s where everything happens, so it had better work well, be comfortable, and look good in the background of Zoom calls.

Here is the current state of the art.

Deep Underground

When we moved into my current place, I earmarked the "tavernetta" for my home office. A "tavernetta" is a uniquely Italian phenomenon: think a US-style basement family room, except that it’s under a block of flats. Several of the flats in my building come with these spaces, but most are only used for storage; a couple are fitted out to be habitable, and mine even includes the luxury of an en-suite bathroom, so I don’t even need to go upstairs to the main family home for that.

There was, however, one minor issue: all of the fittings date back to the Sixties, when this block was originally built. Worse, the flat actually belonged to my wife’s grandmother — so the "tavernetta" is also where my wife and all her cousins held their teenage parties, not to mention her mother and aunts… Out of sight and (more importantly) earshot, but within reach if needed. Anyway, without going into detail, and even though the statute of limitations has long since expired, let’s just say that the furniture and carpets had suffered somewhat over the years of parties.

Over the past summer, therefore, we tore up all the cigarette-burned fitted carpets, ripped out and replaced the ancient and horrible plumbing, and repainted the walls a nice clean white. An electrician was summoned, took one look, sucked his teeth and muttered "vintage", and promptly added a zero to the painful end of his estimate. On the other hand, I do have a lot of electronics plugged in down here, so it’s worth doing it right.

It’s So Bright, I Need Sunglasses

Packing up my desk to make space for all this work was an enormous pain, but I took the opportunity to streamline my setup quite a bit. I was using an ancient Iiyama panel that must be at least a dozen years old; it’s full-HD and was a pretty good screen at the time, but the state of the art has moved on, and the Iiyama is now woefully dim and low-resolution. Worse, it sat between my MacBook Pro and its Retina screen, and a Lenovo 27" panel that I got from work as part of a programme to help employees get set up for work-from-home. The Lenovo has a halfway-house resolution that sits between HD and 4k, but it’s sharp and bright; I run it in portrait (vertical) orientation to look at reference material beside the main screen that I’m working on.

Between those two bright and sharp displays, the Iiyama really suffered by comparison. What I really wanted was a Retina screen to match the MacBook, but Apple only make the monstrous XDR, which is lovely, but costs more than my first several cars — especially once you add a grand’s worth of stand! I put off making a decision, hoping that Apple would finally do what everyone was begging them to and release the 5k panel that they already have in their iMacs as a standalone monitor without a whole computer attached. Apple, in their wisdom, opted not to do this, and offered as a substitute the LG UltraFine. This is supposedly that same panel – but the LG enclosure is ugly as sin, and reports soon surfaced of quality problems: drooping support stands, unreliable USB connections, and even flaky displays. Since the UltraFine is hardly inexpensive, and is also hardly ever in stock, everyone took the hopeful assumption that all these issues meant that surely, soon, Apple would do it right. And so we waited. And waited. And waited.

When last October’s Apple event rolled around with the announcement of the new MacBook Pros, which would have been the obvious time to release a screen to plug the new laptops into, and Apple still didn’t — that was when I snapped. I went out and bought an LG 5k2k Ultrawide panel. The diagonal is a huge 34", but it’s actually only the height of a 27", just stretched out wiiiiide. The picture is sharp, the screen is bright, and the increase in real estate is incredible. As with most "tavernette", mine is partly below street level, and my desk is in the back of the room (it’s fixed to the wall and can’t move), so more light is very welcome. I also added an LED strip above the monitor, and my webcam (a Razer Kiyo mounted on the shelf above the desk) has a ring light, so I think my SAD countermeasures are sufficient for now.

That desk is my working desk, so the only thing that gets plugged in there with any regularity is the MacBook Pro I get from work. I have it on a stand so that it’s at the level of my sight line, and aligned to the monitors too. Before, I had a combo USB hub, USB-C power pass-through, and HDMI adapter Velcro’d to one of the legs of the laptop riser, and that went into one USB-C port, while a second USB-C cable fed the Lenovo. I then had a bunch of USB-A peripherals depending either from that hub or from the USB hub in the back of the Lenovo: keyboard, webcam, microphone, audio device, Ethernet adapter and MuteMe hardware mute button.

I was never super happy with this setup, and with the advent of the monster LG panel, I had an opportunity to redo it properly. Now, I have a single Thunderbolt cable coming out of the MacBook Pro, that takes care of power and all data connections. That cable goes into a CalDigit TS3-Plus dock that feeds everything else: DisplayPort to the LG, Mini DisplayPort to the Lenovo, (gigabit) Ethernet, SPDIF for audio, and powered USB-A for keyboard, webcam, microphone, and MuteMe button — with several more ports still available.

I favour a Microsoft Natural ergonomic keyboard. This is a split keyboard; the benefit is that your wrists do not bend while using it, as they do for straight keyboards such as the ones built in to laptops. It took a little while to get used to, but it’s very comfortable, and I could never go back. It works fine with a Mac, especially once you use Karabiner-Elements to remap some important keys.

My setup is also ambi-moustrous: I have an Apple Magic Mouse on the right of the keyboard — and a Magic Trackpad on the left. This setup lets me alternate my pointing hand to avoid stressing my right hand and wrist, as well as opening up the possibility of trackpad gestures without having to reach up to the MacBook’s trackpad, which is elevated some way off the desk and not exactly natural to use.

Make Some Noise

The audio situation is also worth touching on for a moment. Previously I was running a CambridgeWorks 4+1 speaker setup that I got with a Soundblaster Live! card more than twenty years ago. They were fine for what they are, but Macs never properly understood them, even with a dedicated USB audio interface that has separate front and rear audio outputs. (The system’s audio setup utility can play test audio through each of the four speakers, but in actual usage, the rear pair make only the faintest noise.) On the other hand, I did like having a physical volume knob on my desk, so I could crank it all the way to the left and be certain that nothing was going to make noise, no matter what.

I replaced these with an Edifier 2+1 set of bookshelf speakers with a monster subwoofer — seriously, the sub is bigger than both speakers together, and by a substantial margin (you can just about see it under the desk in the pic above). They are fed by an optical fibre cable from the CalDigit dock, and sound absolutely fantastic! They also have their own remote, which still lets me mute them without having to trust that some piece of software won’t decide that it’s important to unmute for some reason.

I also have my podcasting setup: a Røde NT-USB microphone that plugs into the CalDigit dock, and a pair of audio-technica headphones that plug into the Røde. The mic is on a spring arm so that I can fold it out of the way when I’m not using it, and the headphones have their own stand to keep them out of mischief.

This is the best setup for me: a single cable to plug in, and the MacBook is docked to all of this setup — and when it’s time to go, one cable unplugged and I’m ready. I keep go-bags of cables and power bricks in both of the bags I use when I leave the house, so I just need to make sure the actual laptop is in there and I’m good to go.

Away From Keyboard

Beyond what is on the desk, my home office includes a few more amenities. There is a mini-fridge under my desk with drinks — mainly sparkling water (tap water plus Sodastream bubbles), but also a few fruit juices and the like for when I fancy something different, and a couple of beers in case of particularly convivial Friday afternoon meetings (although it’s been a while since I’ve had occasion to drink one). I also have an electric Bialetti moka coffee pot for when it’s stimulation that I need rather than relaxation.

Yes, there is a printer down here! After some unpleasant experiences with inkjets, I lived the paperless lifestyle for a long time, but finally caved and bought a laser printer in 2019. At the time I assumed it would remain largely unused, and if I’m honest, I only bought it to placate my wife — who was of course very soon proved to be not only Right (again), but scarily prescient, as we spent much of 2020 in home-schooling mode, printing reams of paper every day. Utilisation has died back down a bit now, but the benefit of laser printers is that they don’t dry up and gunk up their print heads if you don’t print every five minutes.

Moving away from the desk area, I also have a TV down here with a rowing machine in front of it. The TV is passed down from when the main living room TV got upgraded to 4k, but it’s still perfectly serviceable. It’s not connected to an actual TV antenna down here; instead, I have an AppleTV device plugged into it, which means I can AirPlay content to it from my MacBook. How this plays out is that when I am attending a webinar or any sort of camera-off passive presentation, I stream that to the TV screen (without having to disconnect from the desk), and follow the webinar from my rowing machine, getting an education and a workout at the same time.

Make Space

With remote work and work-from-home becoming normalised, at least part-time, I would recommend to everyone that they invest in their home-office setup. I am very conscious that not everyone has the luxury of a dedicated room — but remember, I have been building up to this dream setup for a long time. If you are able to set yourself up with even a desk in a corner, that will help to confine work to that space. The physical separation gives "I am going to work" and "I am leaving work" rhythm to your day. There’s also a practical benefit to having somewhere to leave work in progress, notes, or whatever without that stuff cluttering up space you need for other purposes (a table you need to eat meals off).

You should also do the best you can in terms of height of desk, chair, keyboard, and screen. Yes, those last two are separate; laptops are an ergonomic nightmare if you are going to be using them all day, every day. Investments in your working environment will pay substantial dividends in terms of physical and mental well-being. It doesn’t have to be a huge expense, either; IKEA stuff is pretty good.

Don’t be put off by the thought that this is all nerd nonsense. Remember, programmers and gamers care deeply about the ergonomics of their computers because they spend a lot of time using them. These days, that describes most of us in white-collar jobs. Leaving aside some of the questionable choices gamers especially might make in terms of the aesthetics of their rigs, there is a lot to learn from those groups. Big screens, comfortable keyboards and mice, and some attention paid to how those devices are laid out in relation to one another, will all make your work life much less painful.

If you don’t have room for a rowing machine — or a Peloton, or a treadmill, or whatever — you may be able to simply exercise in front of your computer screen, depending on personality and the sort of exercise you favour, without needing special equipment and the room to set it up. I would definitely suggest making time for physical exercise, though; a walk around the block before sitting down to work, a run between meetings, or a sneaky bike ride over a lunch break — whatever works for you. I got into the habit of taking a mental-health day every couple of weeks when I was otherwise not leaving the house, and getting on my bike and just disappearing up into the hills. Your precise needs may vary, but try to make room for something in your routine.

And here’s hoping that we get to vary the work-from-home routine with some (safe) in-person interaction in 2022.

Remote Events

In a normal year, this is high season for events and trade shows. Instead, because 2020, I’m at home with no immediate prospect of travel. While this lack of travel does have some benefits, I do miss events, and I hope that things will get back to normal, because virtual events — or at least, the sorts of virtual events I have attended — simply do not work for me, and I’m not the only one.

One big issue is just reserving the time to "attend" the remote event, because when we’re working from home, there’s a lot of other stuff going on.

To be fair, I also hope that we will learn from this year and add more and better options for remote attendees than just a video stream of the keynote, which has been the standard until now. I have not yet seen an event format that replicated what I love about in-person events, but there is value in doing that if we can, because whoever achieves that feat will unlock enormous amounts of value, for themselves and for their event’s attendees.

The environment is also benefiting from all of us being grounded instead of burning jet fuel, (although my luggage1 is getting very dusty!). On the other hand, the local economy in places that typically host events is suffering badly — although one sector that I hope stays dead is the one that generates useless conference swag.

Time Is Value

The most important factor is the dedicated time. An event that I attend from home will inevitably need to fit in around other tasks, personal and professional. Instead, if I have travelled somewhere and blocked out a day or a few days, I am motivated to make the most of that investment, and minimise other activities. There is also a feeling that I have permission to postpone everything else if I’m at an in-person event in a way that I at least do not feel that I have for virtual events.

There’s another aspect to time that is often overlooked, though, and that is time zones. If an in-person event is in a certain location, all the attendees agree to base their schedules on the local time zone. If it’s remote, all bets are off. Yes, there have been experiments with "follow-the-sun" conferences, with people either giving the same presentation several times, or recordings being rebroadcast after an offset, but it’s still not the same as all being there together, plus you also lose out on having one single conversation going on via Twitter or whatever social media about your announcements.

Hell Is No Other People

While perhaps not as quantifiable, the serendipitous networking is the aspect of in-person events the I miss the most, and certainly the hardest to reproduce online. You can have great conversations even just standing in the booth, if you ask punters questions about their work and situation instead of just regurgitating the same tired sales spiel for the Nth time.

In technical terms, you’re probably going to be able to give a better answer if you understand what the actual goal is. The first phrasing of a question from someone unfamiliar with your technology is probably not going to tell you that, because they are framing the question in terms of what they do know. Of course you’ll be even better placed if you can answer them in the context of what they know: "in Technology X that is indeed what you would want to do, but it has the following downsides: a, b, c; instead, in Technology Y we achieve the same goal in this other way, which delivers these benefits: foo, bar, baz; would you like to see a demo?".

A conference booth is also a great environment to practice your pitch many times, over and over, in relatively low-stakes conversations, and with lots of colleagues around you to ask for support or after-action critiques. I stood up in a booth on day two of my current gig, and by the end of the day I had learned more about actual customer needs and perception than in any office onboarding course.

Beyond that, I have benefited enormously from being dragged along in the wake of more senior colleagues, meeting people and participating in conversations that let me understand better how my industry worked. Just the questions that get asked in these senior-level conversations will tell you a lot, and topics that come up will tell you what is currently hot, what terminology is expected, and so on. In more recent years, I’ve been the one getting the invites, and so I try to bring other team mates along to benefit from their perspective and help them in their own careers.

In other words, it’s not (just) about the free drinks…

What Can We Do

There are some suggestions people have shared with me for how to improve remote events, which might also be applied as extensions to in-person events. After all, big events like WWDC or AWS re:Invent are already effectively remote events: even people who’re in town for the show end up watching video streams. Many people don't even have tickets, but they travel anyway for the networking and because everybody else is there, making it easier to meet a lot of people over the course of a week whom you would not normally have access to. Unfortunately, I am not quite convinced by any of these suggestions, precisely because they miss out on the reasons why people might travel to an event and only ever stay on its fringes.

Watch Parties

To combine remote events with at least some networking, some have suggested local user groups or similar organisations could meet up to watch the stream together. To me, this is the worst of both worlds, because I would still have to travel a bit, at least up to Milan, but my networking there would be restricted to the people who live and work there, who by and large are not relevant to me; my job is worldwide, not local or regional. This is the same objection I have to the suggestion of many local events instead of one big global event; I am specifically looking forward to getting together with everyone in the world who is interested in the same things I am. This sort of thing might make some sense if you’re in NYC and not wanting to travel to SF, or just not wanting to go to Vegas (sensible!), but it sucks for the lone person in Omaha or whatever who’s into that topic (replace US locales with your own; the same thing happens in every country/region). And again, time zones will complicate this. If you’re in Sydney, it’s going to be tough to follow a livestream from San Francisco or Amsterdam.

Portals!

I have been in many offices that have always-on video conferencing setups, usually in the kitchen or other common space, so that when you walk past you can wave at someone in the office in Bengaluru or wherever. This is the next step up from the social media walls that you (used to) see at in/person events, but again it seems to be a gimmick; a week after the first installation, nobody looks at the screens any more. They sometimes get used for all-hands meetings or similar occasions, but that’s it. They are more of a "digital transformation" checkbox, like the iPad for signing in on the front desk; gimmicks for companies trying to show how global and interconnected they are, rather than any sort of practical solution.

Another gimmicky technology that many expected to transform our lives is VR, but that's not working either, or at least not yet.

Look at the numbers

Attendance numbers are also not comparable between in-person and online-only events. The smaller numbers of people who attend in-person events have demonstrated significant commitment and are ipso facto extremely valuable contacts. The far larger numbers of people who register for online events have not made any such commitment; in fact, many have no intention of attending the live event at all, but will only look at a handful of recordings, potentially days, weeks, or even months later. How do you discount the quality of that lead? Is it any better than a webinar lead? Is it worse because of dilution (you don’t know which one session they were really interested in)?

So What?

Unfortunately, I have not found any good solutions. The best we can hope for is that by this time in 2021, we can once again have in-person events in safety, but that we also learn something about complementing the in-person experience with at least some remote-access options. Those remote options should also allow for time-shifting, whether by a few hours for people in other time zones, or by much longer periods for later review. The assumption that all speaking sessions are recorded should help ensure better content, as well as better outcomes for sessions that suffer from being scheduled across from a session on a hot topic or with a big-name speaker.

I’ll see you in my employer’s booth, and don’t forget to come to my session later!


🖼️ Photos by Samuel Pereira and The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash


  1. I even decided not to use a discount code for a piece of luggage I have wanted for ages, because I have no idea when I’ll get to use a carry-on bag again. 

One More Missed Opportunity For VR

SF authors have a lot to answer for. While they are popularly assumed to predict the future, most will be quick to disclaim any Nostradamus tendencies. Instead, they are trying to tell a story, and the setting is only a part of that effort. The problems arise when people read the story, fall in love with the setting — and decide to enact it in real life.

I’m as guilty as any other nerd, with my unmarked keyboard meant to evoke Case’s deck in Neuromancer that always got him into trouble at customs. I also have an Ono-Sendai sticker on my MacBook, just to complete the look. That sort of thing is mostly harmless. What about the people who read Snow Crash1 and decided to build the Metaverse, though? They read passages like this and think to themselves: "whoa, cool, I gotta build that":

He is not seeing real people, of course. This is all a part of the moving illustration drawn by his computer according to specifications coming down the fiber-optic cable. The people are pieces of software called avatars. They are the audiovisual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse.

And so they went and built those things. This is literally the origin story for a lot of the tech we have today, from the iPhone as Star Trek communicator on down. When it comes to VR, you might expect that now of all times, with nobody able to go to the office, VR would be having its moment. But it isn’t, at all.

Sure, there are hopefuls like Spatial, sometimes described breathlessly as "the Zoom of VR" — but it relies on the Oculus Quest hardware, which is hardly universal, or Magic Leap, which may never be seen at all. I tried it on the web and it’s buggy right in the signup experience, definitely not something I would introduce to colleagues, let alone clients.

Maybe when Apple brings out its AR headset we’ll have a platform worthy of the name, but right now VR just isn’t there. I’m a techie, an early adopter, and if you can’t sell me on VR when a) I can’t leave the house and b) there’s a new Halflife game which requires VR, I think it’s safe to say it’s a small niche and going to stay that way.

I’ve been fully remote for a long time, but most people, even among those who had the choice, preferred to go into offices. Now we are all forced into the WFH life, but it’s awkward. Too many Zooms, too few, how much communication is needed or wanted, what needs to be synchronous and what can go async via Slack — and how do we manage all of that when many of us are also juggling other responsibilities? The home schooling, oh God the home schooling. Give teachers raises yesterday, they earned them.

Part of the stress of WFH is communication, and the pitch of meeting in VR is to approximate the experience of a real meeting better than just a grid of people’s heads on screen. It turns out, though, that experience is sufficient for most purposes. People are using Zoom for karaoke, cocktails (quarantini, anyone?), weddings, graduations, and just about anything else.

So Where Did VR Get Lost?

Even with the head start of everyone stuck at home and hating it, VR still has not taken off. The reason is the sort of impact that always means that the future will not look like the past or even a linear extrapolation. It’s easy to think of remote working and see that it requires good bandwidth, that people with good written skills and ability to manage their own time might thrive, and so on. Not many futurists had considered the impact on a family with both parents trying to work from home while juggling child care and home schooling, for instance.

This is one reason why even in lockdown VR hasn’t taken off (that and it’s still too expensive, but that’s a chicken & egg problem). I’ve taken tons of conference calls — yes, even on video — with a baby in my arms2, or keeping one eye on the maths homework going on next to me, or simply with one ear cocked for mischief being perpetrated somewhere else. VR, if it works properly, excludes all of that.

Some of the reluctance to embrace new tech is also the fear of obsolescence. If we can all go back to the office as soon as possible, the old habits and rules that enabled people to be successful in the past can be reimposed and those people can go on being successful without having to learn something new or change their behaviour in any way.

This reluctance also applies to tech platforms themselves. Remote events — and all events are of course remote for the rest of 2020 at least — default to the tried and true format of fast-scrolling comments beside live streamed events. This format was already tired ten years ago, but nobody has come up with anything much better. Partly there wasn’t a need, because it was easier just to rent out space in Vegas or Orlando and run the conference there, and partly there wasn’t a platform to build on. That last issue is of course another iteration of the chicken-and-egg problem: nobody has been able to build a platform because the users weren’t there, because nobody had built it, and repeat.

That consideration leads us back to Apple potentially jump-starting the whole VR-AR market by pulling their usual trick of holding back, looking carefully at what’s out there, thinking really hard about the use case, and then bringing out something that defines the market such that soon afterwards it is seen as inevitable and everybody else simply has variations on Apple’s theme.

Until that happens, though, the Zoom+Slack combo is the best we have, and we had better get used to it.


We discussed the topic of remote working on Episode Two of Roll For Enterprise, a new podcast I co-host. Listen to the episode, and subscribe if you like what you hear!


🖼️ Photo by Hammer & Tusk on Unsplash


  1. My favourite Snow Crash quote, and one which more people should take to heart, is this one: "It was, of course, nothing more than sexism, the especially virulent type espoused by male techies who sincerely believe they are too smart to be sexists." 

  2. For whatever reason, when I do this, it’s adorable, and when my wife does it, it’s unprofessional. I find this very weird, and so one reason I don’t hide my kids away is to make a point of modelling this behaviour as being okay so that my female colleagues might also feel comfortable with their children being in view of the webcam. 

KonMari The Home Office

I was all ready to hate this list of work-from-home tips from Marie Kondo, but actually it’s… not bad?

I mean, some of it is disgustingly twee — striking a tuning fork to signal the start of the working day? — but other parts make a lot of sense, like keeping your work stuff in a box that you can put away outside work hours.

There is a certain amount of work-from-home advice that is not exactly helpful going about, so at this point I am reflexively sceptical of new advice. There was the Washington Post advising people to sleep in their spare room and pretend they were on a trip, to which people quite rightly pointed out that not everyone has a spare room they can just casually go and sleep in. Even leaving aside issues of sudden economic anxiety due to the lockdown, many people made trade-offs to live in smaller homes in more expensive areas that were closer to schools, parks, restaurants, or transport options — precisely none of which they can take advantage of right now.

Another strand of unhelpful advice is when people forget that other people have children, or seemingly have never met a child in their entire lives.

I’m lucky enough that I was already set up with a pretty decent home office, and I spent the early part of this lockdown fitting it out to the nines, but in my own WFH advice I tried not to assume that everyone was in the same fortunate position. Even people who had the space might not have basics like a reasonably ergonomic desk and chair, and many don’t have the luxury of dedicated space. This is where Marie Kondo’s advice chimes with mine:

  • Keep your work stuff in one place. Work from the kitchen table, and move to the couch when you’re done.
  • Separate work time from personal time. Work from the laptop, then close the laptop when you’re done.

There’s one more piece of advice that I need to add, though:

  • Give yourself and others permission to be their whole selves. Some of us are juggling home-schooling kids with work, and so work happens around other stuff. Even when I’m in my home office, my kids regularly burst in to grab something from the printer, ask a question about homework, or sometimes just to give me a hug. People seem to find it charming more than anything else. This may well be because I’m a man, so I go out of my way to reassure female colleagues that it’s okay for their kids to do the same sort of thing.

Maybe you don’t have kids, maybe it’s your dog barking or your cat deciding to sit on you, or your room-mate coming out of the shower behind you. It’s fine, we’re all in the same boat.

And it could always be worse.


🖼️ Box photo by Bench Accounting1 on Unsplash, others from Stephanie Insley Hershinow and Adam Graham via Twitter


  1. How interesting, advertising by creating a profile on Unsplash! I hadn’t seen that one before — for a non-photography business, that is. Curious to know how it works for them. 

New WFH setup

Inspired by Eddie Jaoude, I made some updates to my home office setup. Just like everyone else, I have been on a ton of calls and a couple of podcasts too, so I kept myself entertained — and the economy moving — by upgrading my work environment.

In the foreground is my Røde NT-USB microphone, with shock mount, pop shield, and boom arm. That last is especially useful so I can swing the whole rig back out of the way when I’m done with it.

Behind that, you can see my Microsoft Natural keyboard; I get RSI if I type too long on straight keyboards, like my laptop’s for instance, so when I’m at my desk I use the Natural which lets me keep my wrists straight.

I use an Apple Magic Mouse, and I know some people hate it. It’s true that it’s not the most ergonomic thing ever, but I love the gestures on it, and I don’t actually use my mouse that much; it’s all about the keyboard shortcuts for me. This also means that I only have to deal with the silly recharging setup quite rarely.

The screen is an Iiyama 26". It’s only HD, not 4k, so it’s probably the next thing due an upgrade. I was hoping Apple would get around to releasing one of its lovely 5k screens without an entire iMac attached, but that is looking increasingly less likely. The LG 5k screen is just too ugly for words, especially for the price, so I’ll probably blow my next bonus on a nice 4k screen. What else am I going to spend money on right now, anyway?

On the walls are generic sound-absorbent foam panels. They really do make a surprisingly audible difference compared to bare paint — nearly as much as moving from the mike on the little headset that’s hanging beside the monitor to the big Røde!

Nestled under the monitor is one of my ancient Cambridge Soundworks speakers and its volume controller; you can just about see the subwoofer under the desk. It’s a four-speaker (plus sub) setup, but right now I don’t have the rear two wired up, waiting for a USB sound card with front+rear outputs that is on a very slow boat from China.

On top of the monitor, the bright ring of light is my Razer Kiyo webcam with built-in ring light. My office is in a half-basement, and the desk is in the darkest corner, so I need all the help I can get.

The computer itself is a MacBook Pro 13" with Touch Bar. Personally, I like the Touch Bar, although obviously I don’t use it much when the MBP is on its stand like this!

The keyboard under the stand belongs to the computer you can just about see above the monitor — yes, that’s a computer! The keyboard has blank keycaps for that William Gibson hacker look, while the computer is in a Skeleton "case" from Antec which is pretty much just an open frame to mount components in, plus a big slow fan to blow air over everything. It’s perfect for what is basically a parts-bin computer. It runs Debian and lets me mess around without the risk of doing something silly on my work computer.

The wicker boxes beside the Skeleton are all full of ancient tangled cables. Because of course they are.

Break Down

This is the other half of my home office, with a rowing machine set up in front of a TV with an Apple TV attached. This lets me stream webinars via AirPlay and watch them while I get a workout in. Good for a change of pace in between all the Zoom calls!

Emergency Spare Backup Office Location

Sometimes I also work from a secure alternative location outside my usual office, partly for the view and partly for the company.

Things That Happen When You're Working From Home

So this is me, talking to dozens of colleagues about a new project — when my daughter, I mean my coworker, decided she needed something off my desk Right Now.

My colleagues all thought she was cute, so there’s that.

Working From Home Is Good, Actually

It’s an obvious time for people to think and write about working from home. I did my own bit yesterday, and today Kevin Roose joined in with this article in the New York Times, with the clickbaity title "Sorry, but Working From Home Is Overrated".

Mr Roose used to be a fan:

I was a remote worker for two years a while back. For most of that time, I was a work-from-home evangelist who told everyone within earshot about the benefits of avoiding the office. No commute! No distracting co-workers! Home-cooked lunch! What’s not to love?

But he changed his tune:

I’ve now come to a very different conclusion: Most people should work in an office, or near other people, and avoid solitary work-from-home arrangements whenever possible.

What drove this change of heart?

[…] research also shows that what remote workers gain in productivity, they often miss in harder-to-measure benefits like creativity and innovative thinking. Studies have found that people working together in the same room tend to solve problems more quickly than remote collaborators, and that team cohesion suffersin remote work arrangements.

I don’t disagree! I’ve worked from home for fifteen years, but I’ve always spent big chunks of my time on the road, travelling and meeting people. Working in a distributed team, it’s key to meet in person on a regular basis, at least once a quarter. If I don’t leave my home office for a couple of weeks straight, I start to get cranky – so while I’m more prepared than most for remote working, not least because I have a home office that is fully set up, with big screen, ergonomic keyboard, and even a whiteboard, I am still affected by the coronavirus lockdown.

As with most things, the answer is not a simple binary:

[…] research has found that the ideal amount of work-from-home time is one and a half days per week — enough to participate in office culture, with some time reserved for deep, focused work.

Around The World

There is one more factor that I don’t often see considered, and it’s geographical coverage. I am part of a global team, and one of the things that I bring to the team is the perspective of someone who is not based in New York City or in Silicon Valley. If the whole global team sat around a long table, they would miss important perspectives and developments on the ground. But if all of us are dotted around the world, why would we go in to our various local offices? There, we would indeed sit at long tables, but with people working on very different projects. Distraction and disturbance are rife in that sort of environment (I speak from experience here).

It can still be worth taking that hit on deep work occasionally for the serendipitous conversations with other teams which can occur in that type of environment, but there’s not the same benefit to doing it long-term. The way I do it is to stop in at the local office wherever I am and sit with different teams in rotation, working to facilitate serendipity in different circumstances. That way I can take the temperature of the extended organisation and report back to the team, sharing perspectives with others who are doing the same thing.

There are also things that can be done to help cohesion of remote teams. The NYT article mentions "virtual coffee breaks", which I haven’t tried, but simple things like holding regular calls and turning on webcams during them will go a long way. Floating Slack conversations about non-work topics are also good – again, especially if they are a way to maintain bonds that are built in person and regularly strengthened that way.

Bottom line, it does not seem like the right time to be negative about remote work, right when many people and organisations are trying it for the first time. By all means warn them of pitfalls, but suggest fixes rather than just writing off the whole thing.


🖼️ Photos by Jacky Chiu and Helloquence on Unsplash

How to Survive the Home Office

Some tips from someone who hasn’t worked in an office in fifteen years

In the twenty-first century, many of us work in offices. In the EU and the US, the service economy represents roughly 80% of GDP. This growth of service work is a relatively recent phenomenon, compared to the past when most employment was in agriculture.

Office work comes with a number of perks over farming. For a start, it’s done indoors, generally in fairly comfortable surroundings. There may be perks like free refreshments, and if you are lucky you may even have fun colleagues that you like to hang out with during coffee breaks. You’re also fairly unlikely to be in any sort of physical danger, as long as you are careful with the stapler.

The problem is that the self-isolation protocols that governments and companies are putting into place require, among other things, that people work from home instead of going to the office. This is a new development for many employers and employees. In the spirit of helping out, I wanted to share some tips based on over a decade of working from home. I last had an office-based job in which I worked elbow-to-elbow with my team-mates in 2006. Since then, my situation has mostly involved team-mates and managers spread around the world, across many different time zones. Here is what I learned.

Save your Space

One of the good things about travelling to a physical location is that it enforces separation between work and not-work. If you’re in the office, you’re generally expected to be working – and if you’re at home, generally speaking you’re not working, apart from perhaps checking email or whatever.

When you work from home, you lose that separation. The risk then is that work and home life bleed into each other. On the one hand, you may find yourself working through meal times and into the evening, but on the other you might also get distracted by housework or errands.

If you can arrange it, physical separation is best. Don’t work from the couch; apart from anything else, that’s an ergonomic nightmare if you’re doing it all day, every day. Go somewhere to do work, and don’t go there when you’re not working. I’m lucky enough to have a home office that is physically separate from the family home, which is ideal, but not everyone will have that option, or be able to set it up at short notice.

At the very least, work from your laptop at the table, and close the laptop when you’re done. Even if you do dip into work after hours, do it from your phone, not from the laptop.

It might seem silly, but try to stick to office hours and dress: get out of bed and get dressed as if you were going to work. You have years of reflex telling you that when you shave or put on makeup (delete as appropriate to your own personal morning routine), you are going into "work mode". Take advantage of those reflexes even if you aren’t leaving the home.

If you are able to do so safely, i.e. without close contact with others, you may also consider replacing your commute with a run or a bicycle ride, just to start your day off.

Protect your Space

If you live with other people, you may need to negotiate this separation with them. If they see you in the house, they may ask you for your help, or to join in some activity, or just ask you questions. A physical indicator that you are working can be useful here. Again, if you have a specific location that you work from, that can be simplest: "if I’m in the spare room with the door closed, please don’t bother me; if the door is open, I’m available for coffee or a quick chat".

Make your Routine

On top of physical routine, it’s good to break up your day into units of time, and dedicate each one to a specific task. The method I use is the Pomodoro Technique, which is simple and fun. Basically, get a kitchen timer, and use it to time your tasks and breaks.

My Pomodoro timer on my desk

Over-Communicate

It can be very isolating to work at home on your own, if you are used to working cheek-by-jowl with your team. At least if everyone is self-isolating in their own homes, you don’t feel that you are being left out of impromptu conversations that happen in the office. There are ways of helping the team continue to feel and work like a team even when they are remote.

The absolute bottom line is that you need a chat platform of some sort. Slack is fast becoming the default, and has a free plan that is enough for most organisations at least to get started. Probably the biggest alternative is Microsoft Teams, but there are many other options.

Do not try to use WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or similar mobile-only, single-threaded tools for anything beyond the smallest groups and simplest needs. Slack and similar tools allow you to create many channels, each dedicated to specific topics, and within a channel you can split a discussion off into a thread without cluttering up the main channel.

Another benefit of dedicated work chat tools is to further that separation between work and personal time. Train yourself to stop looking at the work tool after hours. Managers, be sensitive and avoid abusing personal channels like SMS outside of actual emergencies.

Catch my Video

Text chat is great for many things, but if you’re feeling lonely and isolated away from your team, turn on that webcam! We are social animals, and seeing people face to face really helps strengthen those team bonds. The coronavirus crisis is driving a huge uptake in video chat tools, especially Zoom, which has a useful free tier.

Another benefit of video meetings is that it reinforces your work routines, if only because you have to be presentable and ready to be seen on camera.

Track and Assess

Finally, it can be hard at the end of the day to work out whether you "got anything done". There’s a simple fix for that too: track what you do during the day, and assess the results at the end of the day. You can do this as part of your Pomodoro Technique, jotting down a quick note about what you achieved during each Pomodoro interval. Depending on what type of work you are doing, this can also help you track your time, if that is a requirement. Even if you don’t have that kind of need, though, it can be good to close out the day by looking back on what you have achieved.

Plan for the Long Term

The final reason to think about this topic now is that I suspect that many organisations that were only forced into supporting remote work by this crisis will find that it’s actually a great option, at least as a complement to their ordinary setup. Don’t fall into any bad habits because you think this setup will only last for a few days or weeks. Remote working is going to be much more prevalent in the future, so it’s worth getting it right straight away.

Do share any other tips that you personally know of or that work for you. I can usually be found on Twitter.


🖼️ Photos by Dillon Shook, Harry Cunningham and Andrew Neel on Unsplash, except tomato timer – author’s own

Work From Home

I was reading an interesting blog post about working from home, by Julia Evans. I also work from home, so it was interesting to compare my experiences of remote work with hers.

The two main benefits are the obvious ones – I get to live where I want (Montreal) and have the job that I want. And San Francisco tech companies in general pay a lot more than Montreal tech companies, so working for a SF tech company while living outside SF is great.

I can confirm this 100%. I live in Italy rather than in Canada, but the same factors apply: I’d rather be here than there, and the salary is very competitive with what I could make locally.

  • I have a lot of control over my working environment. It’s relatively easy to close Slack and focus.

True! I hated working in an open-plan office, and wore headphones a lot so that I could get some peace and quiet. It did not help that none of my team were in that office, so I was only going there to satisfy some HR mandate.

  • I basically haven’t had to set an alarm for 4 years.

Ha. Nnnope – I still have my alarm set far too early every weekday to take the kids to school. On the other hand, I can have breakfast with them and take them to school, and still get a full day of work in in. Part of that is down to time zone shift, which is both good and bad; more on that later.

  • There’s a nice community of remotes across the company. I’ve gotten to know a lot of wonderful people.

Yes! My team is spread out across four sites and three time zones, and so are many other teams, so there isn’t the sort of downside to being remote that there can be if it’s an exception.

  • I can work from another city/country if I want (like I went to Berlin for 6 weeks in 2016 and it wasn’t disruptive, especially since my 2 teammates at the time lived in Europe).

I haven’t tried this one (those kids and their schools again), but I know other people who’ve done it very successfully. This also works if your area of coverage gets large enough. I knew someone who was in charge of one particular technology alliance partner across the whole of EMEA, which meant that he spent a lot of his time flying. Soon, he realised that this meant he didn’t have to be anywhere in particular, as long as he was near an international airport – so he decamped to Barcelona for a year. Why not?

  • I live in a slightly shifted timezone (3 hours ahead of many people I work with), so I can get stuff done before anybody gets to work.

I am shifted a lot more than that: the difference from Italy to San Francisco is nine hours. The upside is I get a nice quiet start to my day to read, write, and think, and then the US wakes up and I start getting into conference calls. The downside is that there are only a few usable hours of overlap in our schedules, so compatible time slots go quickly. Sometimes you have to do careful triage of what actually needs an interactive voice call, and what can be discussed asynchronously over email or Slack. I make it a hard rule to keep family dinner time free, but I do take calls after dinner several times a month, when we can’t work out other slots.

Shout Louder

That last point is important: I joined a team that had previously been able to shout across a table at each other, and suddenly half the team was remote. We had to figure out how to communicate and manage projects across the time zone gap, and there were some stumbles and false starts along the way.

What we ended up figuring out was that different channels work for different tasks. Perhaps not revolutionary, I know, but we took the time while we were all together in person and thrashed it out with a whiteboard: what type of requests should go to which channel, what response times could be expected, and so on.

This is what is known as a "communications charter", and is recommended by HBR for virtual teams:

Communication on virtual teams is often less frequent, and always is less rich than face-to-face interaction, which provides more contextual cues and information about emotional states — such as engagement or lack thereof. The only way to avoid the pitfalls is to be extremely clear and disciplined about how the team will communicate. Create a charter that establishes norms of behavior when participating in virtual meetings, such as limiting background noise and side conversations, talking clearly and at a reasonable pace, listening attentively and not dominating the conversation, and so on. The charter also should include guidelines on which communication modes to use in which circumstances, for example when to reply via email versus picking up the phone versus taking the time to create and share a document.

Get In Their Face

Note that when we were working out our communications charter, we did it with a whiteboard. This is because we made it a goal to get together in person once a quarter or thereabouts. Don’t skimp on this! It’s not cheap: airfare, hotels, and meals all add up. However, the time you spend together face to face will pay off over and over. There is so much that gets done when the team is together, and the benefits continue after the remote team members fly out, because that face time has strengthened relationships and clarified questions.

In fact, face time is so important that it’s the very first point in that HBR list:

It may seem paradoxical to say in a post on virtual teams, but face-to-face communication is still better than virtual when it comes to building relationships and fostering trust, an essential foundation for effective team work. If you can’t do it, it’s not the end of the world (focus on doing some virtual team building). But if you can get the team together, use the time to help team members get to know each other better, personally and professionally, as well to create a shared vision and a set of guiding principles for how the team will work. Schedule the in-person meeting early on, and reconnect regularly (semi-annually or annually) if possible.

Feed The Mind

However, there is one final point that I have not seen listed anywhere else, and that is food. When I work from home, I can make my own meals, and share them with whoever else is around: my kids if they don’t have school, my wife if she is also working from home, or friends who might be taking their lunch breaks at the same time as me.

What do you think? Beats a soggy sandwich at your desk, right?


Top image by Seemann via Morguefile; bottom image courtesy of author.

Home Office Backlash

Teleworking is back in the news!

The very technology that enables telecommuting and working from home could be destroying its value. Although productivity may increase in the short term, working from home may prevent your teams from working effectively.

I've had both office-based and home-office jobs, so I have an idea of the upsides and downsides of each. I last wrote about teleworking more than a year ago, when Yahoo first banned the practice. Here's what I said at the time:

... the office is where I go to have impromptu conversations and face-to-face meetings, but it's not where I am most productive, even with my headphones on. I am much more productive at home, in aeroplanes, or in hotel rooms without distractions.

I think the sort of togetherness that the Forbes piece describes is real. I work in a team that is entirely remote: no two team-members share an office. For the type of work we do, this works well. It's great to meet up, and we take every opportunity to do so, but mostly we're fairly loosely coupled, so we get on fine as is.

There is another dimension to consider here. If companies gather all their employees except for local field support into one central location, they may have all sorts of serendipitous conversations around coffee machines, but there is a significant risk of an echo chamber effect developing. Silicon Valley is all well and good, but what works there will not necessarily work elsewhere in the US, never mind Europe, Asia and so on. If everyone involved in deciding and communicating the strategic direction of the company lives their entire lives in Silicon Valley, surrounded by people doing exactly the same thing, the company will develop a huge blind spot to the realities on the ground.

Not to mention all the employees spending their bonuses on noise-canceling headphones just so they can get some work done in the office again...