With the COVID-19 situation continuing to evolve, numerous companies in our industry have been telling their employees to work from home (WFH) lately to enable “social distancing” to slow the spread of the virus. Large numbers of engineers, marketers, and other technology professionals may find themselves hanging out on the sofa, trying to squeeze out a normal day’s work via VPN over a cacophony of kids, dogs, and soap operas. It may sound fun at first, but after a few days, a lot of folks may find themselves pining for the cubicles.
If you are in management considering the impacts of having your team work from home – whether temporarily or long-term, this may be helpful. If you’re an employee suddenly faced with changing your job to a WFH model, there is insight for you as well. We suspect that, after the COVID-19 situation recedes, a number of teams who have adopted a WFH model may choose to continue it long-term. This should tell you some of the things to expect.
We here at EE Journal have a lot of experience working from home. With the virus situation, we have already switched EE Journal to no travel, 100% work from home. But, that’s not really a big change for us. We have halted trade show attendance (most of them are cancelled anyway) and we have implemented a process to record episodes of our Chalk Talk series remotely (we have historically done them on-site with sponsors). But, for the past seventeen years, our entire company has been 100% work from home. We have never had an office, and the company was created from the ground up with the idea of working remotely. We have had team members in California, Oregon, Alabama, Texas, New York, and the UK. I do EE Journal work several months of every year on a boat in the Inside Passage to Alaska. Our business systems were all in the cloud before it was even called the “cloud.” And, every business and collaboration process we have ever used was developed specifically for remote participation. If a system or new process required brick-and-mortar, we never even considered it. We have experienced all the pluses and minuses and have accumulated a wealth of firsthand experience with all of them. What have we learned in those seventeen years?
We learned that different personalities respond differently to WFH. We have had employees who thrived and performed far better than they ever had in office environments, and we have had employees who were great in office jobs utterly fail at WFH. We learned early on that recruiting and hiring had to be done differently, with different traits and skills being key. WFH employees need to be self-motivating, self-organizing, and self-managing. It is challenging to find folks with all of those traits who also have the skills and experience you need for the specifics of the job. But, while hiring is harder, the result of that process is that you have a team full of people who are self-motivating, self-organizing, and self-managing. That means fewer meetings are required, less management is needed (usually near zero, in fact), and day-to-day things run substantially more smoothly and efficiently.
We have found that most people are surprised by the reality of the WFH experience. The first reaction is usually frustration. WFH sounds great on the surface. Who wouldn’t want to drop the commute, hang out working on their own sofa with a cappuccino from their own machine, set their own work hours, and have lunch from their own home kitchen? That all sounds great until you actually try to do it. Then, home-environment distractions abound “I’ll just take a minute to put in a load of laundry and – hey, those air conditioner filters really need to be cleaned…” First thing you know, you missed a conference call – which may be partly a good thing because the dog was barking nonstop and the kids are off school today for a teacher workday.
Losing the commute is a win. All that time you’re not sitting on the freeway commuting is time you have for other things, and it is great for the environment. In Silicon Valley, for example, this can be a temporal windfall of epic proportions. It’s not uncommon for folks to spend one to three hours every single workday driving to and from the office. Will you use all that time for additional work productivity? You will, even if you don’t. I’ve never heard anybody say their commute improves their attitude, creativity, or productivity at work. So, even if you don’t spend your recovered commute time working, you’ll probably start work with a happier, more relaxed demeanor and be more productive.
Meetings will drop. I know, meetings are some people’s favorite part of office life, but there is also a demographic who finds the typical corporate regimen of meetings to be stressful and unproductive. Regardless of intentions, you’ll see the number of meetings decline when the majority of employees are working from home. Part of the reason is the aforementioned self-managing aspect of experienced WFH employees. It turns out that a lot of our meetings are essentially just employee oversight. We want to know if people are spending those office hours on the right things. With WFH, you just trust that they are.
The notion of work hours changes dramatically as well, which can be both good and bad. With office work, even if your company does not specify a number of hours you are expected to put in, or an arrival and departure time, the cultural expectation of office work is that you are being paid for your hours. If the norm at your company is 9-hour workdays, and you’re a severe over-achiever who gets all your work done well in half that time, you find ways to fill the rest of that 9 hours doing something to at least appear to be busy. It wouldn’t look good for you to be bugging out at noon every day when your peers are all hanging around until after dinner.
This idea that we spend a certain time interval at the office, “no matter what,” is also a disincentive for productivity. After all, there’s no point in figuring out ways to get a day’s work done in 4 hours if you have to be there for 9 hours anyway. You’ll just get bored and stressed trying to look like you’re not loafing. But WFH changes that dynamic. If you can find ways to work better and more efficiently while working from home, you get that time back for yourself. And, if your most productive work time is from 2AM to 4AM, go for it! It’s not like you still have to be at the office by 8 to “look good” for your peers.
With the current focus on social distancing, it’s important to note that social distancing has its downside as well. WFH imposes a huge helping of social distancing. For many folks this can be a serious problem. They miss the social interaction from the office, and, for many people, the team they spend their workdays with becomes their primary social circle as well. People working long-term from home need to make a point to separate their work and non-work social circles, and to cultivate the non-work ones. Have a hobby? Spend more time getting to know the people who share that interest. If you make the transition to WFH without taking at least some measures to replace the social interaction you lose, you’ll almost certainly find yourself feeling lonely.
One thing we have discovered is that a team that is 100% WFH works better than a team that is mixed. Most people in office environments have had the experience with some team members working remotely. We go into the conference room, and forget to connect up the conference line. Then, as the meeting proceeds, we deal with issues like the person on the other end didn’t get the presentation, or they forgot to mute their line and household sounds suddenly take over the conference room. Over time, this builds resentment among the office team against the WFH folks. The WFH members become second-class citizens and are left out of a lot of the dynamics of the job.
With 100% WFH, there is no division of the team. Since all meetings are remote, people quickly develop the discipline to make the meeting operate smoothly for everyone. And, as mentioned above, you’ll find that there are simply far fewer meetings. Also, to take full advantage of the schedule (and time-zone) flexibility that WFH allows, it pays to switch your mindset from synchronous “all present” kinds of interaction (meetings) to asynchronous interactions such as chat via Slack or similar platform. It turns out you can accomplish many of the kinds of communication that would previously have required meetings asynchronously in a chat thread.
Asynchronous meeting-like-things often take longer than a typical meeting, but are more efficient overall. A meeting leader may initiate a chat thread to discuss a particular topic, and various team members will weigh in when they have time. If team members are in different time zones, it may take several days for the thread to play out to the equivalent of a typical one-hour meeting with everyone present, but we notice at the end of it the discussion is more thoughtful and complete, and almost nobody has spent an entire hour of their time participating. We also notice that these types of discussions are no longer dominated by the “loudest voice” or the “biggest personality” in the room. The playing field is leveled between extroverts and introverts, and many ideas are raised that may not have come to the surface in an in-person meeting.
One adaptation we have made is an attempt to replace the ad-hoc “watercooler-style” interactions that often prove valuable in the office environment. We actually have an ongoing chat thread called “watercooler” that everyone is involved in. Want to throw an idea out to the team? Just drop a line in the watercooler thread and see what folks think. It works remarkably well.
We asked several of our team members to share some of their thoughts and experience on WFH:
As a recovering engineer, I’m used to “social distancing.” You know the joke: How can you tell an engineer with an outgoing personality? He stares at *your* shoes when he talks. When you’re working from home, even that is not an option.
I’ve telecommuted and/or worked from home for 20 years, since even before joining Electronic Engineering Journal. The relative quiet and lack of interruptions make it easier to concentrate and focus on lengthy projects. Before, I’d often shut my office door and close the blinds just to avoid interruptions and concentrate on my code. It didn’t always work; one coworker evidently took this as a sign to stick his head into my office and share the latest gossip. Nothing would make him leave. I don’t miss that.
On the other hand, the daily commute was my only chance to listen to the radio. Now, I don’t hear the news or get exposed to any new music. That background noise had a subtle but perpetual updating effect. Working from home also means you eat lunch at the same place every day.
The same goes for office “water cooler conversations.” There’s no unofficial communication channel when you’re by yourself. Working from home, you don’t overhear the latest talk (good or bad), which means you miss out on breaking events, minor updates, or just the general tone of the office. It’s remarkable how much unofficial conversation we absorb just by being around other people, and much of it is important. There’s a reason people invented office buildings. Email, chat, Slack, and phone calls don’t quite fill the gap, so there’s a subtle sense of isolation that comes with WFH.
I’ve made a career out of being the dumbest guy in the room. Working around brilliant engineers, scientists, managers, entrepreneurs, and executives rubs off on you. Now, I’m still the dumbest guy in the room, but there’s nobody to absorb wisdom from anymore. That makes it even more important to reach out to others via whatever channels you prefer. It’s important to hear other voices, not just the ones in your head. Staying inside your isolation chamber risks missing out on important technical — and social — contact.
Theoretically, I’ve been working out of a “home office” for the past 10 years. In reality, I rent a one-room office in a building downtown. This is a three-office suite with a small reception area, a tiny kitchen (sink, microwave), and a shared conference room. Phones and Internet are thrown in for free. Personally, I like to arrive at the office before 8:00am and not leave until 5:00pm (oftentimes I get there earlier and leave later), because that way it seems like I have a real job (LOL). The only other guy in the office is 72-year-old Bob who is a business broker (he helps people buy and sell businesses).
There are so many facets to this. On the one hand, it’s nice to get to the office and say “Hi” to Bob and grab a cup of coffee. I also use the commute times in the morning and evening to listen to the National Public Radio (NPR) and catch up on the news. Every now and then throughout the day, when I come to a natural break, I might amble into Bob’s office and — if he’s not busy — spend a few minutes chatting. I usually work straight through the day, but on Fridays Bob and I go out to lunch and chat about “this and that.”
On the other hand, if we had enough room at our house for me to have a real office, I might well be tempted to work from home, thereby saving the rent and the commute. However, my 25-year-old son has commandeered the study, and my wife (Gina the Gorgeous) uses the guest bedroom as her office, so I’m left with the dining room or the breakfast nook.
One thing about my office is that everything is laid out just the way I like it. I have three 28” monitors forming a single desktop, and I use every inch of that space. I also have a huge number of books (a mix of technical and science fiction) and graphic novels that I keep in my office. Furthermore, I also have a lot of “flashing LED” projects, like my Prognostication Engine, that have been deemed unsuitable for home display. So my office is like a little bubble of “Max’s World” (where the flowers are more colorful and smell sweeter, the butterflies are bigger and brighter, the birds sing louder, and the beer runs plentiful and cold).
I do occasionally work from home. In fact, I’m working at the kitchen table as I pen these words, waiting for the delivery of a new freezer, with my laptop connected to a 34” curved screen that cost me a fortune when I bought it and that you can now buy for peanuts from SAM’s club (not that I’m bitter). By some strange quirk of fate, the reason we ordered the freezer a week ago was the COVID-19 situation and the possibility of a prolonged period of WFH. Once the freezer has been installed, we are going to stock it up with emergency supplies (following a previous encounter with tornadoes, we also have an emergency generator that automatically kicks in if power is lost to the house).
One problem with working from home is the little interruptions. I can tune-out background noise like televisions or music or people cooking (if all else fails, I have a set of industrial sound-muffling earmuffs — the sort of things people use when running a jackhammer). It’s when I have to engage with people in conversation that I have an issue. Gina is a realtor and often works from home. I’ll be slogging away, writing an article or a whitepaper, mind-melded with my computer, and she’ll stick her head around the corner saying something like, “Do you know where I put the clean tea towels?” I’ll drag my head away from the computer, look at her with a manic expression and bloodshot eyes, and say, “What?” (It’s not the number of words; it’s the way I say it that counts.) She’ll then say, “I was just asking a question, there’s no need to be snippy,” and disappear again. I’ll return my attention to the screen, which now appears to be full of Egyptian hieroglyphs. So I’ll start reading what I’ve written from the beginning, gradually getting back into my “groove,” until — just as I start writing again — I’ll hear Gina trilling away in the background saying, “It’s OK, I found them!” Arrggghhhh (and I say that with love).
I’m sorry. Much like my dear old mother, the real trick is to get me to stop talking. The bottom line is that I could happily WFH all the time if I had a separate room I could devote to being an office. However, I do like the routine of arriving at my real office at 8:00am (or earlier) and leaving it at 5:00pm (or later), and I do like having Bob to chat with about myriad topics that have not (thus far) involved the location of clean tea towels.
I have worked from home for the last fourteen years. In that time, I have learned three valuable lessons.
Set boundaries: Let’s start with the hardest one first – setting appropriate boundaries. When I first worked at EE Journal, I did not have children so it was easier to wake up when I wanted to and then work well into the evening. Now that I have children, this has shifted to an earlier start but has made the need for distinct work/home boundaries more important than ever. For instance, I try to no longer work past five in the evening. If I absolutely need to, I will work after they go to bed. In a similar vein, I no longer feel guilty if the house isn’t clean at the end of my day. No one would get mad at you if your cubicle wasn’t completely clean at the end of the day…
I found that because my house is also my office, solid boundaries are vital to maintain balance in my personal and professional life.
Be flexible: Just because you work from home, does not mean you HAVE to only work from home.
One of the best parts of our WFH business is how many systems we employ that are cloud based. I can’t count the number of times I have completed a task on my phone at the dentist office or looked up an answer while waiting in line at the grocery store. Overall, if you are nimble, flexible and put everything at the tips of your fingers as much as possible – working from “home” can be very productive no matter where you are.
Side note: I actually wrote this piece on my phone while taking my husband to a doctor’s appointment. So yes, I do practice what I preach.
Engage in self care: I’m a people person. Working from home for the last fourteen years has definitely had its emotional ups and downs. I have found that a key to working at home is maintaining a strong sense of self care. In a normal office situation, you are encouraged to take breaks and socialize – this is something often missed at home. Frankly, working at home can be lonely. My solutions for this include going to the gym most mornings, going for a walk in the afternoon, occasionally working from coffee shops, and volunteering at my son’s school. Another important aspect of this idea of self care – is allowing yourself NOT to work. I can work at home even though I’m sick or one of my sons are sick – but maybe I shouldn’t.
Side note: After the birth of my first child, people would always say to me “so you work from home…. so your son is staying at home with you as well?! That’s so great!” Um no. Both of my children have gone to all day preschool/daycare while I work at home. My job is much too complicated and takes too much concentration to have my children at home with me on a regular basis. I feel keeping them home with me would be a disservice to both myself and my sons. For me, “Taking Your Kids To Work Day” is every day there is no school.
In my experience, WFH is insanely more productive than regular office work. You adopt a task-based working mindset instead of a time-based one. Instead of being “at the office” for regularly scheduled hours, you’re instead working your way through tasks in whatever time it takes to do them (which if often much more efficient at home instead of in an office with regular interruptions) and on a schedule that works for you. Being able to do things like work until 2am when I have a full head of steam on a project and then leaving at 3pm to take an afternoon walk in the park the next day allows me to work when I’m most productive and recharge when I most need it and my tasks are completed faster.
Being both “always at work” and “always at home” means you have to be comfortable setting boundaries. (This can be especially true for me as EEJ’s lone team member in the East Coast time zone, where people often want to chat with me right when I start to make dinner.) Fostering a collaborative, understanding environment among the team is important in allowing people to set the necessary boundaries for their work/life balance. All team members should be comfortable with asynchronous communication and trust that their teammates are covering all their bases (even if they aren’t immediately available to chat).
Coordination with other team members is key to a WFH office. Systems that allow everyone on a given project to check-in regularly (in addition to less formal asynchronous communication) are incredibly helpful. (Weekly email on a given ongoing project or google spreadsheets that are scrupulously updated, for example).
WFH can seem like an isolated “go it alone” operation, but it is actually best when it’s more collaborative. Support, trust, and communicate with your team.
Perhaps the most valuable part of WFH is the flexibility it gives employees to take care of everyday, necessary tasks. Running errands or making phone calls during business hours used to be a point of stress, but WFH has allowed me to take care of those things without having to navigate asking permission or making special plans to leave the office. I used to always worry, “am I asking my manager for too much, too often?” Now, I can take care of work and my personal responsibilities without feeling like I’m letting anyone down.
But working from home can also be tricky. Below are a few learnings I’ve gathered after two years fully WFH:
Watch “availability” creep: When your office is fully digital and never really “closed,” you can easily slide into constantly checking your email or Slack channel, and never fully stepping away to recharge. Communication with your colleagues can be incredibly helpful to avoiding this. By communicating your next steps, schedule, and availability proactively, it not only helps the team function more smoothly, but it also lets you actually step away from work and achieve the “balance” we’re all after.
Invest in workplace relationships: Building relationships takes a little more effort in a WFH setting. Hobbies and outside interests are key to your social health, but you still need to have working relationships with the people on the other end of the IM or email. Make sure you are checking in on your colleagues and getting to know them on a human level. It will build trust – which is foundational in times of stress or when the team is working through an obstacle.
Remember self-care: WFH is great because it means you don’t have to get ready for the day and spend emotional energy making yourself “office-presentable.” WFH is hard for the very same reason. It gets a little too easy to wear your pajamas all day and lose track of life outside of your computer screen. To keep this from happening, find those morning routines that work for you and stick to them. Start with getting dressed and scheduling lunch – you’d be amazed the difference it makes.
After working from home for almost 20 years now, I hope I never need to go to an office again. It can be tempting at first to treat WFH like a vacation, but once the novelty wears off and if you’re able to carve out a space of your own and keep the distractions at bay, it can be far more productive than being in an office environment.
At home, I have much more freedom to craft a work schedule that works for my personality and working style. Additionally, five months of the year my WFH is actually a WFB (Boat), as I travel the Inside Passage to Alaska and back each summer, and I would certainly never get that view from a cubicle!
I can have breakfast at 11am. I can fit my workout in whenever I feel motivated (well, and even when I don’t). I can spend the first part of the day working on a painting and then start redesigning our media kit at 2pm and work ’til 2am if I’m on a roll. I can wear my slippers all day. I can practice ukulele at lunch…at my desk! The benefits are endless.
I’m retired from teaching, and my copy editing job for EE Journal is perfect. I did a lot of traveling in the early days of EE Journal, and I loved being able to edit articles from wherever in the world I might find myself (although my purpose in leaving home was not really to “find myself.”) Now I have a heavy schedule of playing bridge, and being able to edit articles around that has been great!
I like that I can also travel to visit family members and still get my work done in a timely fashion.