Nearly seven years ago, I began working remotely when I moved my family from Auburn, Washington to St. George, Utah. I knew a few people who worked from home, but the practice wasn't as accepted in 2013 as it is today. Given my background in software, I spent a few weeks researching the tools that I'd need to make the transition to a home office. That I worked for a tech savvy manager and owner at Puget Systems, helped immensely, and both showed a lot of patience as I worked through gathering the right hardware and software tools to do my job.
With a few years under my belt now, I decided to jot down a few lessons I've learned since 2013. Given the global pandemic we are all facing, I understand many of you are forced to work at home with little or no time to plan your transition. With many schools shut down, parents are trying to juggle working from home along with keeping their children engaged in an online school curriculum. It's a challenge even with time to prepare.
I wrote a post back in 2013 that focused on the hardware and software tools I used at home, and it mostly stands up well today. I'm still using my trusty Puget Systems Serenity Pro with a few minor upgrades. By far the biggest change to my workflow came a few years ago when every employee at Puget Systems was given a Slack account. It's easy for remote employees to feel "out the loop" when the water-cooler chatter disappears. Slack has helped me reconnect with employees in departments outside my own as well as decrease time I spend in email. Slack can be a distraction if you don't manage it. But, overall, it's been an indispensable communication tool.
I consider these products and services to be the foundation on which to build an effective home office.
- Stable, Fast Internet – I live in a small town, but I still have at least three options for internet. Moving from DSL to cable internet has increased my internet speed and reliability. It costs twice as much as I was paying with DSL, but the savings become irrelevant if the service is unreliable. I pay a bit more for a business account which gives me a static IP along with same day service and scheduled downtime notifications. You can have the ideal home office, but without stable and fast internet, none of it will matter.
- Reliable Computer – As your primary tool, your PC should provide excellent performance and reliability. I ran out and purchased a laptop the first year I began working from home. I would have been better off putting that money into purchasing a second or third monitor and upgrading my PCs storage. Now that you're the acting IT manager of your home office, invest in a workstation that doesn't need much babysitting. If I were to purchase a new system today, this is the model I would buy.
- Comfortable Desk & Chair – That $100 office chair at Staples might work for a few months, but you'll end up paying more for cheap chairs rather than investing in a quality model from the start. I found a heavy-duty chair on sale at Best Buy for $400 that's held up well going on four years now. I ended up purchasing a desk on the cheap from a local company that was going out of business. It's not fancy, but it's comfortable and provides enough space to handle three monitors.
Before I invest in peripherals such as headsets, printers, mice, and keyboards, I would make sure I have these items nailed down. They might be the most boring components of a home office, but it's hard to work efficiently if one of them is not working properly.
These are the lessons I've learned over the past few years. These are practices I wish I had considered when I began working from home. You live and you learn!
- Plan your Week – I used to plan for the month. Then I tried planning for two weeks. Your mileage may vary, but I found planning my tasks for the week has been the most effective for me. My routine includes looking over my calendar and notes every Sunday afternoon and putting together a list of tasks I must complete for the week. I then fill in tasks I'd like to complete, leaving room for meetings or unplanned events that pop up.
- Maintain a Task List – The tool you use is less important than the habit you build in keeping track of your tasks. I've used Google Docs, Microsoft Excel, and a few mobile apps at one time or another. I've finally settled on Evernote, mostly because it works best with my workflow. I take a lot of notes while on the phone and Evernote does a good job of organizing those notes and keeping me on task during the day. Find a product that works for you because the best one is the one you'll actually use each day.
- Keep to a Schedule – I try to be at my computer about the same time my coworkers are in the office. This makes it simple to jump on a call if needed or ping a coworker on Slack to chat. I've also sound that keeping a regular schedule helps my children and spouse know when I'm available. As a backup, I purchased this door sign to help cut down on the distractions during conference calls and let them know it's OK to come in.
I've been blessed to work for an employer that hasn't tried to dictate how I work remotely. He's given me the freedom to experiment with my schedule and the tools I use. Sometimes I feel more connected to my team than at other times. Participating in meetings over Zoom works well for the most part, but it's still not as easy to be heard in those meetings if there are more than a few participants. I still struggle at times taking breaks from my work, and I get to the end of the day and realize I skipped a meal. By far my biggest challenge today is that sometimes I feel isolated and just want to be around people! I miss the person to person interactions.
When I begin to feel frustration setting in, I put on my walking shoes, grab my AirPods and go for a 30 minute walk. Stepping away for a short time allows me to clear my head and take a break from what's not working. Sometimes the distractions are too much with five kids at home during the summer that I'll grab my laptop and work from the library or coffee shop. Unfortunately, getting away to a public place isn't doable right now with the social distancing measure in place.
But working remotely has worked remarkably well over the past seven years. What tools or tips have you found?