Working from home is not something new to me – I have been so for 1-2 days a week since the birth of my first daughter 4 years ago. With the all the COVID-19 quarantining going on in Washington state, however, I have now been working out of my home office for the last 3 weeks. In the spirit of helping those who are either working from home for the first time, or simply not used to doing so full time, I thought I would share my setup and strategies on how to be productive from home.
First, however, a little background on myself and what I do at Puget Systems. Currently, I am the senior technician in our Labs department where our goal is to understand the workflows of our customers on a deep level as well as developing benchmarks that allow us to determine how the latest and greatest hardware performs in the real work. This means that most of my day is spent programming or researching, both of which are fairly easy to do from home. Being able to benchmark hardware, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated.
My home office setup
I am very fortunate to have a good sized, well lit, office space (roughly 9' x 11'), of which half is reserved for myself. The other half is an explosion of crayons, coloring books, puzzles, and other activities for my daughters who are two and four years old – which I will talk about a bit later in this post.
My workstation itself is nothing all that special:
- Intel Core i5 7600K 4 core
- NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070
- 16GB of RAM
- Samsung 850 Evo 1TB
- Antec Mini P180 Chassis
However, since I primarily use it for programming, compiling/analyzing data in Excel, writing articles, email, conference calls, and general research on the web, it is more than powerful enough to handle what I need. What makes the bigger difference for my personal productivity is the peripherals I use:
- 27" 2560×1440 primary display (Asus MG279Q)
- 24" 1920×1080 secondary display (Asus VE248)
- Das Keyboard 4 Professional mechanical keyboard
- Logitech G400 wired mouse
- Cheap Logitech speakers (I use a headset 99% of the time)
- Corsair H1500 Headset
- Logitech HD Pro Webcam C920
There are a few things that are a bit different with my setup than many others in the tech industry. The first is that I prefer wired peripherals over wireless. I really don't mind cords all that much as long as I have them neat and tidy, but I absolutely hate having something run low on battery at an inopportune time. Second, I have tried ultra-wide displays, but I keep coming back to the more traditional dual or triple screen options. Being able to snap windows easily to more locations is something I am constantly using, and I simply prefer having a standard screen as my "focus" display with other things like Slack or folders off to the side on the second display.
The hurdles of working from home
Everyone is going to have different issues when it comes to working from home, but the one that is easily the most difficult for me and my family is the fact that my oldest daughter can't go to preschool (which means she is stir crazy) and that half of my office is an activity space that my kids are used to having free reign to.
With my headset, I can pretty effectively block out the screams and yelling that is the result of the kids bouncing off the walls, but it definitely took a few weeks for them to adjust to not being able to barge into the office at any time. This simply got better over time as they got used to it, but there have been a few times I'm sure people on a conference heard the door bang open and a little girl's head pop into frame. Luckily, this is something a ton of people are dealing with right now, so everyone seems to be very understanding when on calls.
The second hurdle is one that we thankfully have already been working on solutions for: being able to test and benchmark different hardware configurations remotely. The solution to this is two-part and something I have had as a personal project for a few months now. First, we have a custom-built benchmark daemon utility that allows us to remotely send "jobs" to all of our test platforms that can install/uninstall applications, run benchmarks, and log the results to a network folder that we have access to over a VPN. It also can send us Slack messages with the results as well as any problems that it encountered.
When we need direct access to the systems (to test benchmark updates, change BIOS settings, etc), our primary test platforms are all hooked up to 4K KVM-OVER-IP units – specifically the Raritan DOMINION KX IV-101. These units required a bit of setup by our IT department to sort out web certificates and the like, but they are extremely useful and the video quality is terrific. Since they are a hardware-based solution rather than software-based one (like TightVNC, Windows Remote Desktop, etc), we have the same access to the machines as if we were sitting in front of them. We can remotely power them on and off, change the BIOS settings, adjust the display resolution up to UHD (3840×2160), and works on Windows, MacOS, and Linux. Even better, they have no impact on system performance, so there is no concern about them affecting our benchmark results.
Between our benchmark daemon and the ipKVM units, we have about as good of access to our test platforms as we can get remotely. Swapping hardware obviously requires us to pop into the office, but beyond that we can pretty easily keep up with any hardware testing we need to do.
Tips & Tricks
There are a ton of posts out there with tips for working from home, so I am going to skip over all of the perfectly valid – but common – ones. Instead, I am going to share a few that really helped me, even if they may not apply to you.
1) Try to get your home setup as close as possible to your setup at your office. I am primarily talking about your keyboard, mouse, and displays. I don't just mean having the same keyboard/mouse models either – I actually found it more helpful than I want to admit to have my desk and monitors the exact same height as the ones I have at the office. Until I actually got someone to measure the height and spacing of things at the office (thanks Kelly!) and send them to me, I was constantly feeling just a tad bit off while working. It ended up that my desk at home was 1" too high, and my monitors 1.5" high, but just that tiny adjustment was enough for typing and working for long periods to feel normal.
2) Set a solid "clock out" time and resist the urge to continue working. I had the problem for a while of stopping working around 5pm, but going back into my home office after dinner to finish up "just one more thing". Having the flexibility to start up an extra benchmark run, or fix a small and annoying bug in my code at any time is one of the most powerful parts of working from home for me, but I had to set some hard limits to keep from ending up working 10-12 hour days and neglecting my family.
3) Give your family extra one-on-one time. As bad as it is for myself to go days and weeks without leaving the house and seeing other people, I am fortunate that I have a mental outlet for myself though my work. My kids and wife, however, are adjusting to not seeing other people or being able to go to parks, the pool, the store, or really anywhere beyond our backyard and walks around the neighborhood. So, while I may still be mentally drained after a long day, giving my kids some extra time either playing or working on projects together in the afternoon has been beneficial for everyone.
Overall, I feel very fortunate that shifting to working from home is not as big of a deal for myself as it is for many others. No matter how well you are set up to work from home, however, everyone is affected by the social distancing and shut down of many stores, parks, and services. But as Red of the great Red Green show says "I'm pullin' for ya. We're all in this together."