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Feeling remote

As the COVID-19 virus makes its way around the world, many of us are working remotely from home. In So far away: Distributed development, I discuss challenges and mitigations for teams divided by distance. While our current situation has many similarities, there is one crucial difference: Every team member is working apart from the others. When everyone works remotely, the experience is smoother and more efficient than when only one or two team members work separately—you’re all equally impaired and accommodating.

Although work projects are easier when everyone shares the same circumstances, working from home for a prolonged period requires substantial adjustments to your life and the life of your family, particularly if your kids are home with you. Most folks have worked from home for short periods, but multiple weeks at home is quite different. That kitchen desk isn’t very comfortable on the third day. Your makeshift office gets crowded. Your home laptop isn’t quite a dev machine. You miss socializing with co-workers. Meetings are so different (good and bad). You love your children, but uh, well, um, I mean, it’s tough.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of advice available on the intranet and internet on working more comfortably and effectively from home. While much of it is common sense, some suggestions are subtle yet invaluable. I’ve collected my favorites for you, with a focus on the unintuitive insights.

It’s not very comfortable, is it?

When you’re working from home for weeks, you need a separate, comfortable workspace. Sharing a small room with a spouse or roommate is problematic unless you’re working on the same project. (It’s just as awful as working in open space, as I describe in Lost in space.) In addition, sitting, reaching, and typing awkwardly becomes a health issue over time.

Establish your own spot away from others. A room with a door is ideal, but a corner of a large room where you can face away from the clamor will do. Set up a desk that’s high enough so that when you’re seated, your legs can bend at the knee at a 90-degree angle without bumping it; then use an adjustable chair that meets your ergonomic needs. Get a decent keyboard, mouse, and monitor, and you’re set. If you use multiple monitors at work, do the same at home. (At Microsoft, you can borrow these items from the office or use your Stay Fit benefit to pay for them, including the desk or chair.) If your workspace is noisy, grab some noise-canceling headphones—not ideal, but they’re pretty good these days.

Unfortunately, a comfortable workspace isn’t enough to make you comfortable. People need routines to make their lives easier, predictable, and productive. Keep your morning ritual of getting dressed and going to work, even if work is down the hall—this helps you and your family make the transition. Set a schedule each day that includes breaks for stretching, a healthy snack, looking at a distance to rest your eyes, and perhaps a nice walk or other exercise. Finally, stop checking email and news at least an hour before bedtime—a good habit in general.

We need more power

To stay productive at home over time, you need some upgrades. You can use a home laptop to check email, attend a meeting, complete a training, or track down a live site issue. However, if you’re doing development, you need to take your work machine home or connect to it using Remote Desktop. Remote Desktop is particularly handy if your home internet connection has bandwidth restrictions—just ensure that Remote Desktop is enabled on your work machine and that machine’s power settings are set to never sleep.

Networking is just as critical at home as at work, but you’re the IT person at home. Reboot your modem and wireless router once a week—they are computers, they need a reboot. If you’re in a pinch, tether your device to your iPhone‘s or Android’s internet connection.

Last but not least, give yourself goals each day. Keep a short list of home and work items to complete, then track their completion—this keeps you organized and makes you feel productive. Some folks like using a personal Kanban board.

Failure to communicate

Communication is the biggest challenge when teammates are apart. Fortunately, we’ve got great communication tools these days, from Microsoft Teams to Live Share for Visual Studio and VS Code.

Some quick tips:

  • When you ping coworkers over chat or email, include your question in the ping. Online communication is slower and heavier than in-person exchanges, so adding your question to a “hey there” ping saves both of you time and effort.
  • Keep your chat window open during Teams meetings. Folks frequently use it to ask questions and post links.
  • It’s tough to speak up in an online group meeting, so type “h” or “hand raise” in the chat window when you want to speak. (Microsoft Teams just announced a new feature to facilitate this coming later this year.)
  • Lower your voice. Microphones are great these days. You can speak quietly and be understood, without disturbing your housemates or drawing attention to yourself.
  • Turn on video for 1x1s and small meetings. Facial expressions and body language are important in personal communication. Be sure to blur your background if there’s movement behind you. If a child or pet joins you, take a human and humorous moment to introduce them to their new friends before kindly reminding them of the signs that you’re working (details below).
  • Overcommunicate. Mention important events or information multiple times in multiple forums to multiple people. This is the only replacement we have for hallway conversations.
  • Socialize. Being away from co-workers can be isolating. Participate in open group chats, and consider “water cooler” recurring online meetings or online group lunches to socialize with your friends and teammates. If you’re a manager, use 1x1s to check in with people and show you care.

Meddling kids

Many schools are closed, so your kids might be home with you. It’s great to spend more time with your children, but they can be disruptive to your work responsibilities. Unfortunately, you can’t just tell them to go away. Here are some tips.

  • Tell kids that safety is special. All other rules are secondary to safety. You can be interrupted while working or dragged across town in the middle of the night when safety is an issue. Safety first.
  • Share your work schedule and signals. When kids know when you’re working and when you’re taking breaks, they can accommodate you. For younger children, a signal like wearing your headphones or being at your desk is their cue to let you work.
  • Explain why focus is important. If your kids are old enough for homework, remind them of how helpful focus can be and that parents need it too.
  • Tag team with your partner. During the workday, you can schedule meetings and breaks to allow you to switch off parenting duties with your partner. Arrange this in the morning or evening when you set your daily schedule.
  • Weave breaks into your day. As I mentioned earlier, you should schedule breaks for stretching, a quality snack, looking at a distance, and physical activity. Including your children in these breaks is ideal for keeping all of you healthy and sane. Smart devices, like Alexa, can act as a school bell to remind everyone of the schedule.
  • Go home from work. Just as you should get dressed and go to work, you should keep your ritual of finishing work and going home, even when home is down the hall. These rituals help you and your family transition and maintain a sense of normalcy.

We’re not that different

The pandemic is unprecedented in our lifetimes. It’s so difficult to adjust and deal with all the challenges. Yet, it’s possible to create a new normal for you, your roommates, and your family. Establish a separate, comfortable workspace. Maintain your routines of getting ready for work and finishing your workday. Set a daily schedule that weaves in breaks for family time, stretching, and physical activity. Be sure to have enough compute power and networking to be productive. Keep a short list of home and work items to complete each day. Overcommunicate and use our great online collaboration tools to stay in touch. And define rules for your children that keep them safe and cared for, yet let you attend to work.

Every tough situation has a silver lining, and this situation is no different. We’re all gaining new skills and becoming more effective at working remotely. And perhaps most profoundly, we’re developing real empathy and appreciation for our co-workers who’ve been working remotely for years. Someday, circumstances may cause you to work remotely for a while, and the habits you’re forming and knowledge you’re gaining will dramatically improve that experience. This is an amazing time to reconnect.

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2 Comments

  1. corkywicks corkywicks

    Thanks for this. I am teaching Kanban to my information systems students. We are using Asana for out virtual board. Now that we have been forced to move classes online, I am challenged with ways to keep them engaged. Secondly, you talk about automation with continuous deployment, but you did not recommend any tools. I have used Microfocus Unified Functional Testing, but we are also considering Selenium at my day job as a Test Automation Analyst. What does your team at Microsoft use?

    • I.M. Wright I.M. Wright

      We use Azure DevOps (ADO) for CI/CD (true of most Microsoft teams). For testing, we use a variety of systems, including MSTest in ADO. Hope that helps.

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