As the world adjusts to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many workers are being asked or told to isolate themselves and work from home, if at all possible. For members of the Red Hat Open Source Program Office, and indeed, many of our colleagues within Red Hat, this is not a new working environment. Indeed, many free and open source software projects are often created in distributed online environments, where contributors are often located in homes, schools, and offices around the world.
To help those of you who may be new to this whole work-from-home thing, here are some successful strategies that have served many Red Hatters well as remote employees. Recognizing that these are not remotely normal conditions in the world now, this post will also outline specific strategies for those coping with social distancing measures in their own homes.
One of the biggest problems for folks who are new to work from home (WFH) situations is the blending of work and personal lives. It’s all well and good to say “I’m going to work on the couch today,” and for a day or two that will work. But if you are doing WFH for a longer period of time, you will likely soon see a fall off in productivity as the novelty of WFH wears off.
Instead, you need to do things to help get your head in more of a professional mode. Because many people are finding themselves in a WFH situation alongside family members who are also in the home at the same time, this professional mode is more of a guideline than a rule right now The best way to describe the mental space you should strive to achieve is not that you’re working from home in an emergency, but you’re in an emergency trying to work from home, which is a big difference. Don’t try to duplicate your office patterns… even in a normal environment, that’s not going to work. Give yourself the flexibility to take breaks and work in shorter bursts. Some of Red Hat’s remote employees have also found these general tactics to help create a stronger mental work attitude.
Have a designated workspace. It is easier to separate your work and personal lives if you have a space in your home you can set aside for just work. Make it any place in the house you can, but make it yours.
Establish a strategy for anyone else at home. It is very easy to see you present in the house and want to ask you a question or intrude on your space. Set up a strategy so you can keep your mutual disturbances to a minimum. Remembering that everyone is in this same boat, try to work in shifts on respective jobs and dependent care.
Get dressed. This is one you might hear a lot, but it’s true. Schlepping to work in your PJs may sound comfy, but it doesn’t help you get into a work mode. You don't have to put on a suit and tie, but you should wear something that puts you in a work mindset. And look out for when your manager’s manager wants a quick video chat.
Setting up where you work, as mentioned in the previous section, is a critical component to making a successful WFH plan. But how you set that space up is at least as important. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but some time should be spent on making it your own space.
Create a healthy space. The human body was not really designed for sitting around all day in front of a screen. And yet, here many of us are. So, it’s important to make any work environment conducive to your body’s needs. Recognize aches and twinges for what they are: warning signs that your body is not happy with its position or environment. There are lots of ergonomic specialists and references available, but the main point is, pay attention to your work area and don’t settle for an uncomfortable work area. Be mindful of the 20-20-20 rule, too: for every 20 minutes spent looking at a screen, you should look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
Get good equipment. If you do this WFH thing for very long, you should check to see if your company has a policy for helping you update your equipment. Equipment you should focus on should include a good set of headphones with a microphone, for online conferences.
Built in cameras on monitors and laptops should do the trick, though pick up a camera cover for your set up, too. You’re going to have to strike a balance between decent equipment and super-expensive hardware, too. You don’t want to empty your wallet for high-end equipment that you won’t be permanently using, but nor should you settle for poorly functioning equipment, either. Do your research and be aware that the market demand on any WFH equipment is much higher than normal now.
Take breaks. When you’re home alone and really focused, you can find yourself pulling a lot of hours on your tasks. This is great, but remember to take breaks once in a while. They probably happen more than you think at work, when someone stops by to chat or you go get a snack. Make sure you do that kind of thing at home, too. It will help keep your body and mind fresh.
The number one question people ask when you are WFH is something along the lines of “how do you get anything done? I would be in front of the TV all day.” After working at home for nearly two decades, I can safely say that being distracted is not the problem. Using your time wisely is.
Set your work hours. Whether it’s 8-5, 7-4, or whatever hours you need to do to accommodate your work schedule and that of your housemates, set your hours and stick to them. It is very very tempting to pick up your laptop in the living room and think “I’ll just check some email to get ahead for tomorrow.” And then you’ve lost two hours of family or personal time. If you’re done at 5, you’re done at 5. If your colleagues or managers seem to be ignoring that because they think you can work “whenever” now, gently reinforce the idea that you’re off the clock. Even if it means not answering messages after hours.
Schedule meal breaks. When you’re home, presumably alone, it’s not too hard to skip lunch. Once in a while, you might have to. But don’t make a habit out of it. Take some time to walk away, get something to eat, and relax.
Plan comp time. One of the benefits of WFH is that you can afford to be flexible. If you need to run to the store or pick up a kid from school, go ahead and build that into your schedule. Block the time out on an online calendar so no one from work claims it. If you need to start work early or work a little later, do that. Just don’t be constrained to one solid block of work if you don’t have to be.
Working from home can be just as productive as working in an office environment for many people. Planning how it will work best for you is a needed step, especially if you’ve never done it before.
And one more, slightly non-productive tip: don’t be afraid to socialize. Get on a call, video conference or chat once in a while and just talk about whatever. Some of my closest friends are always a chat message away. WFH should not be isolating. We are still social creatures, wherever we find ourselves.