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Resilient sysadmin: 5 tips for success in a remote work environment

Here are five in-the-trenches tips on how to cope with your work from home life.
5 tips for success in a remote work environment
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I'm sitting here one month into 2021 and I was thinking about the challenges that we faced in 2020 and how resilient the tech industry has been. The industry is nothing without the people who do the work. So that got me thinking, "How are people doing?"

Many of us were thrust into 100 percent remote roles recently and that's created its fair share of challenges. However, the switch was anything but negative. There were also some amazing benefits to employee work/life balance, as well as an increase in efficiency (no commute times) for many. Even subtle changes, like improved inclusion of our normally-remote coworkers and time for health and fitness, were added bonuses.

[ You might also like: How remote work can work for sysadmins ]

These were just some of my thoughts on the matter, so I reached out to several of my professional contacts to get some more perspective on this new normal that we are living in. It seems as though many companies are going to continue this remote trend for the time being, so I thought we could gain some insight into creating a productive work environment as well as general observations over the last year.

Team inclusion

Amy Marrich, Principal Technical Marketing Manager, Red Hat

I think the move to a fully remote workforce has actually been beneficial, especially for previously remote workers. In the past, remote workers missed out on a lot of discussions as people tend to go find someone at their desk, run into them in the hall, etc., and this leaves remote workers out of the loop on many discussions. So this is more of a suggestion for when things go back to normal. If you are not on a fully remote team or often work with others who are either remote or in another office, send an email to everyone who has a stake in the conversation or ask the question in a chat channel. That way, even if a question is answered or a decision is made between a few people, others will learn from the response and be kept in the loop on a decision. And if someone doesn't respond immediately, keep in mind, they might have stepped away or are focusing on another window, screen, tab, etc.

Best equipment you can afford

Joerg Kastning, Sysadmin, Bielefeld University

Until March 2020, I spent almost every working day in the office, which is a 40-minute drive from my home. Now I've been working remotely from home for nearly a year. And I love it. Switching to remote work was easy for me because I worked remotely in the past, and the University provided all tools necessary to start working remotely on short notice. I guess I'm one of the lucky people who have a dedicated room to use as a remote working space. It helps you to concentrate during working hours, and you have a door you can close when you switch to personal time.

For a good working from home experience, I would recommend a headset for video conferencing (it's worth its weight in gold), a good chair, and an electrical height adjustable desk. Because your coworkers can't see you, they don't know whether you are on duty or have a break, so use the status features most chat and video conferencing tools offer. Block time for your lunch break in your calendar so that you won't get any appointments during lunchtime. You may even develop some simple rituals to help your mind switching from job mode to personal time mode.

Use commute time for yourself

Peter Gervase, Associate Solutions Architect, Red Hat

Before moving to the SA role, I was in consulting for four years, where I was full-time work-from-home. For me, having to go back to working-from-work was a challenge, so I have loved going back to WFH. I already had my office set up with my monitors and my nice chair. When I was in consulting, my customer was fully remote, and so were my coworkers, so "remote" was our normal. I can imagine that for those who are used to and thrive on being surrounded by people, physical isolation could be a challenge. To help address that, being active in mailing lists, chat rooms, and team meetings would help. As for the working environment, having a dedicated space is important, or else you could easily struggle to "finish" work for the day. Wake up at your normal time, eat a healthy breakfast, and get ready for your day just like you normally would. If you find yourself with 30-60 minutes of extra free time since you're not fighting traffic driving to work, go exercise, clean a room in your house, or do something else that's productive.

Keep work separate from home

Jonathan Roemer, Associate Manager of Containers and Hybrid Cloud, Datto

Having worked from home for about five years, I made plenty of missteps along the way. For me, more important than anything is preserving the sacredness of my non-work time and space. The psychological impact of mixing your work and home is nontrivial, and this extends beyond the physical working area.

My work area started as a small corner desk in my bedroom, away from the window and only about a foot from the end of the bed. Though I didn't realize it at the time, having all of my work materials in the bedroom, even turned off, would set my mind racing and thinking about the next workday just as I was supposed to be winding down for the evening. Whenever possible, dedicate work areas that are outside of the bedroom, or have a "turn down" procedure at the end of the workday where all notebooks and paperwork are put into a drawer and out of sight. In the same way, your commute puts an emotional cap on the end of the workday, do the same with this sort of routine and ensure that work cannot intrude on your day before tomorrow's morning bell.

We've all known the person who can't go on vacation without still responding to work emails. With the explosion of synchronous messaging tools, this sense of immediacy has only increased. Many companies expanded these tools into other areas of the organization without best practices in place, meaning considerations like time zones or lunch breaks are quickly forgotten. If possible, for your job role, set up notification policies whereby you only get push notifications during your working hours. I find that if I have work messaging tools installed on my phone, I am compelled to check them on nights and weekends, so I do not install them on my personal devices at all. While less convenient, being in a better place emotionally makes me far more productive than that minor convenience ever could.

Take care of yourself

Anthony Critelli, Sr. Systems Engineer I - Lead, Datto

The COVID-19 pandemic has been my first experience being fully remote. I've had positions in the past with limited remote flexibility, but this has been the first time when I am truly, 100% based out of my home. I must say: I love it!

While there are certain aspects of the office that I miss (personal interaction with coworkers, snacks, the space itself), I've found that working from home really works out well for me. My office space is quiet and set up exactly how I like it. I'm able to take occasional walks throughout the day to clear my head, and I've been eating healthier since I have the resources to prepare a real meal for lunch. As I reflected on this past year during my recent self-review, I realized that my productivity hasn't suffered at all. In fact, I think I've provided even more value for my organization since I've been working from home than I did previously.

Many people worry about the separation between work and home life when being fully remote, and I admit that I was also concerned about this. Thankfully (and surprisingly), I haven't had too much trouble with this. When my workday is done, I simply close my laptop and call it a day. I'll admit that I'm not perfect: Sometimes I'll scroll email on my phone while watching TV at night, or pop onto my laptop for a few minutes to take care of something. Thankfully, these are rare occurrences, and my manager is great about allowing me to gain back some of this time.

[ New research from HBR Analytic Services - IT talent strategy: New tactics for a new era

Practical takeaways

After hearing from the experts, what are the main points or strategies that we can integrate into our remote lives? Here are five of my favorite tips from my exchange with the authors:

  1. Be inclusive to your entire team when asking questions. This way, no one is excluded and insights are not siloed away.
  2. Ensure that you have the best home office equipment that you can afford. We spend hours per day using this stuff and it really can make a difference in who you are after hours.
  3. Use your normal commute time to do something good for yourself (exercise, have breakfast with your family, get caught up on reading, etc.).
  4. At the end of your workday, unplug. Don't check your emails after hours, mute chat alerts, etc. It really is important to differentiate between work and personal time.
  5. Try to set up a designated work area so that you can more easily focus on tasks while you are there and can relax elsewhere.
Topics:   Linux administration   Career  
Author’s photo

Tyler Carrigan

Tyler is the Sr. Community Manager at Enable Sysadmin, a submarine veteran, and an all-round tech enthusiast! He was first introduced to Red Hat in 2012 by way of a Red Hat Enterprise Linux-based combat system inside the USS Georgia Missile Control Center. More about me

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