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10 Tips to Keep yourself Sane while Working from Home (or alone)

Pete Brown - 30 March 2010

When I interviewed for the position on Scott Hanselman's team, one of the questions Scott asked me was if I'd be able to handle working from home, with the isolation that usually entails. Telecommuting (I hate that word) isn't for everyone, so the question was actually very important.

Prior to joining Microsoft in October, I actually worked from home a fair bit. I'd still get out to client meetings and sometimes to the offices, though. There was enough variety to mix it up. I was also a manager, and often managed people who were working alone at a client site or from their homes.

Now, the only times I leave my house on business are when I travel to Redmond or go to a conference.

I've also been working insanely long days every day of the week in order to handle normal work as well as finish my Silverlight 4 Book. That definitely kicks it up a notch. Here are some tips that I've found work for me, as a professional in the software industry.



1. Build a Comfortable Office

My home office is not perfect, but it is pretty comfortable. I have a big semi-circular desk (Ikea), a door that can be shut (essential when you have kids) and a comfortable chair. The room is out of the main flow of traffic, in the basement.

I even have a 55 gallon fish tank behind me. I enjoy the noises from it and having a little green and life in here. Plants would be good too :)

I only have two gripes about this room:

  • There are no windows
  • The washing machine and dryer are too close

I'm going to move my office to the other side of this wall late this year or next. That room will have more space, be custom-built to my needs, and... it'll have a window :) It'll be even more out of the main flow of traffic and won't have any nearby appliances. I need to finish up some other projects around the house before I can do that, though.

That's what you want. You don't want traffic going by the door constantly, and you can't have the distractions of family around you. The corner of the family room definitely won't cut it. The spare bedroom next to the kids rooms is probably not a great choice. But hey, that unused back room in the basement, attic or over the garage might just be the ticket.



2. Up your Bandwidth

I use Verizon FIOS and have business-class service running at 35/35. I needed business class since I run my web site from servers in a rack in the other room. The additional bandwidth also helps with VPN to Redmond, and to uploading videos to channel 9.

One of the best perks of working from home is the bandwidth; it's almost always better than you'd get in an office, and without any netnanny junk either. Get the best you can afford, and don't skimp on upstream, especially if you plan on using Skype and other webcam options from the tips below.



3. Get an Awesome Computer System

Multiple monitors, a comfortable keyboard, good mouse, Cinema HD camera, fast processor, plenty of memory and a nice noise-canceling headset. These are all things that can make a computer more usable and a pleasure to sit in front of.

Get the best you can, and keep it upgraded. One of the frustrations of working in a cube somewhere is you often get stuck with old equipment and low bandwidth. At home, both are fixable problems.



4. Get More than one Awesome Computer System

I have a second machine, supplied by Microsoft. It's a quad core, 8gb machine running 64 bit Windows 7. This is my machine dedicated to connecting to Microsoft. I keep it vpn'd in constantly, and my browser home page is set to our intranet home page. Its display is to the left of my main display, and I use Input Director to share my mouse and keyboard with this machine.

I also use this machine for editing and encoding videos. Having a second machine I can dedicate to those time-consuming tasks makes it easier to multi-task and get more done.

Having the machine connected to my workplace helps me stay connected to Microsoft. If I have to take extra steps to visit our intranet (go, VPN in and then do some other junk), I am far less likely to do it.

Unfortunately, I missed the DirectAccess pilot when I joined, so I can't keep connected without manually vpn'ing in. Instead, I just reconnect whenever I see it disconnect, effectively keeping me online there 24/7.



5. Stay in Touch using Twitter

I'd previously blogged about how I use Twitter. I've found Twitter essential to help me stay connected throughout the day - at least until the next big social platform comes along. It's my water cooler.

Hint to stay sane: Don't follow people who post things that make you angry. Don't give bile a permalink. :) (that's why I rarely if ever mention anything about politics, religion, parenting styles, etc.)



6. Skype and Office Communicator

One of the most important things for me has been to see my team members on camera. I can't stress just how much better communicating is when you can see the face of the person you're talking to. Not only can you be sure they're paying attention (in any given conference call, half the people are doing something other than paying attention to the call), but you make that important human-to-human connection.

Skype is, in general, full of win. I use it when I travel, so I can call my kids and have them see me (again, that connection makes all the difference to them), and I use it here to make free phone calls and also to call people on the camera.

My wife even uses Skype from the laptop upstairs to tell me when dinner is ready :)



7. Shower Every Day

Yeah, you know, shower. When all you need to do to go to work is grab a coffee and shuffle downstairs, it can be tempting just to go and plop your stinky self in your work chair and forget about the rest.

TMI: Showering isn't the first thing I do every day (usually dealing with my email is), but it does need to happen every day.

After all, you need to be ready for those skype and OC calls :)






8. Get out

This is something I often forget to do. Leave the house. Leave the house before your car battery dies and field mice take up residence in your air conditioning system. (Both have happened to me, the mouse thing has happened 3 times).

At the very least, you need to dress up to go out to ensure your clothes still fit. Trust me, sitting on your butt working all day, without even having to walk to your car, does wonders for your figure. (Speaking of which, treadmills and similar are a great idea). I mean, you're working from home, so you're probably wearing sweats or other nice accommodating clothing. Please, don't tell me.

You have flexible hours. Take your kids to the park for a couple hours in the middle of the day, or go to that user group meeting. Run some errands. You want to get out, get some air, and meet other humans face-to-face. Make sure you do this a couple times a week at a minimum, preferably in the daytime.

Some folks like to go and work at the coffee shop or Panera or wherever at least once a week. The plus side is you get out, get good food and air, and get to see people. The downside is you lose your awesome setup and bandwidth. For me, this works only for days when I have non-creative stuff I need to slog through (expenses, q&a etc.)

Want some good advice here? Talk to a stay-at-home mom and see what she does to up the level of human contact.



9. Be Flexible, but be Accessible.

Working from home, especially when there's a time zone difference (3 hours for me) means you should generally consider yourself to be more accessible. That said, my team respects generally accepted working hours for the group (Me, Jesse, Joe and Rey are on the east coast, Scott and Jon are on the west coast, and the product teams are in Redmond, WA). I do make sure that if I leave the house during those hours, I keep my mobile handy and am able to take calls. Communicator lets me forward calls to my mobile; I really should do that.

In any case, in return for the flexibility you're getting by working from home, be accessible. Few things are as frustrating as trying to get in touch with a remote employee when you need something immediate.\

Oh, and don't sneak out. If you're going to be out, let folks on your team know.





10. Point out What You've Done

Out of site is out of mind.

If you want to stay a part of the team, you need to make sure you tell folks what you've done lately. On Scott's team, we have a weekly Monday "what I plan to accomplish this week" email and then a Friday "what I actually did" email that helps for intra-team visibility. In other projects, we've done status calls, or just informal email. It doesn't really matter what form it takes, as long as you can show that you've been productive and that you're actually working.

Let's face it, not every manager is comfortable with a remote team, and not every team member works effectively from home. Sharing this type of information with the whole team helps keep everyone motivated and honest.

At Microsoft, remote employees need to go above and beyond to show what they've done for the teams that are on-site. Microsoft isn't really a culture that supports lots of remote workers; it's more team-by-team basis. Visibility is important.

At my last job, there were only 200+ people who worked there, but most everyone was remote at various client sites or at home. The same thing applied there.


What do you do?

I'm still learning how to make working from home both more efficient and more enjoyable. Share with me any tips you've found work for you or others on your teams.

posted by Pete Brown on Tuesday, March 30, 2010
filed under:        

13 comments for “10 Tips to Keep yourself Sane while Working from Home (or alone)”

  1. Rogersays:
    Good stuff, Pete. I am now nearly a year into working from home. I have a couple of tips:

    -The chair! Do not skimp on a chair. You can find good prices on Craigs List or Ebay (I got a Herman Miller Aeron for $450).
    -Alternate seating. I like to spend about 1/3 of my time sitting on a x-large exercise ball. I find it really helps my posture. I also find that the instability and bounce make you tighten your core muscle groups.
    -Backups! It may go without saying, but perception is important. My home network and infrastructure should seem as good or better to my team and my boss. My backup solution for my pc and work files is very solid. I have a laptop that can take up the slack if I ever have a hardware problem, so I don't have downtime. I love working from home, and I do not want to loose that privledge.

    I totally agree about video chat. I use Skype as frequently as I can versus a phone call, even if the other party does not have a webcam. I think it is imporant to feel a presence you just don't get over email or voice. I have the Microsoft LifeCam Cinema, and it is excellent.

  2. Martin Randallsays:
    What a fantastic article. I've several years experience of working from home and I can certainly relate to a lot of the points. Good office, network and equipment are all essential. The showering tip especially made me smile. I can remember living on my own and working from home and some days I'd look in the mirror and realise that I'd not shaved for a week, and was probably wearing the same sweat outfit that I'd been wearing all week. Not good!

    I would add to your list the importance of routine and staying focussed on results. There are 101 distractions at home that are just not there or not easy to get away with in the office. Watching daytime TV or having a quick World of Warcraft session are all exercises in prevarication!

    Finally, the one down side of working from home is that you are living at work. It is easy to fall into the trap of always being at work so it's important that you set-out time in your life that is most definitely not for working. It's for friends, family or whatever else you enjoy doing when your not pushing buttons.

  3. Darcy Townsonsays:
    I agree that this is a great post. I have worked from home for several different companies now, and find that if you are not careful you could very easily go crazy. One of the things that I think has kept me from going totally insane is the fact I have a few cats that keep me company. Some would argue that talking to cats all day is a sign that you ARE crazy, but I don't think I am there quite yet.

    I find that working from home provides less distractions than when I am in an office because I have less opportunity to turn and talk to the person beside me (or vice versa). My one sin is having the TV on in the background with a news channel tuned in.

    The one thing that I find happening a LOT is that I am working a lot more hours than I would if I was in the office. Luckily I pick my wife up every day from work so I have a hard stop that forces me to get away from the computer, but I find that it is way too easy late in the evening (after my mind has been churning away at a problem for a few hours) to pop in to my office "for a few minutes". Two or three hours later I am usually still going at it.

    The one peice of advice that I think is really good is about the chair. I have a couple of computers in different rooms, one of which hs a much better chair, and I can certainly feel the difference after a short time. This is te one thing I would absolutely NOT skimp on.

  4. Alan Csays:
    I have been telecommuting for 15 years. A couple of quick points about some differences. I am an independent consultant so you really have no team. The Skype and Twitter stuff doesn't matter to us because we are hired guns and employable at will.

    Go out for lunch each day. That provides adult interaction. My wife commutes every other week 2000 miles away so this is an important aspect.

    I mounted a PC on my treadmill so I don't sit coding in my chair all day. I walk at a reasonable pace and program.

    I also go to a cigar club and have a nice cigar while working. That is a good way to get out of the house.

    My keyboard is my life so I invested in a clone of the classic IBM Model M. Great, great keyboard plus it can double for home defense.

    I run quadruple backups including Carbonite.

    For outlets, I am the Pres. of a charity so that keeps me busy and I also help out at the kids school for tech issues. I also run a Google consulting group and stay involved in the tech community through blogs and listservs.

    People think that telecommuting is the greatest thing there is. After doing it for so long, it has its minuses. Adult interaction with people on tech issues is the #1 thing in my book.

  5. Petesays:

    Nope. No servers on the consumer class. They're thinking of offering something in between, but I wouldn't hold my breath. The worst thing about the business class fios is they don't associate your account with the consumer stuff at all (sounds like different systems). It screws them up that I have no business phone number on my account.


    In my previous job, I was a consultant, but not independent. How does the PC/treadmill work out for you? I've tried similar, but found that trying to be productive while moving just wasn't working out. I couldn't focus on the screen or type well.
  6. Petesays:
    Oh, one other thing I'd add under the office is Lighting. I'm a huge fan of full-spectrum (not "daylight") lamps, that have 90+ CRI and a good almost-sunlight spectrum.

    I used to use them on my model railroad, and it made a huge difference in the pictures. When I would open the door to that room, my wife would comment that it looked like sunlight streaming into the hallway. Yes, they were *that* good.

    They make a huge difference in your office too. Plus, if you get the electronic ballasts most of them require, you lose the hum and electrical interference regular fluorescents cause.

  7. Alan Csays:
    A couple of suggestions. Keep the treadmill pace at a slow enough walk that it doesn't interfere with the work (too much). They make trays that fit over the controls and hold the keyboard stable. I mounted a shelf on the wall next to the treadmill at wrist height so I can work the mouse and hold my ice tea. I do 2.5 mph and most days get in 6-10 miles. If I am in a logical crunch, I have to work on my desk. Most of the mornings though are RSS catch-ups, emais, and minor work. I can send photos as needed or post them on skydrive.Also, invest in a professional treadmill. The cheap stuff is not stable enough.

    During the summer here in Colorado Springs, i will often work on the patio using one of the laptop holders on FrontGate. The sunshine does wonders especially after the winter.

    The independent consulting thing is great money-wise. That said, you really miss the team environment. My wife has been on the same consulting project for 3 years with the same group. She is reminded almost weekly that she is a consultant. So much for the love ;-]

  8. Kevin Dalysays:
    I'd add to that "Avoid having animated conversations with yourself"....'cos it's soooooooo embarrassing when you go back to working in a room full of other people and you're still talking to the Preciousss (not that that's happened with me. Very often).
  9. davesays:
    I've been telecommuting from home for 5 years. The biggest benefit for me is having an office with lots of windows and a great view. I did my years in a windowless cubicle many years ago and I will never go back to those days.
  10. Clinton Gallaghersays:
    Some of us don't have the problems one may have while working at home but have more difficulty trying to find work with a business that will hire persons to work independently.
  11. Petesays:

    lol. I haven't run into that problem yet, but I do mumble to myself after the kids do something stupid :)


    That all makes sense. Definitely a good idea for the usual slogging through email/twitter etc. Thanks.

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