Some love it, some hate it – but one thing is for sure: working from home can be a challenge, and it is here to stay. The change affects nearly everyone and everything. The good news is that it can work. In fact, it can be a blessing in disguise.
Over the years, long before shelter-at-home order was imposed in many countries during the Covid lockdowns, I increasingly began embracing the remote work model as a regular modus during my contract assignments. My experience with online meetings and videoconferences has taught me that online work is possible and potentially more effective in many situations. It also turned out to help me to be motivated, focused, and flexible. I have updated and modifying my home office so that it has become a pleasant and well-structured work environment – unlike many traditional, physical offices.
I also learned a lot about how to conduct productive meetings and organize the work online. It has turned out to be an excellent investment.
However, specific rules and requirements must be implemented and followed for remote teams to be effective. These aspects include:
- Organization of your home office
- Home office electronic equipment
- Workplace software
- Conducting online meetings
- Communication strategy: E-Mails and instant messengers
- Management and leadership
- Planning and reporting
All tips in this series of articles about working from home apply to teams involved in systems development. In the context of other industries and working cultures, such as government organizations or specific financial industries, different rules and solutions may apply.
I have divided this topic into several sequential articles for better maintainability. We start with the first three topics: organization of your home office, home office electronic equipment, and the workplace software.
Organization of your home office
First and foremost: you do need a door between your home office and the rest of your home. It may sound like a trivial thing, but it must be emphasized: you cannot work from home effectively if you get distracted by your hungry cat. You must be absolutely alone in your home office room. It must be quiet, and the sun must not be shining in your eyes.
The size of your home office room should be at least about 20 square meters (200 square feet), and you need constant access to fresh air (open window).
If you are a coffee afianado, put your coffee machine in your room (instead of the kitchen, for example). It will prevent further distractions, as your housemates might be thinking that you are available for a chat if you leave your office. You might want to start with a simple coffee machine like this. It has an auto-switch-off mechanism to prevent leaving it on overnight, which may otherwise pose a safety risk. I had owned dozens of different coffee machines of various types, some of them pretty sophisticated, but eventually decided that a simple one suffices. The choice depends on your lifestyle, of course, so don’t feel constrained.
If you don’t already have one, buy a comfortable office chair. I have a chair similar to this. Yes, this might come with a hefty price tag, but it’s well worth it. Do not attempt to save money on it for obvious health-related reasons. Paying for quality upfront saves you the frustration of having to throw out cheap chairs until you eventually have to buy the expensive one. And, by the way: you will occasionally need spare parts, so don’t buy a chair from a company overseas that might disappear tomorrow.
Similar requirements apply to your desk. Buy one that is large and comfortable. You will need it for your equipment, such as computer screens and printers.
In your specific case, you might be restricted to what your IT department allows or requires. The more choices you have, the better. In the tips below, I am assuming that you are free to put your workspace together at will. Limitations in your case may apply if your customer or your boss requires you to follow other, specific rules.
Your laptop’s display, especially with high-resolution, is helpful. However, in most cases, having several computer screens is a real blessing. Two identical external displays, in addition to your laptop display, sound great, but three are the charm. For example, you would need one to share the screen during meetings, one to do the work, and one for written communication (e-mail and instant messaging). That gives you more appropriate control on what screen you want to share with your team during meetings.
I don’t use the laptop display at all. Instead, I use three identical external displays. It gives me a balanced and symmetrical view of my digital desktop.
The screen size of 24″ is sufficient for me. My screen is flat (not curved), with a thin bezel. The display aspect of 16×10 is better than the 16×9 ratio, as it gives you an extra “screen real estate.” This is especially practical if you work with large documents or source code.
Besides, to make sure that three screens work properly, you will likely need a USB (or Firewire, if it is compatible with your laptop) docking station. After buying and testing several docking stations, I eventually decided that USB 3.0 Dell D6000 Universal Dock is the best performing option for me. It appears large on the picture but is actually a tiny device, a little larger than a modern smartphone.
You will also need an external USB speaker that is simply connected to the USB dock. You will likely need a USB camera for video meetings, which also can be connected to the dock.
Caution: If your laptop includes a more capable graphic chip, such as discrete NVIDIA graphics, for example, you should know that your docking station will use its own chip instead. Those chips are typically less powerful. It may be sufficient for normal office work, but won’t be sufficient for more complex tasks, such as CAD or video editing. There are alternative solutions on the market that give you more possibilities containing different docking graphics, but I have not yet tested them.
Since the “paperless office” was proclaimed during the Dot-com Bubble 20 years ago, we have been trying to make it a reality, though with mixed results. I believe we are finally achieving this vision, but printers and scanners are still a must-have. Hilariously enough, even fax transmission is still not dead. After owning dozens of fax machines, printers of all sorts, and scanners that used to clutter my desk, I was finally able to solve this problem by buying just one single, all-in-one device that does it all. It is an HP product. This particular model is no longer on the market, but similar models of the next generation are available, and I expect they should work just fine. This desktop printer has it all: fast scanner (two-sided), color laser printer, fax, decent connectivity (for example, printing from your smartphone), and more. Changing a toner cartridge is trivial (albeit somewhat expensive), and other than that, the product is mostly maintenance-free.
Whatever solution you prefer here, I would – once again – not recommend to nickel and dime here. Printers and scanners are mechanical devices that need maintenance and sometimes spare parts. Only a leading brand will give you peace of mind for many years.
Similar to the aforementioned electronic equipment, a specific client/company’s policy may apply to what may or may not be installed on your machine. If your computer has a direct or indirect connection to your customer/company, make sure that you follow the rules you have agreed to in your contract. Even if you are able to install new software without physical limitations (there are various security options you might be required to follow), installing new software may pose a serious legal risk for which you might be held responsible. Clarify this aspect before you make any changes to your laptop’s software setup.
You will most likely use the Office 365 suite for your regular work. Apple products are a great alternative if this is your company/client’s policy. However, since this is not usually the case, all recommendations below are Microsoft-centric.
If you are allowed to install your own software, here is a small list of little helpers that are likely to make your work-from-office life easier:
- TortoiseSVN – a file versioning engine. A local Subversion server will give you full control of daily files. I have used it for 20 years and it still works perfectly for simple file versioning. You may use versioning that comes with your cloud tools, of course. It is free and open-source, and more user-friendly to use than other programs, such as GIT.
- FreeFileSync – this is another data backup software option that I would recommend. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of avoiding data loss. It is better to be safe than sorry. Combine it with TortoiseSVN for maximal data safety and effortless data recovery. If you use it together with cloud storage, nothing short of a nuclear armageddon will damage your data.
- AutoHotKey: I recommend automating everything! Well, maybe not everything, but it helps speed up your work, even with such simple things as the full date and time output. For example, when typing a status, you can configure a key combination, such as “Control-Alt-Shift-Dot” to get instant date string such as “25-Jun-2020, 12:32”). Another short-key I use a lot is “Windows-Alt” to minimize the current window. If you have the nerve to play around with it, you can vastly increase your work efficiency. Very helpful!
- Grammarly: an AI-powered proofing software that is better than what is used by the regular MS Office suite. Since you most likely create dozens or even hundreds of documents, you want to make sure that the output is as good as possible in the first place. However, current proofreading systems have many limitations. A good editor is still way better than any existing AI, and I expect that won’t change soon. For more sophisticated or creative work, a professional editor is the only option.
Microsoft also provides dozens of useful little tools, such as OneNote. I recommend spending some time with those tools — they’re definitely worth the effort.
I will not be doing an in-depth discussion of video meeting software, as I believe those options are already generally known. I have used Skype for Business, which is now becoming Microsoft Teams, “regular” Skype, Zoom, and WebEx. If all options are acceptable, then I would go for the cheapest version that is already available, since all of them work well enough in most settings. You can also install them all at once – they co-exist peacefully on your PC.
This is the only access to the outside world for you, so we don’t let price be the main factor in your decisions. You naturally need a fast internet connection, but it is not only about the bits-per-seconds rate. The quality of the connection is as important. Connection stability is paramount. Also, you must be confident that your provider will not spontaneously re-connect your link. In many cases, you can set the daily re-connect and maintenance interval for off-peak hours when you aren’t working.
Monitor your internet connection quality. Use a test and monitoring online utility for that purpose. Such tools are typically free of charge. A good quality connection offers a steady throughput over days and weeks. If your connection statistics resembles a roller-coaster, look for another provider.
A good risk-reduction strategy is to have two redundant lines. The so-called “fallback” to a different provider can be a life-saver. You can use your smartphone as your wireless router (the feature is called tethering). Make sure that you are well prepared before you possibly need it. Set up the tethering up-front and test it thoroughly, so it is easy for you to switch back and forth between your internet provider and the wireless connection.
It is crucial that you feel perfectly comfortable in your home office outfit. Ideally, you don’t have to even think about it; everything is in the right place and just works. I recommend resisting the temptation of saving money on it. It is an investment rather than an expense.
Now that we spend the most time in our home offices, it must be at least as good as the physical office used to be. In that way, you can focus on the really important things: getting your job done.
The subsequent article focuses on online meetings and communication strategies. Follow this link to continue.