Unless your company already has a work-from-home policy, response to the spread of COVID-19 may be the first time you’ve given it a try. Here at ExtremeTech, we’re a completely virtual operation, so all of us work from our homes and have for several years. We still have access to corporate resources, but visits to HQ are rare. There are plenty of generic guides to working from home, but most of them don’t provide much advice in dealing with the technical aspects. So we put our heads together, virtually, and assembled some of our top tips for you.
Measure Your Bandwidth
Most households don’t use their internet connection for anything more stressful than streaming Netflix. So you may not have paid much attention to your upload speed or bandwidth caps. You probably also haven’t paid much attention to the size of databases, image libraries, or other resources you use while you’re at work. Now you’ll need to be doing the same tasks over your ISP, so you’ll want to do the math to see whether your connection will hold up. If it won’t, then, if it is allowed, consider downloading any large resources to a laptop or portable drive before trying to work from home. The same is true for large public information sources you need to access on a regular basis.
On a related note, allow enough time to download and upload the resources you need. The fastest internet connection I can get for my home office only offers about 10Mbps upload speed. But if I’m writing an article that uses 4K sample videos, or completing a project for some of my commercial photography clients, I often need to upload many gigabytes of images and video. That can literally take hours. So I need to remember to get started much earlier than I would if I was uploading from a high-speed ISP in an office setting.
Save Your Work
A couple of times a year I get a sob story from a friend who has accidentally deleted some work product from their laptop or personal computer without an adequate backup. So, unless you are always connected to your usual work systems while you work from home, you’ll need to make sure you have a robust backup system for any work you do. Similarly, make sure and double-check auto-save settings on your productivity tools. Even if you do work connected, consumer-grade ISPs are known for intermittent outages. That can result in losing whatever you were working on.
ET Staff Tip: Even though we use a centrally-managed system to publish all our articles, at least half of the ET staff does all their initial composition work offline to reduce the risk of loss if something goes wrong in their connection to the CMS while they’re writing and the backed-up versions aren’t adequate to restore all of what they’ve done. You can see the various systems we put to use in the article we did for World Backup Day.
Dry-Run Your Remote Meeting Software
I participate in a lot of virtual press conferences and remote meetings with a variety of companies, so I’ve gotten to experience the pros and cons of over a dozen different conference-call and remote-meeting systems. Each one has strengths and weaknesses, and none are foolproof. They also have different ways of handling your default microphone, speaker, and camera. So, before you try to take an important call, or run an important meeting from home, do yourself a favor and dry-run whichever tool you’ll be using. Even if you’re using a bog-standard tool like Skype, you’ll want to make sure you have the correct address for everyone in your contacts before the last minute.
ET Staff Tip: If you don’t use a service like Skype very often, take advantage of their test-call tool before any important calls. Even if it worked great a week ago, you might have changed some setting, or swapped video cards, or added a camera since the last time. Admittedly, we’re particularly susceptible to that as tech journalists, since we’re constantly re-configuring our systems as we do product reviews.
Create Some Structure and a Schedule
Having something of a schedule for your day — even if it is as simple as a time for lunch and maybe a walk or workout — can help break up what otherwise can be a fairly monotone block of time. Personally, I usually cook dinner for our family (largely during the time I used to commute home from the office), but use small breaks during the day to prep portions of the meal, or get long-lead-time meals started cooking.
Related to this, common wisdom is to have a separate area where you do your work. Of course, not everyone has that luxury. But, as Ryan pointed out, you can have a set time and place where you work every day, and accomplish much of the same thing. Joel adds that if you can have a different computer you use for work, that also helps keep your work life from bleeding into your personal life, and vice versa.
Working From Home Doesn’t Mean You Are the Neighborhood Errand Runner
Based on experience, expect those still trucking it into an office every day to regard your newfound “freedom” as an excuse to ask you to do things they can’t make time to do for themselves. Sure, it makes it easier to help out a friend who needs someone at home to receive a delivery, but you’re still working, so be judicious.
Depending on your job, you may need some specialized gear to work from home. Most of us at ET have some sort of mini-studio for doing product shots, like this Light Shed that I use.
Slack Is Now Your Water Cooler and Cafeteria
No, Slack or Teams aren’t actually going to give you free food like the typical tech-company cafeteria, but when you’re working from home they can become a replacement for some of the in-person social interactions you’re used to at the office. So, even if your typical use of information-sharing tools is buttoned-down and serious, when everyone is working from home it helps to use them to lighten up and keep in touch socially. When you run out of ideas, you can always take turns ranting at Slackbot. We certainly do.
Speaking of communication, Ryan points out that being out of sight makes it especially important that you are reliable in getting projects finished on time. If you’re having issues, make sure you communicate early and often — as your co-workers aren’t going to get the typical informal updates they might otherwise by wandering past your desk.
Big Brother May Be Watching
Many new work-at-home employees in China are finding out the hard way that their employers know quite a bit about their online habits even when they aren’t working in the office. While I don’t think most companies are quite that snoopy, if you’re using a work computer, or dialed in through a work VPN, it’s probably best to assume that your boss might well know how much time you’re spending on social media or gaming.
Our team at ET is split on whether it is important to actually get dressed when working from home, but I almost spit out my coffee this morning when I read in the Washington Post that some companies in China were scheduling morning video calls to make sure their employees were not still in their pajamas.
Working from home is definitely a mixed blessing. Not having to commute is great, but communications can be tricky, and social interactions are fewer and usually virtual. One option if you’re feeling isolated is to work at a nearby coffee shop or other public space. Obviously, you need to think about how much sense that makes given the current health situation, but I’ve noticed the coffee/workspaces here in Silicon Valley, like Coffeebar, are even more crowded than usual this week, so I suspect a number of new “work-at-home” folks are working there instead.
[Image Credit: David Cardinal]
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