Successfully working from home

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I’ve been working from home for approaching 5 years now at Surevine, a fully distributed software development company. Home-working is a major part of the company culture, and is one of the main things many of us love about working there.

I somewhat accidentally fell into working from home, it was never a huge ambition of mine. When I joined Surevine that aspect of the job was actually a deterrent of sorts - I was concerned about the impact it would have on my professional development. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a go, and five years down the line, I haven’t looked back.

Many of my friends state that they could never do it. They ask “How do you avoid just watching TV all day?”. Perhaps it’s true that home-working isn’t for everyone, some people absolutely need the hustle and bustle of an office (or maybe even the commute!?). For me, the pro’s far outweigh the con’s; the 30 second commute, an improved work/life balance and greater control over my working environment all contribute to a more enjoyable work life. The reduced commuting costs are also pretty nice too. As for the TV thing, if your work is interesting enough then it won’t even be on your mind.

It’s easy to see why more and more companies are offering this to their employees in whatever capacity they can. However, I don’t believe that successfully working from home is as straightforward as some people assume. It’s taken quite a while to get to the point where I feel my setup and patterns are “just right”. I’ve been refining my home-working setup since I joined Surevine, and I’ve made some mistakes along the way.

Below are some of factors & habits that I think have been important in making this way of working a success for me. Some of these will probably seem pretty obvious, but I’ve seen people falling foul of them in the past so I’ll include them anyway.

Key factors

I believe that the most crucial factor in a sustainable home-working life is to dedicate a space (preferably a room with a door) to your work. This brings enables a clear separation between your work and personal life. When you shut the office door at the end of the day you know you’re done (if you want to be). I’m lucky enough to have an office separate from the house, so having to go outside between the two adds a further disconnect which I find helpful (and also means family members are less likely to come running in).

Coupled with this is the rule I have to only work when I’m in my home office. This makes it far easier for me to relax of an evening when I’m in my living room, as my surroundings are not synonymous with work. Likewise, its easier for me to focus on work when I’m in the office as its the only thing I do there - there is no crossover of habits / mental modes.

The second factor may or may not be relevant depending on your personal circumstances, but establishing clarity with family members about what it means to work from home is really important. When many people hear the phrase “works from home” they think “works for themselves” or maybe even “doesn’t really work” (which is certainly not the case). In turn, they can assume that you have complete freedom to do any number of social activities at the drop of a hat. Of course the reality is that whilst home-working does introduce greater flexibility to interact with family and friends, there are still meetings to attend and deadlines to be met.

Clear conversations to dispel these myths are important in avoiding awkward scenarios (such as when family members drops in for a coffee at no notice when you are in the middle of a meeting with your boss). The specifics of what you need to say will come down to your own job and preferences, but covering your regular work schedule and what this means for availability is probably a reasonable start.

The next factor is one which may not be entirely under your control. It is important that the company you work for is properly prepared for home or remote working practices. From tooling to culture, remote workers needs to be first class citizens, equal to their in-office counterparts (if applicable) in every way. It sucks to be working remotely and be omitted from conversations you care about because your colleagues forgot to dial you in to a meeting, or the technology failed in making it happen.

Software can make a big difference here. Having the right set of tools for communications is essential in preventing people from feeling disconnected. I don’t think that email alone will cut it. At Surevine our primary means of communication is Skype, with a policy to use video calls wherever possible - it’s suprising the difference that seeing people’s faces makes! We also have an internal micro-blogging platform which serves as the cultural heartbeat of the company, and is actively used by everyone.

Importantly, these tools and methods are the same for everyone in the company, regardless of whether they are working from home, at one of our offices or on the road. Everyone is using the same platforms to communicate.

Working for a distributed company like Surevine means that the focus on accommodating remote-workers is more likely to be in place - as the company simple wouldn’t function if we couldn’t easily interact with each other, but it’s definitely achievable for “standard” employers too.

Habits

Along the home-working journey, I’ve also formed some habits or patterns that have made it more enjoyable (and maybe even more sustainable) for me.

The first of which is to ensure I go outside every day, regardless of the weather. This probably sounds bizarre to some of you, but in the early days I could go 2-3 days without leaving the house as I had everything I needed at home. If I didn’t have plans with friends then this could happen quite easily. I found that this left me feeling strangely insular, and when I did interact with people I wasn’t quite myself. Whether its a walk around the village at lunch, or a run after work - leaving the house every day seems to prevent this feeling.

Something I’ve introduced more recently is to wear certain clothes “to work” (in my case this is generally tech t-shirts), then change into different clothes when I finish. This helps my mind to reset, which I suppose is similar to the dedicated working space factor described above. I’m aware that this is an entirely artificial process, which isn’t necessary at all, but has helped me maintain the separation between work and home life.

During the day I’ve started to have podcasts or audiobooks running quietly in the background. I find the ambient noise helps to stop me feeling too isolated or disconnected from the wider world, whilst not being too distracting. I can’t be sure but I’d guess that this also helps with my productivity too. I think that some people use music to fill this void, but I prefer the conversational tone on podcasts/books and appreciate the occasional learning snippets it can provide.

Finally, I’ve learned to be mindful of what I eat at lunch. Being at home with a full kitchen (and freezer) is both a blessing and a curse. When it comes to choice and cost its great, but this has meant that from time to time I’ve eaten far more than I probably should have for days on end, without the exercise to go with it. This might not be something high up your priority list, which is fair enough, but for me, I like to be reasonably healthy and so needed to make adjustments. I still benefit from a vast amount of choice, but tend to opt for something on the lighter side for lunch, and try to limit how often I open the ever-tempting biscuit tin.

So those were some of the things that I’ve put in place to help make my time working from home an enjoyable and hopefully successful one. I’d like to stress that the contents of this post are just what works for me. It’s clear from a glance into my colleagues’ offices via Skype that the optimal home-working setup varies tremendously between individuals. If you are considering working from home I think its worth spending some time planning the transition, and iterating thereafter to make it work for you. Firing up a laptop on the sofa in the corner of the living room might work for the odd day, but I seriously doubt it will be sufficient in the long run.

If you’ve read this post and are already working from home, I’d be interested to hear about any tips or habits you have picked up along the way.

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