On working from home

I am currently going through a period of working from home as a result of circumstances beyond my control. At first it was difficult for me, but as time has gone by, I’ve begun to adapt and see how to make it work, and I think I’ve learned some things that I can carry over into my regular work once I’m back in the office.

Recently my car broke down in a major way – it needed a new engine. Unfortunately, the process of getting it fixed has stretched on now for almost a month. For the first 2 1/2 weeks I had a rental car, but I’m afraid the repairs are expenseive enough and came at a bad enough time that I eventually decided that I could no longer afford to keep the rental car. Thankfully, my company is willing to let us work from home from time to time, so for the past week now I’ve been doing just that. The experience has been quite eye opening.

I’ve occasionally done this before, but just for a day at a time when some special circumstance dictated, such as a less serious car problem, or feeling ill. At those times I never quite got the hang of it – I felt restless and unsure of what to do. I’m very much a creature of habit, so working from home left me out of my element in several ways, from how I communicate with co-workers, to just the physical computer I was working at. Everything was different and it left me floundering a bit as I tried to asssert some order over my circumstances. I also had to adjust my workflow a great deal – my fairly low speed Internet connection at home, combined with the VPN to work, meant I just didn’t have enough bandwidth to run my usual GUI based editor over the network, for example, so I ended up working entirely with text mode tools. I can’t say those were very productive days.

This past week started out the same way. I felt frustrated and limited by the slower network connection to our development systems, and by the text mode tools I have to use. I felt limited in my ability to communicate with people, which proved especially frustrating on the first couple of days when I had to work together with a colleague to help him resolve problems in getting an instance of one of our major systems up and running in his development environment. Those first two days I ended up crashing in bed for a nap as soon as I could after working hours, because I was just felt worn down.

Another problem was simply being at home on my own personal computer. The environment around me screamed out that I should be relaxing and goofing off. My games seemed to glare at me from their icons. My cats would jump on my desk and demand attention. My bed would call out to me to come take a nap! Oh the siren call of playing hooky was strong, and Odysseus-like I had to be virtually tied to my chair at first in order to push through. It didn’t help at all that we were at the end of a sprint and the number of tasks needing to be done was rapidly dwindling.

But then, something changed. I started to establish a new routine. To begin with, I didn’t have an hour long commute to deal with so I was able to get a little more sleep in the morning, which was great for me since no matter how much sleep I do or do not get, I always have trouble waking up if it’s too early in the morning. Since my company uses Google Apps for our internal communications, we started using Hangouts for meetings, which helped establish a bit of a workplace sensibility again and made communication easier. I started getting more comfortable working with the text mode version of Emacs to edit my code, so that important aspect of work clicked into place too. And as the cats became accustomed to my presence during the day, even they started leaving me alone. In short, all the frustrations and distractions receeded into the background and I began to be actually productive again.

In fact, I’d say that in one way I became more productive than usual. I’m a very introverted person which has the practical result that I’m not very talkative at work. I’m also noise sensitive, so when I’m at work I usually wear headphones almost all the time to control my sonic environment, and while this should not logically have any effect, I think it tends to discourage others from approaching me about things. I wish it were otherwise, but I can’t control the actions of other people. Working from home, though, meant communicating with people mostly through text chat systems (except in meetings, as mentioned above). I enjoy that! I think I’ve spent more time typing to people this past week than any week spent in the office, and as a result I’d say that I’ve actually communicated better and more often while working at home than while physically in the office. This is a lesson that I’ll be taking back to the office with me; being an introvert doesn’t have to mean being uncommunicative.

Another thing that working from home has shown me is that I really hate the lunch schedule at my office. The company provides catered meals each day, which seems like a nice perk, but lunch is served about two hours earlier than I’d like. Working from home meant that I could eat when I actually felt hungry rather than forcing myself to eat on someone elses schedule, and this in turn seems to have helped my productivity since I’m more focused and concentrated as a result. I’m better able to plan my activities and maintain my mental alertness rather than experience post-lunch sleepiness from having eaten too much in too short a span of time. (Breakfast at 8am and lunch at 11 am just doesn’t work for me – lunch at 2 pm is more what I need.) I think I’m going to start taking my lunch with me to work.

This brief adventure in working from home has helped me to clarify how I need to organize my day in order to be more productive, and also has taught me a communication strategy that works better with my personality and I look forward to applying these lessons once I get my car back and return to a normal work environment.