Working From Home

Recently a colleague of mine did a post mortem on working remotely (Remote Pairing Matters) after having been just let go from our company. I started thinking that I hadn't evaluated my own remote working experience after having now worked in an office for 3 years. I worked remotely for 4 years for Intel Corporation. For 2 years I worked in the same town as an Intel site, where none of my coworkers were. For another 2 years I worked in a different state, far from any Intel friends. I've thought about what went well, and what didn't, and summed up the experience for you in these words of wisdom.

Why would you want to work from home? Well for most people this is actually not a choice, but a compromise to support work-life balance. My fiancee moved to San Diego, and I wanted to be close to her as we were soon to be married. Later when we moved again, my mom was sick and needed more direct and accessible monitoring of her health care. I was very grateful that Intel was willing to support this model for me (and several of my colleagues in similar situations).

Talking to the Boss
Assuming you want to work remotely because of a family reason like this, make sure to sit down one-on-one with your boss and talk it out. Explain to him why you want to work remotely, how it is important to you and why it will make you a better employee (less interruptions, less time off for emergency travel, etc). Your boss will probably ask you questions about how this will not interfere with your work, how you will handle the phone and internet connectivity. If you are a large company, they may have a standard plan for this, but you should also have a solution ready to propose.

The Setup
When you finally get agreement to WFH (work from home), set up a good workplace straight away. I know, you probably roll your eyes anytime your company mentions an ergo evaluation, but we lifelong software developers know that this stuff matter to your longterm physical health, so don't skimp. More than that though, setup a workplace away from distraction, with all the tools you need within easy grasp. Setup your computer, keyboard, peripherals like speakers, printer, webcam. Keep the phone nearby for conference calls, and make sure you have a headset which reduces outside noise for both you and your coworkers on the other end of the line. If you'll be using a webcam, make sure the background is free of anything innappropriate and embarassing.

Think about the software tools you might need to stay connected. My colleague Tim mentions Skype/Webex for pair programming. I've used Microsoft Netmeeitng and Yuuguu with success. You might want to opt for the faster internet service and get a 2nd phone line dedicated for work (unless you want your 5 year old picking up the phone on a sales call). Ask your company if they will cover the cost, because many do. How about getting a Google Voice number? You can customize it to route phone calls from colleagues to all your phones during business hours, but go to voicemail during off hours. Spend some time evaluating the best options, because the toolset could make or break the experience for you.

Ok, so it's your first day WFH, and you decide to rough it with no shower and a pajama business suit. You haven't eaten breakfast because you just rolled out of bed and onto your keyboard. Around 10am you start your first conference call and your stomach starts growling loud enough to be heard in China (and not through the phone), and you start spacing out because your caffeine high from last night's Halo frag fest starts to wear off. What did you do wrong? You forgot to have a routine, newb! Even when working from home, you need to have a routine to maintain peak performance during the day. Sure it's ok to slum it once in a while (i'm sure you've all had a hangover once or twice on a Friday morning).

Most days you'll want to make the coffee, get dressed, take a shower (better shower before getting dressed), and etc before starting the day. It will pay off in the long run (trust me on the shower thing). If you have wife and/or kids at home, life will be harder. You need to make them understand to respect your privacy during the day. Close the door, put up a sign, do whatever it takes to keep work and life separate, otherwise you'll soon find yourself sending emails at 11pm to make up for your lackluster performance earlier.

Staying Connected
You can be the best employee in the world that nobody ever hears from, and you'll get absolutely nowhere in the company (this can be said for those who work in the office to). In fact, the quickest way to lose your WFH privelege is to never be heard from again. Make good use of the tools. Sign into IM first thing, and make sure you respond quickly to questions. If you are having a quiet workday where nobody is bothering you, send an email or IM to let people know you are alive. If you will be away from your "desk", let people know, same as you would in the office. Keep those communication lines open and active! Periodic office visits are very helpful as well, if you can arrange it. Good companies will even pay for it, because they know that even though many people can work virtually, nothing replaces face to face time. This is the best time to build those relationships with new colleagues, and strengthen the old ones.

I’m a huge advocate of virtual employee arrangements where it makes sense. That being said, nothing replaces the vibe and energy when everyone works in the same office. So as you switch jobs, if you have a choice, you might want to alternate WFH and WIO (working in office). After I was virtual for 4 years, I found that I really missed the personal relationships, the long lunches on a lazy Friday, the hallway conversations about random topics. I also found that my immune system was more fragile, because I wasn’t exposed to all those germs every day. The odd times I did travel, I was always sick for several days afterwards.

These are things to weigh against all the other considerations. I loved my WFH experience, and my friends were envious of my good fortune. Above all, if you do WFH, enjoy it. Just remember three little words: Naps during lunch.