Working from home

A colleague asked me about my experiences working from home so I’ve made a few notes here.

I’m unusual in my department in that I work from home three or four days a week, and one or two in London, or very occasionally Salford. I started off in this job on an EU-funded project where everyone was remote, and so it made little difference where I was physically as long as we synced up regularly. Since then I’ve worked on multiple other projects where the other participants are mostly in one place and I’m elsewhere. That’s made it more difficult, but also, sometimes, better.

A buddy

Where everyone else is in one place, the main thing I need to function well is one or more buddies who are physically there, who remember to call me in for meetings and let me know anything significant that’s happening that I’m missing because I’m not physically there. The first of these is the most important. Being remote you are easily forgettable. Without Andrew, Dan, Joanne, Tristan, and now Henry and Tim, I’d sometimes be left out.

IRC or slack

I’ve used IRC for years for various remote things (we used to do “scheduled topic chats” 15 year ago on freenode for various Semantic Web topics), the various bots that keep you informed and help you share information easily – loggers and @Edd’s “chump” in particular, but also #swhack bots of many interesting kinds. I learned a huge amount from friends in W3C who are mostly remote from each other and have made lots of tools and bots for helping them manage conference calls for many years.

Recently our team have started using slack as well as irc, so now I’m on both: Slack means that a much more diverse set of people are happy to participate, which is great. It can be very boring working on your own, and these channels make for a sense of community, as well as being useful for specific timely exchanges of information.

Lots of time on organisation

I spend a lot of time figuring out where I need to be and making decisions about what’s most important, and what needs to be face to face and what can be a call. Also: trying to figure out how annoying I’m going to be to the other people in a meeting, and whether I’m going to be able to contribute successfully, or whether it’s best to skip it. I’ve had to learn to ignore the fomo.

I have a text based todo list, which can get a little out of control, but in general has high level goals for this week and next, goals for the day, as well as specific tasks that need to be done on any particular day or a particular time. I spend a little time each morning figuring these out, and making sure I have a good sense of my calendar (Dan Connolly taught me to do this!). In general, juggling urgent and project-managery and less-urgent exploratory work is difficult and I probably don’t do enough of the latter (and I probably don’t look far enough ahead, either). I sometimes schedule my day quite concretely with tasks at specific times to make sure I devote thinking time for specific problems, or when I have a ton to do, or a lot of task switching.

Making an effort not to work

Working at home means I could work any time, and having an interesting job means that I’d probably quite enjoy it, too. There’s a temptation to do the boring admin stuff in work and leave the fun stuff until things are quieter in the evenings or at the weekend. But I make an effort not to do this, and it helps that the team I work in don’t work late or at weekends. This is a good thing. We need downtime or we’ll get depleted (I did in my last job, a startup, where I also worked at home most of the time, and where we were across multiple timezones).

Weekends are fairly easy to not work in, evenings are harder, so I schedule other things to do where possible (Bristol Hackspace, cinema, watching something specific on TV, other technical personal projects).

Sometimes you just have to be there

I’m pretty good at doing meetings remotely but we do a lot of workshops which involve getting up and doing things, writing things down on whiteboards etc. I also chair a regular meeting that I feel works better if I’m there. When I need to be there a few days, I’m lucky enough to be able to stay with some lovely friends, which means its a pleasure rather than being annoying and boring to not be at home.

What I miss and downsides

What I miss is the unscheduled time working or just hanging out with people. When I’m in London my time is usually completely scheduled, which is pretty knackering. Socialising gets crammed into short trips to the pub. The commute means I lose my evening at least once a week and sometimes arrive at work filled with train-rage (I guess the latter is normal for anyone who commutes by rail).

Not being in the same place as everything day to day means that I miss some of the up-and down-sides of being physically there, which are mostly about spontaneity: I never get included in ad-hoc meetings, so have more time to concentrate but also miss some interesting things; I don’t get distracted (by fun or not-fun) things, including bad moods in the organisation, gossip, but also impromptu games, fun trips out etc etc.

And finally…

For me, working from home in various capacities has given me opportunities I’d never have had, and I’m very lucky to be able to do it in my current role.