Sunday, March 15, 2020

Working from Home - A Guide for Noobs

In 1998, while working for what was then a rapidly-growing Nortel Networks, I took advantage of their telecommuter program and started working from home full-time. Office space was at a premium, I was working with or managing teams in London, Ottawa, Texas, Toronto, Sydney etc, so when I *did* go into the office, I spent most of the day on the phone wearing a headset.

The bandwidth available wasn't stellar but I was managing people rather than systems so it was fine. And except for a couple of times when I had to spend a few months at a customer site, I continued to be a full-time telecommuter from 1998 until 2006. 

I've since had to spend most of my time in various offices, partly because of the workstyles of the companies I was working for and partly when I had a lot of direct reports (or reports of reports) all in the same place.

But the past three years I've been back to full-time working from home, with (as you will have seen on FB) frequent trips to visit customers.

If you're new to working from home, particularly if you are new to being a people manager from home, I've got a few thoughts that might help.

1)  Get ready for work in the morning! No, you don't have to wear a tie but I highly recommend that you not work in your PJs or a robe or your "Too Drunk to Fuck" shirt that you still have from college. I generally go for jeans and a sweater or a button-up shirt, even though I rarely use the webcam. It reminds me that I am a professional, that I'm at work, and it helps differentiate between work-time and personal-time.

2)   Which brings me to the second point - clock in and clock out! We all already have enough problems with that, responding to emails at all times of the day or night, letting people schedule you whenever it is convenient for them. It's worse when you're working from home. Not long after I started WFH, we bought the house we're still in - downstairs master bedroom and and upstairs workspaces - so there is a clear delineation between work and not-work. I realize that many/most of you won't have that option, but I would strongly suggest you do your best to find a space your can carve out specifically for work so that you can LEAVE it at the end of the day. Corner of the den, space in the basement, whatever you can do.

3)  Under other circumstances, I would suggest getting out and working from your local coffee shop occasionally during the day if you are someone that craves constant contact - I generally don't but I know plenty of folks that do. That is NOT a good idea right now. Instead, take a few minutes throughout the day to step outside, walk around the block but also have a chat online with a friend to maintain contact.

4)  On the other hand, it is easier when working from home to let yourself get distracted by social media, the constant news stream, etc. Set break times to check out your Tweeter feed or to see how your FB friends are coping but do NOT leave them open on your screen. Just don't.

5)  On the OTHER other hand, those same social media techniques can do wonders to keep you connected to your teams and co-workers. Whether you use Teams or Slack or Skype for Business or WhatsApp or any of the other work-share and communication apps, they provide a way to check in with your team (especially as a manager). Note that I said "check IN" and not "check ON". Look for work output, not whether they are online every second of every day. 

6)  Go ahead and take a break to throw some laundry in (you'd be amazed at the number of people I've heard argue against their people working from home - "what if they're doing laundry instead of working?"). The time it takes to throw in a load of laundry pales in comparison to the thirty minutes those same blowhards would waste regaling you with their vacation stories or what they watched on HBO the night before. You need to get your ass up and move around anyway.

7)  Trust but verify. So I'm talking about IT professionals here, right? We usually have deliverables and project plans and deadlines, whether we're developing code or installing virtual servers or whatever. Sometimes we miss those deadlines but we should be clear on why that happened. Trust your people to do the work, verify that they did or that they had legitimate reasons for not and they will (usually) reward that trust with good work. For the handful that do not, do what you would if you were all in the office - make sure your expectations are clearly understood and reasonable, put 'em on a performance improvement plan if necessary and if that doesn't work, you might have to replace them. Chances are you'd have had to do that anyway.

8)  If you're the boss, schedule regular team meetings. Sure you'll be communicating with team members and groups all the time, but it is good to have a set regular meeting to catch up on all the other stuff that needs to be shared.

Of course your mileage may vary. And I know that many many people can NOT work from home. That makes it even more imperative for those of us that can to do so, to slow down the spread of this thing as much as possible. These are just a few thoughts - I'll likely add to this. And I welcome your own ideas and experiences!

Stay safe!