Jake McCrary

More working from home tips

See all of my remote/working-from-home articles here.

With the the new coronavirus spreading through the world, more people are either choosing or are being forced to work from home. From 2013 to 2018, the companies I worked for were entirely remote. For the rest of my professional career, 2007 to 2013 and 2018 to now (March 2020), I’ve also frequently worked from home.

I’ve managed to be very effective at it and I think others can be as well.

After years of working in an office, transitioning to working from home isn’t easy. I had difficulty with the transition and people I’ve mentored have as well. I think most people will be able to be effective at home, assuming their workplace is supportive, if they try to get better at it. With a supportive company or team, once you get used to working from home you probably find yourself getting more done.

The key word in the sentence “I’m working from home” is working. You are going to be working where you spend a lot of your non-work time. This can be a difficult mental transition. Physically switching to an office environment can help switch your brain into work mode and now you no longer have that. Don’t worry, it might feel rough in the beginning but you will get better at it.

I’ve written more articles about working remotely and I’d recommend you read those as well. This article is primarily targeted at the person not making a permanent change in their work from home status. My Guide to Distributed Work is a bit more targeted at someone that is permanently choosing to work at home or in a position of power to influence work from home policies at a company. I’d recommend that you read it as well as many of the subjects it talks about are generally applicable. It steps through some of the pros and cons of remote work and links to other writing on the topic.

Below is a hodgepodge of tips for working from home.

Setup a home workspace

In my years of remote work, I’ve always managed to have a dedicated space for work. In some apartments, this was a corner of a room where I put a desk and faced a wall. In other apartments, I’ve been privileged enough to have a dedicated room for an office.

If you aren’t planning on working from home permanently, or very frequently, then you probably don’t want to spend a significant amount of money setting up a work area. This probably means you don’t want to find a home with a dedicated office and you may not want or be able to dedicate a portion of a room to a desk1.

Whatever your living arrangement is, I’d encourage you to figure a way to have a regular spot to work at while you are working. Having a regular spot to work from will help your brain turn on and off from work mode.

Setting up a home workspace can be as low cost as using a tv tray or folding table2 with a chair. Your setup could be as elaborate as getting a height adjustable desk with large monitors. It could be something else entirely.

Find something that works for you and stick with it.

Beyond a dedicated space to work, make sure you have a reliable internet connection. If you can, use Ethernet as it is generally better than WiFi. I’ve never had a situation where I could use Ethernet and have found that having a good router is enough to make my WiFi reliable.

Discuss boundaries and expectations with your cohabitants

If you live with others that will be at home while you need to work, you should have a discussion with them about boundaries. You are at home to do work and that expectation needs to be set. You may be able to do some household chores during breaks or take other breaks with cohabitants but everyone in your living area needs to understand you are at home to work.

If you have children that might have a particularly hard time with this, it can be useful to use some sort of physical signaling device (examples: a closed door, a light bulb being on, a closed curtain, headphones on) that you should not be interrupted.

Minimize distractions

This one is obvious but try to minimize distractions. Don’t try to sit on your couch with the TV on and do work. You won’t be doing great work.

If your home is loud and you have difficulty in a loud space, wear some ear plugs or noise canceling headphones.

If cohabitants are distractions, refer to the above section and have that discussion with them about needing space. One technique for dealing with interrupting cohabitants is to schedule time throughout your day for them. You can use these scheduled times as breaks through out your working day.

If you try to get some household chores done while working at home, make sure you schedule time for doing them. This could be putting the time on your calendar or simply setting a timer when taking a break. Regardless of the method, when your time is up, get back to work.

I’ve often found that finishing a short, simple household task can actually jump-start finishing more complicated work tasks. Using that momentum from the household chore can make accomplishing work tasks easier.

Having difficulty starting a work task?

Sometimes it is hard to start a task. It can be especially hard if you are new to working at home and not used to working in your environment.

One technique I’ve found useful is the Pomodoro technique. The steps to this technique are below.

  1. Pick a task.
  2. Set and start a timer (usually for 25 minutes).
  3. Focus intensely on the task for the duration of the timer.
  4. Make a mark on a piece of paper
  5. If you have fewer than four marks on the paper, take a 5 minute break and then go back to step 2.
  6. If you have four marks on the paper, then take a 15 minute break and go back to step 1.

I don’t follow those steps strictly and mostly use the trick of setting a timer for focused work. If at the end of the timer I feel like continuing, I’ll reset the timer. If I need a break, I’ll set the timer for a short period of time and take a break.

It was mentioned above, but sometimes doing a small, easy task can jump-start knocking out TODOs. This small, easy task could be something work related or some simple chore around the house.

Be mindful of your communication

Text communication is hard. It is often taken more negative than intended. Be mindful of that.

Try to take what your coworkers write in the most positive way possible.

Try to be careful with your own written communication. It sounds ridiculous but emojis can help make you look like less of a jerk and set a friendly tone.

Don’t hesitate to jump on a video or voice call with someone (or a group). Video is a much higher quality interaction than voice and both are much higher quality than text. The downside is the communication isn’t persistent so be sure to write down outcomes of conversations.

Sync up with your team

Try to sync up with your team (if you don’t have a team, sync up with someone else from the company) at a regular interval. This should probably be at least once every couple days but it can be more regularly. I usually once a day.

It can be easy to feel like an island when you are part of a remote group. Regular sync-ups help reduce that feeling.

Collaborate remotely

Most video conference software allows you to share your screen with others. Some of them even allow others to take control of your machine or treat your screen as a whiteboard.

Take advantage of these features. After learning how to use them, these features can often make remote collaboration as productive as in-person collaboration.

Using technology, you can even pair program with someone from another city.

Google Docs is another great remote collaboration tool. The best meetings I have been part of were meetings where every attendee was editing a shared Google Doc.

Video Meetings

When possible, have video meetings over voice only conference calls. The addition of body language through video makes remote conversations much better.

You might want to introduce hand gestures for signaling during video meetings3. On a former team, we had the practice of raising a finger4 when you wanted to speak. This practice helped prevent people from interrupting and speaking over each other. It also let quieter people jump into conversations easier.

As far as I can tell, Zoom is still the winner in terms of video conferencing.

I also recommend using a headset with dedicated microphone for talking through your computer. The sound quality is usually better than using the built-in microphone.

End

It can be difficult to get good at working from home. It is definitely a skill that is learned through experience and reflection. If you have any questions about working remotely, feel free to reach out on twitter or through email.

Working from home can be a great experience.


  1. A desk can be any table that you can work on that is comfortable for a reasonable amount of time. It doesn’t have to be what someone would typically think of as a desk.

  2. I used a table like this for years in college and when working an internship.

  3. These are also useful for in-person meetings.

  4. No, not the middle finger.

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