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Working at Home Tips for Erin

July 23, 2012

A friend of mine, Erin Stellato (blog | @erinstellato) is about to change jobs. She’ll go from working in an office to working at home, and I think it’s great. She’s a very smart young lady, and I think this is a terrific opportunity for her to work at SQLskills.

She posted a note that she’d love to see some work at home tips from friends, and I decided to oblige. I’ve been working at home, away from an office, both for myself and for others, for nearly a decade now. My wife has worked for nearly 20 years at home, and we’ve shared an office for most of that time. When my wife started, we had 1 kid. We now have 3, and my youngest has been watching me work at home for most of her life.

These are some random tips, based on how I work. Whether they work for you is debatable, but I think it’s worth getting a few ideas, trying them out, and incorporating them if they make your life better.

Get a Space

The first thing you really need is a separate office. I know many of us work on laptops, and we can work anywhere, but you need a place you can shut the door. There will be times that the kids are home, your spouse is looking for you, or the doorbell rings while you’re in the middle of a call. Have a door.

We’ve had a few arrangements over the years. This is the current one:

Photo Jul 16, 4 01 17 PM

I went to a standing desk, which I love. I recommend it, and I think it’s making me healthier. M wife and I have shared the space for years, with both desks being in one room. Before I started working at home, we converted a bedroom to an office, putting two kids together in one room because we knew this was critical.

Do yourself a favor, and get a separate space, preferably away from other distractions in the house. You can always take a laptop to the kitchen, or the living room, but have a set place for yourself.

Kids

Kids are the best, and worst, things in your life. They try you, push your buttons, and frustrate you in ways you could never have imagined. They also bring unbelievable joy. I love my kids, and one of the best things about working at home is that I get to see them constantly throughout the year.

For almost the entire time I’ve been working at home, I’ve taken my kids to and from school. I’ve been here when they were sick, I’ve left early to get them to sporting events. I’ve been able to sit with them after school and help them with homework, while I had my laptop nearby to work on my own work. It’s been an amazing Mr. Mom decade for me and I have tried to make as much time as I could for my kids.

However.

You have to set rules. My wife was on conference calls a lot over that time and we had to make it clear to the kids that they had to be quiet if they were home. They learned early on that when we are working, we are working. If the office door is closed, that means they can’t come in. They can’t disturb us.

We also had to teach them the difference between “want” and “need” as well as what an emergency is. If the computer freezes or the DVR won’t play, that’s not a reason to disturb my wife or me. Some rough days as the kids had a dressing down because they thought that their desire was more important than work for us.

DR Plans

One of the downsides of working at home is that you’re responsible for everything. You’re the IT guy, you’re in charge of facilities, maintenance, procurement, the cafeteria, and more. For the most part, that’s fine. Things work as expected, and life goes on. You work along, with the kitchen nearby and coffee handy.

Until something goes wrong.

I never knew how often power fluctuated at my house until I worked there. For awhile it seemed like I lost power for 5 minutes every day. Not a big deal if you come home from the office and you’re down. A bigger deal when you’re in the middle of something or have a deadline. Even worse when you have a conference call or a webinar.

You will have issues. You’ll run out of coffee. Power will go down. A piece of equipment will die on you. It will happen when you’re not expecting it.

Have some plans in place. For me, I know of 3 places I can go, relatively close, to work if I need to. I have UPSes on all equipment, and we have a generator. I keep extra coffee in the pantry.

Schedule

I’m a routine person. I like a routine, so I try to keep to a schedule. It’s not rigid, but it’s fairly regular. I get up with the kids during the school year and then go to work. I stop when they come home, get them settled, and go back to work. I used to work on Sunday mornings, drinking coffee, and moving slowly as I wrote.

I run at lunch most days, though lunch can vary from 11:30 to 1:30. I have chores when my wife is gone, which usually come after I’ve checked and processed email and before I do something else. I do admin type work in the morning, and writing/editing in the afternoon.

Those things work for me, and I think it’s key to get a routine. You know what work you need to do, and you have deadlines. I’ve never really had an issue finding work. I have an issue stopping, so a routine focuses me, and it helps me stop.

My current routine also includes time to not work, which is usually weekends now. I bend the rule if I’ve had a week where I took time off, like for a school play, or to help my wife, but for the most part, I’ve learned to stop working just because I walk by the office.

Making sure you still have time to exercise, to read, to enjoy the rest of your life. Set a routine, alter it when needed, but let it tell you that enough work is done, and go on with the rest of your life.

Multi-Tasking

This is one area where things work well for me. I can often get a few things done at once. For example, I can drive up to ski on a Wednesday while I’m taking my weekly conference call in the car. That’s multi-tasking.

My job mostly involves thought, and since I can think anywhere, I’ve done things like cutting the grass, or folding laundry while I’m working through an issue. I have watched webinars or videos, or had conference calls as well while I’m cooking, or straightening up the house.

And I don’t sweat it. Get a few things done at the same time if you can. If nothing else, it allows you to focus more on work when you need to, knowing other stuff is out of the way.

Backups

I shouldn’t have to tell IT people this, but you need backups. You never know when crap will die, and there is no one to call. I have a desktop and a laptop linked by both Live Mesh and DropBox. I make sure I have two copies of everything. I have a Windows Home Server as well that backs up machines and has copies of files (like presentations).

Keep a spare machine around. Ask work for a new one, and use your old one for backups. Keep a few spare HHDs around and back up to them. Set reminders for backups or automate them.

Hardware will die. Be prepared.

Smile

Life is good. I get more snowboarding done in one during the week in winter than most of my friends get in two on the weekends. I’ve been there to take my little girl to kindergarten almost every day of her year there. I’ve had lunch with my kids and been on more field trips than almost any parent in their classes. I’ve had dates with my wife during the day, and taken an extra day on vacation, knowing I can work anywhere. I worked on that extra day, but the family didn’t.

Working at home is great. It’s a relief, and it takes you out of so many stressful situations: traffic, unfriendly co-workers, time commuting, sick kids, and more.

Know your work, know your responsibilities, and get them done. After that, enjoy your time at home.

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6 Comments
  1. Kevin Boles permalink

    Great stuff Steve! It is a difficult and repetitive process training young children to understand the boundaries required and, as you mention, the difference between “want”, “need”, “emergency” and “EMERGENCY!!!”. My daughter Bean just turned 7 and she is finally becoming able to overcome a child’s built-in lack of ability to accept “delayed gratification” and also to respect that when the door to my office is closed there best be some arterial bleeding or a fire she can’t put out to interupt. :-)

    • Thanks, it’s definitely taken time for the kids to understand the difference. They still don’t get it right, but they back down quickly when they realize they’re intruding.

  2. Steve, great tips. I’ve been privileged to work for the past four years remotely (across the country) from home. In addition, I’d add a few other tips based on my individual work situation and experience, which might or might not apply to others. 1) For voice quality and reliability, have a land line dedicated (mostly) to work. My company has my extension at work ring directly through to that line, and by doing so I am not relying on the cell phone for long conference calls. My land line provider also allows me to use a “call forwarding immediate” feature so I can have those calls ring through from my land line to my cell when I need to work from somewhere else. You may also want to have an unlimited long distance or international plan on the land line, depending on your needs. 2) Have a dedicated computer that is located in your on-site office, to which you can remote via VPN. I use the built-in Windows Remote Desktop, and when i connect that system from home, I am relying on the VPN connection almost exclusively only for screen refreshes, and not doing any real work over the VPN such as transferring any large amounts of data. In other words, when I work from home, it is almost as if I am sitting right there in the office at work, enjoying all the benefits of being on my work’s local (fast) network. VPN is terrible as far as speed/reliabilty if you are trying to do any significant development work from home, or transferring data, but it works great for the screen refreshes over RDP, so this tip in particular can be a real lifesaver. Be sure to have the computer in the on-site office on some kind of battery or UPS backup. 3) This one is really vital. Maintain really good communication daily (and throughout the day) with your manager and co-workers. They cannot see you, and they cannot just walk over to your office or cubicle and ask you a question. This can include communicating by email, instant messaging, phone, all of those combined, or other means. It is important in particular to give visibility to what you are working on to your boss, and keep him or her in the loop on important issues or projects that are taking your time or may require your time later. 4) Buy a quality office chair. You will be spending a lot of time in it. 5) Project your work screen onto a big screen. This could be an extra-large monitor or monitors, or a TV. In my case, I connect my home laptop’s HDMI output to my big screen HD TV. Then I use a small portable computer stand for my wireless mouse and a wireless keyboard in my lap to work in front of the big TV. I have found this is easy on the eyes and on the back. 6) This point goes back to the one about communication. It applies to my work situation because I am expected to work normal business hours and be available to help people during those hours, but may still apply if you are working more of a flex schedule. If you know you are going to have distractions during your work hours (such as having to attend to a sick child who is home) or other distractions that can potentially affect your work, let your manager know as a courtesy, and clear it with him or her. Good managers will usually be understanding, as long as you can still get your work done. 7) Try to make the fact you are working remotely as seamless and invisible as possible to others. My company has done such a good job at this that many of my fellow-employees would never know I was working remotely unless I told them. One guy walked by my office daily for six months before he looked in and noticed I wasn’t there, and then suddenly realized I was not working locally. 8) Your employer has placed a great deal of trust in you by allowing you work in this situation, and has also made a positive statement about your character, work ethic, etc. Be sure to reward that trust with excellent work and performance in whatever your responsibilities are. Work to avoid doing anything that could undermine that trust. Norm Enger @stormnorm http://thesqlguy.wordpress.com.

    • Great tips, and I’d second the idea of a good chair (though I’m standing now).
      My wife has had a land line for years, and it’s been a good thing at times. I’ve gone cell-only, which has worked OK for me in my job. I don’t rely on VPN because it can be flaky, but I do have backup plans if it’s down, and the ability to work offline on other stuff until it’s back. One thing I’d also do is get a relationship with the IT guys. You want them to fix the VPN when it’s down quickly, so don’t complain to your boss when it’s not working. Work with them first.

  3. Steve, good point on the VPN reliability. Luckily ours rarely has any problems. The other thing to be concerned about is Internet connection reliability, as your VPN connection is dependent on that. No Internet, no VPN connection! I have designated some alternate places I can go to in order to get Internet if my home service goes down for an extended time. I have also invested in a broadband card (pay as you go) for my laptop, that I can use as needed, and in a pinch, I also have my smart phone cell plan include tethering, which allows me to turn my smartphone into a Wi-Fi hotspot that my laptop can then connect to.

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