The Joys and Pitfalls of Remote Working

If you had told me one year ago that I’d be working from home full-time within one year, I’d have laughed. A lot of companies did not seem to care much about remote working. And even if they’d allow it, it was mostly just for one day a week, or two days max. The reasons weren’t always clear, but based on what I heard I determined that it mostly had to do with either trust issues with the direct managers (scrum masters, team leads, etc) who wanted to be able to actually see you do your work, or it had to do with the inability or unwillingness of upper management to facilitate remote work.

Now I’m not going to say that the trust issues or the inability or unwillingness changed from one day to the next due to people seeing the light of remote working, but let’s just say a virus did change one thing: The necessity to allow remote working. In many countries, it is currently prohibited or at the very least strongly discouraged to work in the office if it is possible to do your work from home. And if there is any job that can be done from home, it is developing software.

Or is it?

The pitfalls

There are several pitfalls, things you should try to avoid. Some of them may be out of your control, but even when they are, being aware of them allows you to try and get the right people to solve them for you.

Connectivity

If your company has its security in order, there is a good chance that connecting to the servers of your company may not be possible unless you’re in the office network. This usually means you need some kind of corporate VPN. Depending on your company structure, obtaining that may take some effort. Chase the people down that have to arrange this, especially when you can’t do your work without the VPN.

Sometimes, however, the VPN will be available, but there may be a clash between the IP ranges of your office network and your local network at home. If you want remote working to succeed, you need to be prepared to update the IP-range of your local network.

Communication

When you’re in the office with your colleagues it is quite easy to communicate with each other. Every gesture, every word you say is seen and heard by the people around you. When you get up to get some coffee or water or head to the toilet, people see that happen. When someone comes to your desk and you’re not there, they see that you’re not there.

When working remotely, this is different. People can’t see where you are or what you are doing. So it’s important to be quite “noisy” in the Slack, Teams, XMPP, or other communication media your company uses. Managing expectations is important here: when you’re not at your keyboard for a bit, let people know you’re gone for a bit. When you’re going to focus for a while, let people know so people know not to expect an immediate response from you. This is extremely hard, even after all this time I don’t always do this either. Try to do this as much as possible. This will prevent a lot of frustration on the other side.

Another important thing to realize is that written text is different from spoken text. You’re missing body language, intonation, basically everything that communicates the intent of what is being said. So when reading things said by your colleagues, take a bit longer to understand how things are being said. If it is unclear, ask for clarification. Try to minimize assumptions when communicating in written text.

Distraction

One of the things I hear most from my fellow developers is that they easily get distracted at home. When you work in the office, you go there with a single purpose: To do your work. When you’re at home, you’re surrounded by things that are not related to work at all which you would give attention to when you would not be working.

If possible in your home situation, you should try and create a separate place where you can work which is away from your normal living situation. Preferably a separate room, but having a desk somewhere in a corner works as well. The most important purpose is to try and create a separation between work and the rest of your life. What can also help is not turn on the radio but listen to music on headphones, because that creates a certain isolation. Additionally, every once in a while, embrace distraction. When you’re in the office you get distracted by colleagues, by grabbing a coffee or some water, etc. Allow yourself some distraction at home every once in a while by cleaning a bit, doing the dishes, or put laundry in the machine. After you’ve allowed for the distraction, it will be easier to focus.

The joys

Working from home can also give you much joy. So let’s also focus on the positive side of working remotely.

No travel = more time

When you’re working from home, your commute is basically from the moment you get up to work until the moment you sit down at your computer. Because there is no travel involved, this saves you a lot of time. Time you can spend on other, more fun stuff.

Take some extra time in your day to read, for instance. This can be a work-related book, but also whatever book you like to read. Perhaps you’re more into gaming. In that case, if you start a bit earlier (there’s no travel, so why not?) take an extended lunch break and play a computer game after you’ve had your lunch. This helps you unwind from your work for a bit and you’ll return to work ready to take on the world again. One thing I’ve started doing every morning before I sit down at the computer is to take a walk. My Apple Watch tells me I should be doing a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise every day, and I get it out of the way early in the morning. I take a brisk > 30-minute walk which gets me my exercise, but also ensures that once I sit down at the computer, I’m wide awake and ready to get cracking.

Get your chores done

Wherever you work, you should take regular breaks. This prevents work-related injuries such as RSI, makes sure you don’t wear yourself out and are able to concentrate, and keeps your body in a usable state. While at home, there is nothing stopping you from using break time to do some chores. As I mentioned before when talking about distractions, it’s fine to do the dishes, put some laundry in the machine, vacuum the room, etc. It will take your mind off work for a bit (which is good) and again save you some time that can be spent on the fun things in life.

More focus

One of the best advantages of working from home is the fact that there are fewer colleagues interrupting you from your work. It is easier to ignore a chat notification than it is ignoring a colleague standing beside your desk. So make use of that added concentration to get more work done. That feels more rewarding to you, and your boss will be happy as well. And not unimportantly: If the world ever goes back to the old normal, you’ve proven you can work from home and if you want might be allowed to work from home more often.

Ordinary world

We’re living in a very strange world since COVID-19 hit. We have no idea if we’ll ever go back to “the old normal”. I, for one, hope this crisis will teach us that maybe, we don’t even want to go back to that version of normal. The perfect ordinary world after COVID-19, at least for me, allows for much more choice for employees. And one of those choices is to allow for more remote working. The fear that many managers have had in the past has turned out to not be such a big problem after all. And remote working is not for everyone, so it would be great if employees simply get the choice: Work in the office, work remote, or mix it up a bit.

Above all, I hope that your 2021 may be better than your 2020.

I missed the PHPamily

As 2014 progressed, I found out about mental health, and what it can do to you. As I attended the Open Sourcing Mental Illnesses talk by Ed Finkler at TrueNorthPHP in November 2013 a lot of Ed’s stories felt uncomfortably close to me.  That which I had thought was part of life had a name. And something could be done about it. As I attended the Mental Health Summit at php[tek] in 2014 and heard the stories of more people with mental health issues I decided it was time to get help. I started talking to my wife about it, and my doctor directed me to a therapist.

Some of those sessions were hard. I scheduled them during days I was not really supposed to do anything, because sometimes I’d come back from a session and be drained of energy in such a way that I literally could not do anything afterwards.

Up until that point I was doing a lot of conferences. Mostly as a speaker, sometimes as a delegate. I decided that it was time for a break. I would not do any conferences, with the exception of conferences I was invited to do a keynote at (which was still something I had never done and really wanted to do). And so as PHPNW14 was over, I headed home with the plan to take that time to save some energy and be back at the whole conference adventure starting at PHPNW15.

Not doing any conferences taught me a couple of things. First of all, it taught me that conferences, as much fun as they are, take a lot of energy. The result of not doing any conferences for a year was that I had a lot more time and energy for other things. I have the utmost respect for some of the regular speakers that do multiple conferences in a row and are still able to have a life. I definitely learned that even with my modest amount of conferences every year, it was actually too much. As it turned out, low energy had a bad effect on my mental health. As I’d get into conferences again, I should do less conferences. Not an easy thing to do, but in the end, (mental) health is more important.

Another thing I learned though is how much of a family the PHP community is to me. As months went by without attending conferences, I realised how much I missed meeting the people from the community. PHP community members are like those family members that live far away and you don’t speak to often. If you don’t talk to them at all anymore, you start missing them.

Despite the occassional riot strong discussion in the community, the PHP community is awesome. During my year off, I had 2 occassions to meet the family: I was invited to keynote at the unKonf in Mannheim and I attended Dutch PHP Conference. Those occassions to meet the family were fantastic, and made me realise how much I missed the people in that family.

If you have never been to a conference, I urge you to make it a new years resolution to attend one. If you’ve been at a conference before or are a conference regular: Consider the amount of awesome people around you when you’re at a conference. Thank you, PHPamily, for being so incredibly awesome and supportive of all members.