How I Work– Working From Home

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I work from home – and I would find it difficult to work any other way. For decades I’ve worked in traditional offices, cubicle-farms, and open-plan work areas. I find them too bright, too loud, too distracting, and in some cases, too depressing to be effective. Working from home offers me a zero-commute, largely stress-free way of working that I really like. I just find it one of the most effective, efficient and enjoyable ways to work.

But there are some caveats.

I’ve read a lot of blogs that talk about how difficult it is to work from home, articles that explain how ineffective home workers are, and how it’s difficult to monitor and manage remote workers. I find those interesting, since I’ve not experienced that. I thought I might take a few moments to explain how I work at home, and the attributes that make this style of working most effective. Every person is different, so perhaps it’s a combination of factors that make working remotely successful for one person and not another. 

Personal Work Style

I am a very self-motivated person. I am goal-oriented, which means that when I’m given an assignment, I start a work-back schedule and immediate sort out my time and start working the tasks to get to the goal. And I don’t have to be given a specific goal – if my company gives me the direction they want to go, I’ll make goals that take us both in that direction. That’s a large part of working remotely – you have to be self-motivated.

I also like to focus during certain periods of time. No music, no talking, no e-mail, twitter, or Facebook; no interruptions, just an hour or so of “heads-down” work. I don’t work like that all the time, but when I do, I want that extreme focus available. Working remotely allows me to control the environment enough to do that.

In fact, I don’t like having set tasks to do each day. I can certainly do that kind of work, but I’d much rather work towards a goal, and set up my own tasks.

To work remotely, you’ll need to be self-motivated as well. In many cases, those who work remotely don’t have a daily stand-up meeting or scrum that they are part of. That means no one is watching to see if they are on-task – and for some folks, that allows them not to be as focused as having that pressure of knowing they are being tracked.

You’ll need to be able to stay focused on the work you need to do. It is incredibly easy to be sidetracked when you work remotely. You have to be ruthless about looking forward to the goal, creating a schedule and staying on that schedule. I live and die by my Outlook Tasks. Every e-mail I get is turned into a task if there is anything needed from me. I make those tasks visible to my boss, so he knows at all times what I’m up to without bothering me for status. When I finish the work, I close the task.

You’ll need to be able to be “compartmentalized”. When you’re at work, be at work. When you’re done, shut it off. When you’re working at home, it’s far too easy for those lines to become blurred, and for your home and work life to mix. Some of that is unavoidable, but I minimize it as much as I can. Even my family helps – they know that when I’m in my room that serves as my office with the door closed, I’m not home. I’m at work. Unless it’s an emergency, they treat it as if I’ve left the house.

That doesn’t mean I work 9-5 – far from it. I get up very early, and make coffee, open up the house, and turn on the laptop. I check e-mail (but I don’t answer them yet) social networks, and my RSS feeds (I have several hundred I glance through). When my family wakes up a few minutes later, I stop work, we go for a walk around a pond near our home (about a half-a mile) rain or snow. We come back, I get back to work on the day’s tasks. I stop again, we eat breakfast together, and then my wife is off to work and my daughter is off to school. I’m now ready to start phone calls, client visits, or work on architectures and solutions. When I can I eat lunch, take the dog for another walk, and get back to work. My daughter comes home from school, and I stop and chat with her about her day. She goes off to do her homework, and I get back to work. When my wife gets home in the evenings, I stop work, cook dinner, and then read most nights when I’m not teaching college. On the weekends we go various places around Washington and Oregon, and on Sundays I go to church. I do have to work a weekend here or there, but I don’t work on Sunday – or even open the laptop very often – unless I have to. That’s my schedule, and it suits me not to have to sit in traffic or deal with office politics. I’m most effective this way.

Work

Not every job can be done remotely.

I chose the Role I have at Microsoft carefully, and in the largest part because it allows me to work remotely. My job is to support customers when they are investigating using our technologies to solve a problem. It’s at various parts of the sales cycle, but I’m assigned a territory (the entire Pacific Northwest of the U.S.) to work directly with our clients and whatever team at Microsoft is helping them at the moment. I currently work with Windows Azure, specializing in  things like architecting systems, data systems, and security. That means I’m either on a web-conference, at the client’s office, or working architecture designs. That lends itself well to working remotely.

So your work needs to be able to be done remotely. If you’re able to use e-mail and the phone/webcam to communicate, if your work doesn’t require a lot of in-person meetings, and if you’re able to work independently and then submit your part of the work to a larger group using a computer network, then you’re probably able to work remotely. Also, if your work involves visiting clients often you’re not in the office most of the time anyway – so you could probably work remotely then as well. 

Environment

Having the location and tools to work remotely is essential to success. First, you need a place where you can work. I have a home office, a dedicated room in the house that I use for work. It has a door, and when I close that I can isolate myself for calls, web broadcasts, collaboration and to focus. For me, a specific, private room or place in the house is very important.

That being said, I very often take my office with me to another location. When the family leaves for the day, I can pick up my laptop (I use a Lenovo X220 with SSD’s and a lot of RAM, with Windows 8 and Microsoft Office) and head outside when the weather is nice. I grab a cup of coffee, head to the porch, and stay heads-down on the work. Sometimes I go to a coffee shop, sometimes I go to the Public Library, a University of Washington location, or just by a lake or stream. When I am remote I take my phone with me.

You’ll need a fast Internet connection – business class if you can get it – if you’re doing web conferences. You want to remain professional, and nothing says “I’m an amateur” faster than a spotty network connection, especially if you use an IP phone. My company doesn’t pay for the connection, I just treat it as my commute-money. It’s worth it. And you’ll need a backup. I do have a MiFi device in case I’m by that pond or mountain or when the Internet goes out – I don’t rely on public Internet when I’m out. And I try to be on my business class Internet when I’m on a call or web conference. If I have to I’ll drive in to a Microsoft office to use a dedicated connection if the one at home is out. I won’t compromise the client’s experience on my convenience.

I have an inexpensive server in the house, where I run Windows 2008 R2 Server. I have several VM’s there that I remote into, and those are my demo machines, development workstations and so on. I back that up to an external drive which I keep at a friend’s house. I also make sure all of my critical work files are kept in Windows Azure storage for a remote backup.

I use my regular laptop for just a few tools:

  • OneNote – For everything. I use it for typing, a light spreadsheet and math tool, graphics, presenting (yup, that’s what I use), whiteboarding, everything. I use my Windows Live SkyDrive for all my notebooks, and then I open them using the local OneNote tool. That way I have the rich tool interface, backups of all my data, and when needed I can use the web OneNote to do my work on any computer connected to the Internet. I can even share out the NoteBooks (I do this all the time) and work with clients or internal teams real-time. It’s a one-product SharePoint, at least for me.
  • Outlook – From e-mail to RSS feeds to calendar and tasks, I live and die on Outlook. Once again I use the “fat” client for almost everything local, but connected over the web interface whenever I need to, and of course that’s backed up on corporate.
  • PowerPoint – don’t be a hater. I love PowerPoint. In fact, every time (every single time) I’ve seen someone whining about how bad PowerPoint is I find out they stink at using PowerPoint. If you take the time to learn it, you can do everything from presentations to simple designs, whiteboarding and even full on training sessions using it. I also store the Presos on my Skydrive, and I can (and have) presented from Office Live Apps.
  • Visual Studio – I do all my coding, database and data work, and design work in VS. I check all my code into GIT or VSTS, depending on the client.
  • Lync – One of the best communication tools I’ve used. It’s my IP phone, internal chat, internal groups, webcam presentation, and a really nice collaborative whiteboard tool. I do entire design sessions using only Lync.

You’ll have to decide whether you like a noisy, busy environment, or a quiet, serene one. I like both, depending on what I’m doing. I normally work mostly here at home listing to music, but from time to time I’ll get out where there are more people I can interact with.

Communication

You’ll find that working at home can be very solitary. The whole point of being away from everyone is that you’re away from everyone – but this can be a problem. You need periodic interaction. I have regular staff meetings online with my team, I stay connected and chat often using Lync, and I do visit client and Microsoft offices from time to time.

And I use social media. Twitter I use for general chatter, and I do this throughout the day when I’m waiting for a compile or some other task to finish. Facebook is where I post more family or longer interactions. LinkedIn, which I use a great deal, is for only work-related information, chats, groups and so on. Can these be time-wasters, or not be useful? Of course. That’s where the self-discipline comes in. I put into those networks exactly what I want out of them, and when I’m busy, I shut them off.

I don’t like e-mail. I get tons of it – but I try to use the phone whenever I can. I think that’s especially important for a remote worker. I also make sure my boss knows what I’m up to. I want to make sure come promotion time that he knows I’m effective, efficient, and valuable. That means chatting with him on a weekly basis, and letting him know my successes and challenges. I don’t want our first conversation to be at review time.

And I go to in-person events as often as I can. From PASS to SQL Saturdays, user groups, anything I can make time for. These are not part of my job – I’m not paid to do public speaking, nor is it a requirement of my job – but I’ll volunteer to speak so that I can go to an event. 

The key is to develop your lines of peer-to-peer contacts with whatever tools you like so that you’re not an island. I use Lync, internal groups at Microsoft, and LinkedIn to stay up to date with my industry peers. There’s a lot of chaff in all of those, but I put the work in to make them effective for me.

Company

Your company has to buy in to all this.

If they simply allow you (begrudgingly) to work at home, you’re doomed to fail. You’ll be left out of the loop, not invited to meetings, forgotten, and your professional brand will slowly wither and die. You have to get your manager and your company to see the value in your not taking up space in their building. You have to sell it.

Microsoft is very remote-worker friendly. They have an entire set of tools to make us successful. We have training for working remotely, and our managers are trained to have remote workers. Some do that well, others don’t. I don’t work for the managers that aren’t good at managing remote workers.

So it seems that there are a lot of factors that go into making a successful remote worker – it’s not just staying at home in your pajamas, checking e-mails now and again. It’s a combination of how you work, what the work is, how well you can stay connected, and the level your company supports you.

And I love it.

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  • Well written article and very similar to my approach on working from or at home. I was just wondering -and I am well aware that this is not your key expertise- how you've set up the Outlook Task system in terms of categories, status, assignments etc. maybe even in collaboration with SharePoint? I find it very hard to build a system suitable to my needs as a PM for different (large) projects and manage it all from one place (instead of using separate progress reports, OneNote books :-) , issue lists, etc.)

  • Koen - thanks for reading. I use all of the Outlook Task fields I can, but it certainly isn't a full-fledged Project Management system by any means. However...

    I have used Microsoft Project in conjunction with Outlook, and it extends the features in tasks to report back to a larger system. Another add-in I like a great deal is Outlook Business Contact Manager - really beefs up Outlook. There are others as well. However, all of these (necessarily) map back to a particular instance of Outlook - which breaks my "work on any machine" motif I need.

    Sometimes when I visit clients they won't let me through their firewall to do presentations and so on, so I just use one of their laptops and do everything from the web. As such, I do fine with tasks, since it has a Rich Text field  I can put anything in. I primarily use it as a GTD methodology and so on.

  • Buck-

    Thank you for taking the time to write all of this. I find it very valuable and will be a great reference for me going forward.  I have thought through many of the concepts you discuss, but it helps to see someone else describe how they do it, and how it works for them.  I realize that your method may not be right for me, but there are many great ideas here that I want to implement.

    I can see how changing the setting (either different rooms in the house, or getting out) is helpful - that is what I will have to work at the most.  But lots of great info; many, many thanks!

    Erin

  • Indeed Buck... What Erin said... :)

    Sincerely though, thank you for sharing!

  • Hi Buck,

    Great article, one that I am sure that I'll find valuableas I start my new remote job. Thanks for taking the time to write this.

  • Thanks for this, a really good read. Been thinking of the move to work from home, this gives me some information to help me make the move.

  • Thanks for writing this Buck. I am sure I will try many of the bullet points in here.

    I don't have to reinvent the wheel for some known issues.

  • Great article. . .I worked at home for 11 years and loved it.  People laughed when I told them that it takes a great deal of discipline to step away from the vacuum cleaner and dishes in the sink, but it is key to working successfully at home.  Transitioning back to an office environment took a long time and I'm sure I'm still not as productive as I was at home because of interruptions, but I do like working with other people and the on-going learning and exchange of ideas that happens in that environment too.  

  • Buck -

    Very Well written article and definitely I have taken notes of the points that I can implement to get my "Work from Home" more better :-)

  • Great Article!.. Wish my company allowed me for this......

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