This blog post was written by guest contributor Adrienne Tacke.
Have you been moved to a remote position due to COVID-19? Or maybe you’ve just graduated and are considering a career that allows you to work-from-home? Regardless of your current (or future!) working situation, remote work is becoming a more prevalent option for many employees. If you work or aspire to work in the tech industry, I’m sure many thoughts about remote work have already crossed your mind. Yes, there are many benefits (good-bye, commute!), but there are also many important considerations to take into account too. So I’d like to share with you my comprehensive guide to working from home, based on my own experiences as a software developer who’s successfully worked remotely for the last year.
I’ve broken down my best advice into two categories: physically and mentally preparing to work from home. Both are required to make sure you have the most optimal environment to work from home!
Physically Preparing to Work From Home
Separating your spaces
First things first, your physical workspace! To set the right foundation for working from home, try separating your “living” and “working” spaces. You’ll want a dedicated area that will be used for focused coding, video meetings, and other work-related activities. This can be a dedicated office, a desk in a cozy corner of the room, or even one half of your dining table or kitchen island. Though it seems like remote work can only be possible with a fully dedicated and separate room, that’s simply not true! While ideal, it’s definitely not required. What matters most is that there’s enough of a physical distinction between your working and living areas so that you can keep them separate!
Choosing a “prime” workspace
I’ve moved around my own living space a few times before settling on the right corner to call “office”! Three characteristics made my current workspace a prime location:
It’s separate from where I live and play.
I usually play video games or watch some shows in my bedroom, as that’s the most comfortable room to do so. Though I do have another desk in that room, I didn’t choose that area as my workspace, as that would mix way too many activities into a single area! Instead, I chose a place that at least forces me out of bed and into a different environment from where I sleep and play.
It has ample natural light during the day.
Remote work means video calls and meetings, so finding a place with ample natural light is key. While buying an extra lamp or even a bright ring light is nice, you don’t need to spend the extra money! By choosing a place that already has great lighting, you’ll give yourself one less thing to worry about and one less thing to spend money on. Two-for-one bonus: The natural light can brighten your mood, and the view from your window gives your eyes a much-needed and scenic break from the screen!
It’s large enough to accommodate all of my equipment.
At the very least, the space you choose needs to be able to handle your normal working environment. If that means a laptop, a notebook, and a coffee mug, find a place that can fit all that. Alternatively, if you have dual monitors, audio equipment, a speaker system, and more—well, it’s the same advice: Find a place that can fit all that. You need to be able to do what you’d normally do in an office setting, so the prime workspace in your home needs to match.
The right tools for the job
Awesome! You’ve chosen the perfect spot to set up your workspace. Now what? In order to work from home effectively, you’ll need a few essentials: a desk, a chair, a webcam, a microphone, and some headphones. For the most part, your laptop’s integrated webcam and microphone will be more than enough for your remote work needs. If you require higher video and audio production quality (say for content creation or streaming), only then should you consider looking into additional equipment.
With that said, let’s go into more detail about the most important parts of your setup.
Aside from your chair, your desk is one of the most important pieces of your workspace setup. This should be any flat surface that comfortably holds all of your equipment and is sized correctly for you. The optimal desk shouldn’t have anything hanging anything off the side, require you to stack things on top of one another for additional space, or be uncomfortable for you to use with your given space and chair. As a good rule of thumb, it’s suggested you take your height and divide it by 2.5. The resulting number is said to be the best height for your desk.
As an example, I’m about 62” inches tall (157 cm for our metric folks). Dividing that by 2.5 results in about 25” inches (63.5 cm). This is an accurate calculation for my perfect desk height, as a desk this tall is the most comfortable and natural for me to work in. My feet remain flat on the floor (and can actually touch the floor without the help of a footrest!) and my back is not stretched awkwardly to reach the desk.
One of the best investments to consider (that is also worth the hype) is getting a standing desk. As software developers, we spend the majority of our time at our desks writing code or meeting with our team over video calls and Slack. Having an adjustable standing desk is a great way to break the never-ending cycle of sitting.
The best ones have the largest adjustment ranges, are programmable to specific sitting and standing positions, and have a solid frame that doesn’t wobble. Keep in mind your perfect desk height, and make sure the standing desk you are considering can lower to your calculated height! You can also consider accessories that transform your existing desk into a standing one or use some books or boxes as a makeshift standing desk to lift your laptop to standing height!
Just as important as your desk is your chair. Ideally, your chair will have an adjustable seat, and the more adjustment options, the better. As noted above, I’m pretty short, so I needed a chair that would adjust pretty low to allow my feet to touch the ground. My chair also has moveable arms, lower back support, an adjustable seat depth, straight-back and lean-back options, and wheels that move effortlessly. It is the perfect match to my desk and gives me the most support to stay focused during the day.
Try to avoid chairs that have no back support at all, have little to no padding on the seat, and are not the right height for you. In other words, it is worth the investment to get a proper chair rather than using a spare dining room chair or your piano bench. And if you get a standing desk and feel like you may need a stool while standing, take that into consideration as well!
Setting expectations with nonworking house members
Great, you’re all set up in your workspace! Next, a critical piece of working from home effectively is to set expectations with your working hours. Just as you’ve established a few rules with your workspace, it’s equally important to set expectations with any nonworking people who will be in the same house as you!
As you begin this process, sit everyone down and lay out your working needs. “Between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., I will be working in my designated workspace. I would appreciate it if you could keep it quiet during these hours, or stay in the living room, or only communicate with me via text while I do!”
I’ve found that establishing a creative communication system, paired with a clear conversation about work hour expectations, provide the greatest chance for success in a remote work environment with others. And there’s no shortage of creative communication systems!
I’ve seen plenty of neat ideas to convey quiet or busy hours to nonworking household members! One remote worker used a Raspberry Pi to control some lights outside their door. Red meant quiet hours, while green signaled to everyone that it was okay to make some noise or stop by! Another idea involved using emojis as indicators for “I’m busy,” “instant message only,” and “I’m free.” What other fun ideas would you employ as your communication system?
Both working from home?
As both my husband and I are software developers, we both luckily have the option to work from home. This means that the prime location I scouted was also his prime workspace location! With a few conversations and ground rules, though, we made the shared space work! Here’s how:
We hold mini check-ins with each other.
Every night before work, we do a quick run-through of each other’s schedules. This gives us an idea of when we may have conflicting meetings and time to decide beforehand who gets the office space and who goes to a different space. This drastically reduces our stress during the workday, as we don’t have to worry about talking over each other.
We are considerate of each other.
I have a super sweet, but super noisy mechanical keyboard as part of my setup. When my husband has a meeting and I don’t, I try to limit the use of my keyboard to reduce the noise. If I really have to type, I move to the bedroom with my laptop and work there until he’s finished with his meeting. By the same token, I’ll sometimes need focus time and may not want to wear my headphones (or have worn them for too long already). When this happens, my husband is nice enough to put on his headphones so he can listen to his drum and bass while coding, leaving me with the focus time I need!
We work smarter to work in harmony.
Since we are both at our computers at the same time, we use chat as much as possible so that we don’t interrupt one another. We employ the emoji status strategy as well, and we have our meeting schedules on a shared calendar as an additional way to communicate our work priorities for the day.
By following these tips and setting expectations with your shared space partner, you can make working from home together work for you as well!
Mentally Preparing to Work From Home
Starting your workday right
Now that there’s no commute or mad rush to get ready in the morning, take advantage of the extra time to start your day right. To do that, I suggest finding your kickstarter. What’s that, you may ask? It can be many things, like a set of morning rituals or something you do for yourself before your day begins. What’s most important is to find a kickstarter that sets the mood for the rest of your day.
For me, that means taking my time to make my coffee before I do anything else. I grind my favorite coffee beans fresh, boil some water, brew the coffee in my French press, and really enjoy my first cup. After having that first cup of joe, I’m ready to take on the world and have mentally acknowledged that my work hours have begun.
Working from home can easily make time seem like a blur, especially since your living and working space is now shared. But pairing this kind of mental cue with the physical separation of your living and working spaces acts as a great way to tell your brain that it’s time for work!
To dress up or not to dress up?
Though there are no hard-and-fast rules about how to dress while working from home, it’s important to consider the following benefits if you do dress up:
- Dressing up in the morning acts as another mental cue for your brain, strengthening the distinction between work and play.
- Dressing up can make you feel more confident and ready to take on the day.
- Unexpected (or expected!) video calls are no longer stressful, as you’ll never be caught off guard and “not ready.”
- Dressing up increases the likelihood that you’ll turn on your video during calls, which is so important for maintaining a human connection while working remotely.
- Dressing up helps you maintain a more professional look.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you need to wear a suit and tie or a fancy dress. No! “Dressing up” in this context simply means not wearing what you wore to bed or wearing something only slightly better than sweats! It’s also worth noting that if you want to wear your office outfits, do it! You might as well put that wardrobe to good use.
Keeping balanced throughout the day
As we focus on our workspaces, especially at home, it becomes even easier to lose track of time. This can result in unhealthy periods of sitting or skipping out on natural interruptions to our day. Luckily there are several ways to make sure we take time for ourselves:
- Use that calendar!
One of the best ways to avoid staring mindlessly at the computer for hours is to use that calendar! Schedule breaks and put lunch on your calendar. Block out focus time too. By being strict with your time, you can make sure you get the breaks you need and keep a healthy balance during your workday
- Take meeting breaks.
One of my favorite things about working for MongoDB is that everyone respects meeting breaks. It’s pretty universally agreed upon to make sure that we leave 15-minute increments in between scheduled meetings. That way, no one ever has back-to-back (to back!) meetings and can catch a breather or take a bathroom break. By enforcing this kind of rule in your own schedule (and hopefully getting your team on board!), you lessen the chance of meeting burnout.
- Use playlists to determine focus hours.
A really effective thing I like to do is create playlists that are of a certain length. I have playlists that are exactly an hour long and 30 minutes long. When I want to focus on a task, I start one of these playlists and immerse myself into my work. Once the playlist is over, I know that I have been focused for the specified amount of time. I use the end of the playlist as a cue to get up and stretch, take a break, or remind myself that I’ve at least had a full focused hour of work!
Ah, the workday is over, and now it’s time to relax! Sometimes that can be hard to do, especially since you’re already home. To help your brain know that it’s time to relax and do something other than work, try these effective tips:
- Turn off your notifications!
Never feel guilty for keeping your notifications off after work hours. By giving yourself the maximum time to recharge, you’ll lower the chances of burning out and maintain the best balance between work and play while working from home!
- Find a cooldown ritual.
As with our kickstarter, a cooldown can ritual.¹Aswkday” mental cue your brain needs to switch off work mode. Play a game or take a walk. If you can, leave your workspace and settle into your living space.
- If you’re up for it, learn something new!
Having no commute means extra time at the end of your day as well! And if you’re working toward a larger goal or want to take advantage of that time, I highly suggest upskilling yourself.
If you’re looking to learn something new I have some news for you. The Software Guild has partnered with mthree to offer the Aspire Scholarship to recent computer science or STEM students and graduates! This scholarship awards you with a 12-week online training bootcamp that equips you with the skills you need to be a full-stack Java developer. The Software Guild teaches you what you need to know to be a marketable Java developer, and mthree will help you land a full-time role! Learn more about this awesome scholarship here!
Upskilling yourself also means finally starting that new hobby you’ve “never” had the time for. Whether that’s baking, learning how to create 3D models, playing an instrument, or writing a novel, you’ll find a plethora of YouTube videos, blog posts, and helpful articles like this one to help you get started! If learning how to code happens to be the new hobby you’ve wanted to learn, one great way to do this is through The Software Guild’s Online Badge Program, which is a self-paced coding program. And if you keep at it a little bit each day, you’ll see progress in no time!
You’re Ready to Work From Home!
That’s it! That’s all of my experience and best advice for effectively working from home, condensed into one comprehensive post. I hope you are better prepared for what’s to come or have learned some new tips to make your current remote work situation better! No matter where you are on your software development journey, following this guide should set you on the right path to effectively working from home!