Surviving Telework

The benefits of SCIF-life tend to exclude telework.  And you’ll count yourself lucky if your phone does not fry in the parking lot come summertime.  Nonetheless in the underlying restrictions one finds a wealth of under-appreciated inducements to stay focused and productive.  As we roll into this new socially distanced phase I am thankful to have had a few years of post-government life to practice operating in an increasingly fluid and virtualized modality.  I can imagine the shock others may be experiencing as they go full-remote for the first time with no preparation.

To avoid both personal and professional misery I suggest pondering three areas:

  1. Habit / Environment
  2. Ergonomics
  3. Communication

Habit / Environment

With the breakdown of natural boundaries between personal and professional reality, sustaining habits and protecting focus become crucial.  You must cultivate environmental cues to get into the zone and erect barriers both physical and virtual to protect it.  Failure to do so will leave you sluggish, distracted, frustrated, and ineffectual.

If at all possible do NOT attempt to work in a setup that your brain associates with leisure.  I recall, shortly after leaving the government, my first unexpected telework day at Bridgewater being borderline wasted.  I did not intend it to be, but I had flopped unshowered onto a beanbag chair in front of my wide screen TV, thereby adopting a context and posture that my brain associated with computer gaming on a Saturday morning.  FAIL.

Instead start by grounding yourself in a boot sequence that runs independent of where your work day will be.  For me that is coffee, breakfast, hygiene, and clothing, followed by getting to a standing desk with a proper keyboard, mouse, and monitor.  Your approach can be different but you need something to provide the cue to get into the zone.  You may also wish to take a walk that simulates your morning commute (though maybe not right now).

And then you must stay in the zone. Visually and acoustically isolate your home office setup from other household goings on.  If possible get yourself in a room with a door that you can shut.  Leverage headphones and a noise generator to enhance that isolating effect.  Negotiate and maintain clear boundaries and protocols with your cohabitants (pets and humans alike).

Ergonomics

Do not get hurt.  Suffering repetitive strain injuries in a proper office environment is all too easy.  In working at home unmindful of such things one courts disaster.

Get yourself an adjustable desk and spend as much time standing as you can manage.  Ensure that your monitor is at a height that your neck and spine can maintain a neutral posture.  If you must sit, the most important thing is having enough padding to prevent pressure points, not the “support” that fosters a weak core and ultimately a range of musculoskeletal injuries.  And when you are standing, do so on an anti-fatigue mat, avoid extended static positions, and continually stretch as a matter of course.  Consider getting a fidget bar.  Maybe keep yourself honest with an Upright GO.

Avoid working directly on a laptop for any serious amount of time.  Certainly you can use a laptop, but do not interact with it directly.  This device, for all its wondrousness, is an ergonomic disaster.  The reason comes from your need to independently adjust your input and output devices’ relative locations.  This in turn stems from the simultaneous requirements of viewing your monitor at a height such that your neck and spine can remain neutral while keyboarding with your shoulders back, your upper arm segments perpendicular to the floor, your lower arm segments parallel to the floor, and your wrists aligned with your lower arms in a neutral posture.

While there may be many options that suit your purposes, I personally fell in love with the Comfort Keyboard ~15 years ago when my government agency’s ergonomics folks introduced me to it at a time when I was scared that carpal tunnel syndrome was going to derail my nascent career as a software engineer.  This keyboard in particular exemplifies the idea of having multiple independently adjustable axes.  I’ve never used another keyboard since discovering this one and the terrifying pain that drove me to find it has never returned.

Also beware the multi-monitor trap and arrange your desktop windows mindfully.  You do not want to be spending any significant amount of time with your neck twisted or tilted.  Whatever tasks are consuming your focus for substantial periods ought be front-and-center.  Position windows to avoid having applications continually drag your focus off-center.  And if you have multiple monitors, ensure that one sits directly in front of you and others are leveraged only for peripheral awareness and/or very brief tasks.  For most folks a single massive monitor proves a superior option to multiple smaller ones.

Lastly, take breaks deliberately and switch up modalities even if just briefly to prevent rigor mortis.  Stand, sit, lie down, walk, and stretch.  Don’t eat lunch at your desk.  Take a break for some some leisure items and chores (but time box them and only start them once you’ve fully flushed your latest work context).

Communication

Communicating in a quality way can prove difficult under the best of circumstances.  And having an entire company doing remote work, especially when transitioning to that modality en masse and without warning, is far from the best of circumstances.   Worse still, the high-bandwidth and serendipity-driven nature of in-office life often serve as crutches that form and harden bad practices.

In everything you communicate, remain aware of how your engagement style and choice of medium either fosters or undermines effective knowledge transfer.  When transmitting, aim to be precise, concise, transparent, and transactable.  When receiving, assume noble intent and ask for clarification.  Think carefully about the urgency of your requests and strive for asynchronous messaging and batch-mode operation to preserve the focus and efficiency of others.  But also recognize when a problem requires a high-bandwidth and low-latency interaction and elevate your communication to the appropriate medium.

Consider the full range of your communication tools and how each one of them presents an opportunity to empower or hinder your co-workers in a way amplified by remoteness.

Stand Ups — Your organization likely consists of very different people when it comes to their skill profiles, social patterns, communication style, self-sufficiency, and comfort raising problems.  Your daily stand-up meeting represents the one opportunity to cut through all of those challenges and keep people happy and delivering.  It can also prove a quagmire without good protocols and enforcement.  Keep it simple — What did you do yesterday, what are you doing today, what promised deliverables are at risk, and how do you need help?  Everybody should be able to cover this in about a minute.  Maintain a “parking lot” for follow-up items so that you get around the room quickly instead of rabbit-holing.  And then be damned sure that all of the requisite follow-on conversations happen to get people the help they need and re-examine at risk deliverables.

Instant Messaging — Prefer posts to public channels over DMs to foster awareness and crowd source solutions serendipitously.  Leverage threading to ensure that channels remain skim-friendly and searchable while individual messages have the necessary context.  Refrain from flaring individuals or channels unless you have an urgent need to preserve focus.

Email — Be inclusive to ensure adequate transparency, clear about how you view different recipients, and mindful of wasting bandwidth.  Use the “To” line to indicate the people from whom you need something, the “CC” line to provide transparency while indicating optionality, the “BCC” line to let someone know you’re on the task while eliminating future chatter, and the “Subject” line to make inbox skimming efficient.  Leverage distribution lists to assist in adequate dissemination of information.

Issue Logs — Don’t wait until sprint retro day to dredge up things from your tired brain.  Document problems as you run into them.  Simply record the concrete bad outcome in an open-minded way.  Save diagnosis and design for later when the pain signal warrants, the frustration of the moment has bled off, and you can leverage others’ insights to get to root causes and iterate on systems to make them more resilient.

Ticketing Systems — First and foremost, just write it down, for all values of “it”.  Always.  Facing the headwind of tech debt, document it in the backlog for triage.  Having tripped over a bug, write a really clear description and include system output, screen shots, or videos to make it easy to reproduce.  Planning a sprint, write really clear user stories such that a ticket can stand on its own for a developer to know they are done and a tester to believe or refute that claim.  And, most crucially, continually update your evolving understanding of the goals or problems in the ticket instead of relying on out-of-band renegotiations.  Few things are more contentious than what “done” means when you don’t have a written agreement.  Treat your ticketing system as the system of record where your latest synthesized understanding lives.

Version Control Systems — Your VCS is not just where you push code to get reviews, maintain deltas, and trigger system deploys.  Done well this is your opportunity to have an assortment of out-of-band conversations with a variety of individuals wrangling different situations.  Technical leaders looking for patterns and problem areas, team leads trying to keep things on track, individual contributors looking for inspiration, and bug hunters seeking root causes will all thank you for taking your commit messages seriously.  Write a pithy summary line that captures the essence of the “What?” and fits inside summary line length constraints of your tooling.  Embellish in prose form within the message to summarize the “How?” and “Why?” if it won’t be evident from reading the diff.  Squash your branch to a single commit before merging and clean out your in-progress junk comments like “whoops”, “damn it”, “adding debug statement”.

Automation — Automate processes not just to improve efficiency and repeatability but also to tell a story of how things are supposed to work.  Structure code repositories the way a librarian would to foster discoverability.  Lay out the source code in projects the way an author of a book would to afford comprehensibility at multiple levels of zoom.  Craft logging and exception handling to be equally useful to humans and computers alike.  Think carefully about how you decompose logic into units and put serious effort into giving them meaningful names that communicate their purpose.  Or, if that’s too many things to remember, just remind yourself to always code as if the person who ends up maintaining your code is a violent psychopath who knows where you live.

Parting Advice

Wash your hands, stop touching your face, find a way to exercise, resolve to stay calm, support your medical professionals, and if at all possible #staythefuckhome.

 

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