One year of working from home

Varidesk adjustable height desk

For the past year or so, I have been working mainly from home. Before that, I had almost always worked from offices, so this turned out to be a bit of a change. For many people, working from seems like a dream, others prefer working in an office. There’s something to be said for both, just as there is something to be said against both. As with almost everything in life, there is a balance somewhere. And it is up to you to find this balance.

For me, the journey started roughly one year ago, when the new job I was supposed to start suddenly didn’t exist any more. (Apparently, the guy’s funding fell through and he was left without a company.) I decided to spread my chances and to start working as a contractor in software development. After a slow start, I had a bit of a break and I was able to start working for Bitgenics, a startup company based in Melbourne, VIC, and later for Mazzlo, another startup company based in Melbourne. Since I live in Perth, WA, the only option was to work from home. (I did fly to Melbourne a couple of times, because sometimes face-to-face conversations are just better than Skype.) I’d like to share with you my experiences regarding working from home for companies based in another state.

Create a good office space

If you’re working from home basically all the time, you need to create a good working environment. If you have a spare room, use that to set up shop. But make sure it’s a good space: if you’re going to spend around eight hours a day in that room, you need to have a quality office furniture. While this won’t cost you an arm and a leg, don’t go for cheap. I got a good chair for around AU$300. Make sure to “test drive” your chair. Get one with arm rests, and don’t get a “director’s” chair made from cheap fake leather. It’ll get sweaty and uncomfortable quickly. Make sure it’s adjustable, so you can experiment in finding the best configuration for you.

Get a good desk too. One with ample space for everything you need. In all fairness: Ikea actually sells relatively good desks for a reasonable price. (I believe mine was around AU$275. This is not the one shown in the picture below.) Get one that’s height-adjustable. If you’re adventurous, or health-conscious, you might want to consider getting a standing desk.

There is plenty of choice in standing desks nowadays: you can get an actual height-adjustable desk that can be set to any height, either manually or even electrically. Those don’t come cheap, though. You can also get add-ons for your regular desk, like the Varidesk shown in the picture above. You just put it on top of your regular desk, and can switch between sitting and standing. When you just start out with a standing desk, you’ll feel the need to sit down more than when you’ve become accustomed to standing. Your body needs to adjust to standing up. I got a Varidesk add-on about 3 months ago, and I hardly ever put it down any more. When I feel the urge to sit down, I usually take this as a queue to have a break. You can get a Varidesk from around AU$525.

My home office setup

One of the best yet cheapest investments I did for my home office was getting a whiteboard. It hangs on the wall behind me, and I use it all, the, time. You can use it as an offline short-term memory, to jot down ideas on, or to sketch potential solutions. I often take pictures of what I’ve written down. In fairness, I hardly ever look at the pictures, since making the drawings on the whiteboard is enough to “lock in” the ideas. You can get a whiteboard for well under AU$50 from Officeworks.

One of the most important aspects of your home office is the separation from your living space. Since you’re not really travelling to and from the office any more, it gets a bit harder to simply close the door behind you. Having a separate office that you can shut the door to helps in that sense. My office is set up in the “upstairs living”, so I don’t have that luxury.

Get good gear

I’m a software developer, and so I basically use a computer all day. I got myself a really good Ultrabook about two years ago. It’s fast, has ample memory, and is light enough to take with me when I need to travel. Yes, it’s definitely more expensive, but it’s worth it. At two years of age, it still gets the job done. Get gear that suits you now and for up to two or three years in the future. No use in buying cheap and getting frustrated after a year or so.

There’s a couple of other things I did to make my life better: I got an awesome keyboard/mouse combination. I don’t use a Mac, so there’s no need to use a fancy Apple keyboard or mouse. I use a Logitech set. I found a keyboard I like, and stuck with it. I found a mouse I like, and stuck with it. It’s a slightly bigger mouse that fits my hand almost perfectly. It actually has a free running scroll wheel. Whomever came up with that should get a big pay rise. Best idea ever. In short, I found what works best for me and didn’t think too much about the price. Mouse and keyboard are definitely not the cheapest you can buy, but it’s worth every dollar.

If you use a computer a lot (who doesn’t nowadays), you should consider getting a good screen too. I got a 28" 4K monitor, but in hindsight I should not have gotten the 4K screen. Its resolution is a bit too high for a monitor of that size, so it turns out I need to use some zooming. (I set my browser to 125% by default.) A monitor with a resolution of 3840×2160 would have suited better. I would urge you to get a single big monitor, not two smaller ones side by side. It’s better to look at something that’s straight ahead than having to move your head side-to-side continually, as if you’re watching a tennis match. In practice, you’ll probably be looking at a single application most of the time, and it should be right in front of you. I know a lot of people who swear by having two screens, so I guess it’s very personal, but for me it doesn’t work. Ergonomics over coolness any time.

If you’re working remotely, you should invest in a good webcam. It makes life so much better when using Skype, Zoom or Google Hangouts. A good webcam, like the Logitech C920, is full HD (1920×1080) and has a built-in microphone that is much better than anything inside your laptop. While you’re at it, get a good pair of speakers or headphones, whichever you prefer. I spend a lot of time in my home office, so I invested in a good sound system: I like to listen to music while working.

Get out of the house

If you’re working from home all the time, there’s really not much reason to get out of the house any more. You should, though. It’s nice to breathe in fresh air, or to feel the sun on your skin. Go for a walk, just to get out or to clear your mind. You can use your walk to relax, or actually to think. But get out of the house for a bit.

One good excuse to get out is to get your daily coffee fix. I have a fairly proper coffee machine at home, but every now and then I like to go to the coffee shop a couple of blocks away for a takeaway coffee. It’s nice to have someone make you a coffee, and it makes for a good opportunity to have a chat with someone. Or bring your laptop along, and actually do some work from your favourite coffee shop.

It can get lonely being all by yourself all day, so getting out and talking to other people is a healthy thing to do. Humans are pack animals. We really don’t do very well on our own all the time.

Look after yourself

Working from home myself, I’m often reminded about a cartoon by The Oatmeal that shows the stages of deterioration of remote workers: after some time, you’re sporting a wild beard and are not able to create coherent sentences any more. While it isn’t that bad in real life, there actually is a grain of truth in this. Don’t take Skype calls dressed up only from the waste up. Have a healthy morning routine: take a shower, get dressed, eat breakfast. Brush your teeth, things like that. Treat yourself with respect even when you don’t expect to leave the house.

Make sure you have enough breaks. It’s easy to get lost in work, but you need to step away from it every now and then. If you like this sort of thing, you can consider using Pomodoro timers to limit your consecutive working times. You can take a break after you finish a significant piece of work, or when your body starts acting up: watch out for a sore back, or tired eyes. Step away from your desk, and do something else for a while. Watch some Netflix, play a game on your PS4 or XBox, or go out for a walk.

Finally, you can look after yourself by keeping your working hours in check. One of the advantages of working from home is you can determine your own working hours. Are you a morning person? Start ridiculously early. Are you an evening person? Sleep in, and do your best work when everyone else is watching TV. It’s all fine. As long as you get stuff done. However, many people working from home feel a heightened sense of responsibility or obligation to put in extra hours or effort.

Of course, it’s perfectly okay to want to finish something, but you need to know when to draw the line. Having laptops and tablets lying around the house, doesn’t help, I know. But you need to be aware of it, otherwise you might be working all hours of all days. Get your rest, step away from the work and replenish your brain. There’s always tomorrow, or next Monday.

Wrapping up

There you have it. All the things I learned working from home, and a few tips and tricks along the way. Let me know what you think, whether you’re working from an office, or from home like me. Did I miss anything? Any tips you have for me? I’d love to hear from you!

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