WFH – How to Master Working From Home

Working From Home

As the Chinese say, “May we live in Interesting Times”.  Considering the Chinese symbol for Crisis and Opportunity are the same, these are definitely interesting times.

I’ve had the privilege of working from home since 1995 when I worked for an interactive voice response (IVR) system company called Edify and had setup at my house a 4-port Dialogic PBX to develop and test those voice systems under a small load.  Back in those days, things were very different and there have been massive improvement with distributed communication since that time.

For today, my experience indicates having some basics covered to maximize your remote capabilities.  They are the following given as a “baker’s dozen”:

  1. Invest in a good head set and microphone
  2. Invest in a strong, reliable Internet connection
  3. Test connections early and often
  4. Use Video… always
  5. Set up a Productive Remote Office
  6. Minimize interruptions using the “Stephen King” rule
  7. Over communicate
  8. Set work boundaries
  9. Leverage computer over phone dial-in
  10. Have 1:1 meetings and small group meetings
  11. Become a master of chat and “back channeling”
  12. Pick up new Remote Communication Techniques
  13. Start using powerful chat tools like Slack, MS Teams and Discord

Now here are the details:

  • Invest in a good head set and microphone

I personally am pretty cheap and have a Logitech HD 1080p camera along with a Jabra “hockey puck” speaker.  A step up would be a Yeti Blue or Snowball microphone.  In any case, do NOT depend on your integrated laptop camera, speaker and mic.  They are woefully weak sauce and will make you sound like your are in a tunnel far, far away.

  • Invest in a strong, reliable Internet connection

Please, just do it!

Google “speed test” and make sure your download speed is at least 20mbps.  I prefer 50mbps and even had over 200mbps when working in Chicago.  Upload speed is usually less important, but recommend at least 10mbps for that too. I currently have an ethernet cable connected to my work computer getting 60mbps both download and upload speeds.

  • Test connections early and often

I recently failed here where I did not go into a scheduled online meeting five minutes early and due to a surprise, had to reschedule under a new call bridge.  Due to this, the meeting started 4 minutes late.  Multiply that by the number of participants and that’s a lot of wasted time!

If you are the meeting host, jump into the meeting 5 minutes early.  A meeting reminder will help with that.  Also, if a *new* meeting, test the bridge at least 30 minutes before to ensure all is working.

Sometimes you may have back-to-back meetings, so this isn’t possible, but attempt to test in advance for any uncertainty as much as you can.

  • Use Video… always

This can be very difficult for those new to remote work, but essential to keep the communication fidelity high.  I personally had trouble doing this for years, but finally gotten used to it.  Invest in a background screen if you are embarrassed by your work environment or using virtual screen if available (Zoom has them as long as your device’s video can handle).

  • Set up a Productive Remote Office

Its very important to have a comfortable chair, a quiet place and the temperature set just like you wish.  Make sure you minimize interruptions…

  • Minimize interruptions using the “Stephen King” rule

One of my all-time favorite books is, “On Writing” by Stephen King.  It’s not a horror story, but more of an autobiography.  One part that will always stick in my mind is his work environment.  Stephen has a room dedicated to his work, even when he travels.  He works every day of the year even on Thanksgiving and Christmas (but works less).

His rule: when the door is closed, don’t even knock unless its an emergency.  His wife would slide food under the door so he doesn’t get disturbed for lunch.

Now we aren’t all as rich as Stephen King, so you will have to work out policies that work best with your family, but I consider the “Stephen King rule” as a goal to seek.

  • Over communicate

When in a remote meeting, repeating information worth mentioning more than once since participants may miss information due to kids yelling in the background, technical brownout, spouse knocking on the door (see “Stephen King rule”) etc.  Confirm everyone heard to validate alignment.  The time lost doing this outweigh the later discovery participants missed a key message and do the wrong work.

  • Set work boundaries

Included with the “Stephen King rule”, determine times you work and don’t work.  For instance, I go usually from 6am – 8pm (not that I work that whole time).  Anything outside of that time is NOT work.  I just cut off during that period.

  • Leverage computer over phone dial-in

Having a separate call-in bridge is an extra step and a loss of time for each participant.  If you do the other steps, this should be a given.

  • Have 1:1 meetings and small group meetings

Leaders, this is especially for you.

Get into the habit of “management by walking around” virtually via individual and small group meetings to know what’s going on and keeping a heartbeat with your team, program, division and company.  I have plenty of topics and formats to make this more productive.

  • Become a master of chat and “back channeling”

Get familiar and proficient at messaging each other with group messaging (like in Skype, Zoom and Adobe Connect meetings) and “back channeling” (like with Skype, Teams and other 1:1 messaging tools) to have private feedback during an online meeting.  Learn about how to use emoticons and direct responses versus new responses versus group responses.

  • Pick up new Remote Communication Techniques

Learn the power of remote communication techniques like screen sharing (that’s table stakes folks), Zoom’s breakout sessions and Google Jam Board.  Tools like Miro and PIPlanning.io can help with SAFe’s Program Increment Planning events.

  • Start using powerful chat tools like Slack, MS Teams and Discord

Using chat tools like Slack, MS Teams and Discord to communicate daily thoughts and its powerful message board, chat and conference calls.  There are many great ways of connecting including having a “Water Cooler” area to allow for sharing of small talk on shared topics not related to work (such as COVID-19 although more “big talk”, right?)

Published by Agile Mike

“Agile Mike” has over 25 years of experience with software development and product leadership. He is published under the “Built for Success” column in CIO.com magazine and held the position of Vice President in the Agile Leadership Network. Michael has taught multiple SAFe courses for over the past three years to over 400 people and is currently an Enterprise Agile Coach at Lean Agile Enterprises and a certified SAFe SPC5, AWS Cloud Architect, Scrum CSP, and PMP.

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