Working at Home – some tips

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@noel_llopis (who’s recently a new dad – congrats!) tweeted a link to this excellent and funny post on working from home:  “How to work from home without going insane” and then queried for tips from others.

Having worked at home as a software developer for most of the last 22 years through two new babies and 11 years with a stay-at-home mom and growing children, I have a few tips I thought I’d offer.

In outline:

  1. make sure spouse knows how costly interruptions are
  2. schedule specific times to give spouse a break with new baby
  3. must have an office with a door, possibly improved.
  4. don’t let work consume all waking ours; have a schedule.
  5. teach older kids that a closed door means you are working and that this work earns the money that buys us food and such and that interruptions are expensive.  Then communicate the schedule of breaks to them (motivates them to learn to tell time :)) and give them some positive time at each break.
  6. bring enough supplies into your work space so you don’t have to leave for “short breaks to refuel” which are too torturous for small kids to understand.

Number one is probably the most important place to start.  I explained to my wife that it can take as much as 30 minutes for me to load the program I’m working on into my head where I can then work on it.  And that an interruption feels like a painstakingly constructed house of cards coming crashing down; not only have I lost the 30 minutes of load time, it’s also very defeating to fall back so far and have to start all over and this can make it cost way more than the 30 minute load time.

Number two was key when Geek was born.  He was born with undiagnosed reflux which means that he almost never slept more than 20 minutes before he woke up screaming.  (a pair of foam ear plugs in my pocket for much of the first year, just to turn the volume down really helped).  It took a real team effort to stay sane through that first year.  But even in less stressful situations, there are just things that are so much easier to do when not holding a baby.  So my wife started coming to the office and asking if I could “hold him for just a minute” while she _______.   Each one of those things seemed very quick to her – just three minutes! – but they required the 30+ minute reload for me and so were terribly destructive of productivity.   We figured out that having a schedule of breaks worked well for both of us.  If she knew that she’d get a break of X minutes at 10:30am and 2:30pm, then she would put off those things that were easier without the baby until then.  It was also easier to hang on through the screaming knowing you had a break coming at a specific time.  I actually worked half time for the first 6 months because of the reflux, but that’s a different story.

Number three is about creating an environment where you can actually do the highly cerebral work that is programming – noise being the biggest issue for me.  An office space with a door was an absolute requirement.  In my case replacing the cheap hollow-core interior door with a solid core door and a threshold to close the gap under the door was very helpful in reducing the sound transfer.  I also learned to program with music playing, which helped provide covering noise.  For me the music has to be music that is very familiar so my mind doesn’t need to attend to it.  Some people need exclusively instrumental music.  Some people can do headphones (this wasn’t something I learned how to do until I had to work in a cube for a couple of years (shudder)).

Number four is about sanity.  It is really easy to slide into working all the time when you work at home.  This will feel really productive for a time, but in the long run it’s bad for your marriage and your productivity.  A mental break from time to time can really increase productivity when you are working.  If you are billing hourly there is another dangerous trap to avoid: it’s easy to start converting everything into ‘lost wages’ and so a 2 hour movie date “costs” you 3x your hourly rate for travel time and the movie and so you can start skipping family stuff because “I need to be working.”  Suggest you avoid this path to insanity and a broken marriage.  Lower your monthly expenses (cheaper house or car, cancel cable tv, whatever works!) instead. And, as I’ve suggested in a previous post, put a cash-flow savings account in place as soon as possible to provide a buffer that frees you from this financial stress.

Number five is for when your kids get old enough to come to your door and open it because they know you’re in there…  🙂  This one will take a few repeated lessons for them to get it, but the important thing is to be cheerful when you have the discussion (i.e., opening the door and venting your frustration at being interrupted makes both of you feel badly in the end – try to avoid doing that).  So patience while this learning process happens is critical as is teamwork with your spouse who will have to reinforce and help enforce the “door is closed, don’t bother them unless it’s an emergency” rule.  It’s also important to help define what an emergency actually is, how to look at the clock and know what time it is and when the break is coming, and so on.  This is also an opportunity to start teaching lessons around “where does our food come from?”  “How does one get to live in a house?” “Working earns money which can then be used for food, and other things?” and even some discussion about what it is you do for a job and why it’s interesting and what the challenges are.  All part of a well-rounded education for your children.

Number six is about reinforcing the clear dividing line between you being “at work” and “on break” so that kids (and spouses!) are clear about when they can talk and interact with you and when then can expect you’ll be up for some fun (or available to help).  Some people need this more than others, but I find that with a family it helps to have a clear “signal” for them.  To this end, I got a pitcher for water and a large quality thermos for hot drinks so that I wouldn’t need to go refill until my next scheduled break.  The bathroom is obviously trickier and that’s about getting a house with the right configuration, when possible.  Some kind of tupperware for snacks and you’re set for uninterrupted work sessions with no false “mini-breaks” which are too difficult for small kids to distinguish from real breaks.

On the house layout issue:  clearly choosing the right house for stay-at-home work with stay-at-home spouse and growing children can really help.  Not always possible, but some things to look for/consider:

  1. Having the work area be on a floor separate from the family area is really helpful.  Above rather than below, if at all possible (running feat on your ceiling can be difficult to ignore!).
  2. As noted, having a bathroom accessible to the office space that doesn’t involve becoming visible/available to the family space is very helpful for avoiding false “BREAK TIME!” excitement and subsequent disappointment or frustration.
  3. type of construction is important.  The best I’ve had is old lathe and plaster – much better sound deadening than sheetrock covered interior walls (which generally also have no insulation).  If you’re making your own space, resilient channel may be used to fasten the sheetrock to the studs to give greater sound isolation.  I’ve heard that the shredded “old blue-jeans” eco-groovy insulation is actually better for sound deadening than the pink fiberglass stuff and so even interior walls may be insulated to help isolate them audibly from living areas.
  4. test a potential new house:
    1. go into the proposed office space after asking the kids to run around screaming in the play/family space (they’ll love being asked to do this!).
    2. go into the proposed office after asking older kids (or spouse if you plans to be there long enough the your younger kids will grow up) to run up and down any stairs in the house.
    3. Have spouse pretend to talk loudly on the telephone while walking around in the family space while you are in the office.

One mistake I made in one house was to put my office in the basement because it was quieter and on a different floor.  Bad idea for a guy from Hawaii;  Cold and dark.  Very gloomy.  Remodeled part of the attic with a dormer and windows and moved myself up there for dramatic mood/productivity improvement.

My current setup involves having some acreage and some space in a wooden barn which I remodeled into office space – this is really good in many ways.  The 150 foot “commute” is just long enough to get myself into a work head-space and the sound issues are 100% gone.

I hope some of this was helpful.  If you have other tips, feel free to add them in the comments!

peace,

– Dad

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8 Responses to “Working at Home – some tips”

  1. TomF Says:

    > Some people need exclusively instrumental music.

    I find that music in a language you don’t understand works just as well (for me). Icelandic is perfect – it’s so completely unlike any of the languages I know that it doesn’t engage the comprehension centres of my brain. So lots of Sigur Ros / Jonsi. I’ve also tried Japanese, except they tend to insert random Engrish phrases which give your brain whiplash.

    The alternative, as you say, is music you know very very well. I can code like crazy while simultaneously screaming Def Leppard at the top of my lungs. Until the wife whacks me with the newspaper. I think you mentioned good thick soundproof doors? Good call.

    • Dad Says:

      🙂 the “Until the wife whacks me with the newspaper.” made me laugh! Really familiar music is the best for me. I like Jazz Fusion for the rolling groove that makes my fingers zip on the keyboard.

  2. Johann Fradj Says:

    Incredible post!

    I’m exactly on all those described situations:
    spouse, baby, working in the dining room, don’t have a schedule…
    Your advices seems so logical and simple…
    But they are not really easy to follow, specially when you don’t have enough space at home to make an office room, the baby are still young and don’t stop crying by night, you are not enough patient to explain to your lovely wife how costly interruptions are, etc…

    But I’ll try, you have my words 😉

    Cheers,
    Johann

    • Dad Says:

      Hi Johann. Yes, this can be challenging and some aspects of it may take a few years to work out (getting the right house setup for example). Here are some ideas for you:

      1. Consider putting a desk in the bedroom – many bedrooms are empty all day long and with a little re-arranging one corner can become a desk in a room with a door that can be closed!
      2. For crying babies at night: There have been times where I had to sleep in a different room from my wife and the crying baby. Not ideal, but I was a better person for having had a good night’s rest and was more able to be helpful during the day so my wife could take a much needed nap. I think I also mentioned foam earplugs? Took me several months to learn to sleep with them in, but I did and that really helped as well at times.
      3. Ah, patience… this is one of my more challenging obstacles and probably the biggest challenge I’ve faced in being a good Dad. Here are some suggestions:
        1. find a baby-sitter (family member or friend) so that the conversation can happen without the distraction of the young kids. Trades for childcare are a great deal for all involved (!). No money need change hands and everyone gets a break some of the time.
        2. To help with your patience, perhaps consider the time spent explaining about programming and the interruption cost as an investment. It will take maybe 1/2 hour to 1 hour to have the conversation, but the first two interruptions that don’t happen because of the time you spent communicating have you at break-even on your time investment! And every interruption avoided after that is pure “profit”!!! I don’t know of a better investment you could make (and if you know of one, tell me! :)).
        3. Finally, if your wife is truly lovely (and kind and honest and all the other great things about a wonderful partner) then you’ll want to remain her husband and for this learning to take the time to communicate well with each other is, in my experience of almost 25 years of marriage, really at the core of a successful marriage (honesty and trust being the other two key elements). You never know what difficult thing may happen in your lives about which you *must* communicate if your marriage is to survive. (In our case, we lost our daughter to cancer at age 3 1/2. 90% of marriages don’t survive the loss of a child. Our ability to communicate with each other about the difficult feelings and our differing needs relating to grieving was, I believe, key to our having survived this difficult experience (so far! I always consider marriage to be an ongoing project requiring ongoing effort and nurturing and never consider it a “done deal”. Keeps me motivated to keep working at being a good partner :)).

      Anyway, hopefully some of that is useful to you. I wish you luck.

      • Johann Fradj Says:

        Thanks you so much for all those kinds advices!
        Overcome the loss of a child is the test the harder it is for a wedding and also for a human… All my condolences. I pray God every day to not be tested like that.

        I’m totally agree with you about the marriage, and the communication is our secret to our successful union 😉
        It’s just because I’ve no schedule, and I work every day without taking any breaks that my wife doesn’t have any chance to talk with me or to ask me to help…
        I’ll fix a schedule with at least a no working day per week!

        Cheers,
        Johann

      • Dad Says:

        Thank you. I too hope you never have such a challenge in your life. Good luck on the schedule change – good plan! It’s good to remember that life is short and none of us know how long we’ll be here. Taking an hour a day to play with your kids and relax with your wife are highly recommended 🙂

        When I was in super crunch mode for a company (trying to save a very large project that was in horrible trouble) I worked 6 very long days and one 6 hour half day. So I gave myself a full half day off. But on each of the 6 days I made sure to take an hour to just be with my family. I think this helped us get through that extreme overwork time and kept us connected.

        Each of us has to find a balance that works for us and our family and that balance is likely a changing thing as circumstances change. I wish you bon courage and good fortune.

      • Johann Fradj Says:

        I just want to say: Thank you 😉
        Hope you the best too!

  3. Steffen Itterheim (@gaminghorror) Says:

    Even though I don’t need them these are excellent tips!

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