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Kabin Fever


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Dear KV,

Forgive me if this seems off topic, but I was wondering if you had any advice for the majority of us who are now KFH (koding from home). I don't know how KV works day to day, but it seems pretty clear that the status quo has changed at most workplaces in the last several months, and it is difficult to know if there are things we could be doing to stay productive while we are all at home, ordering delivery, and microwaving our mail. Does KV have any good guidance?

Kabin Fever

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Dear Kabin,

Let me invite you to my next Zoom meeting on how to host Zoom meetings! Yes, like the rest of the world, KV has been koding from home—when he is not screaming from home or breaking furniture from home.

As a devotee of mobile computing and remote work from my earliest university days—where, for one of my co-op jobs, I worked on packaged software for the Commodore Amiga from my dorm room—I have, over time, developed a number of useful habits for maintaining a good and productive working rhythm, and I have found many of these apply well to those of you who are newly working from home. (One note: I do not now, nor have I ever, had children, so I will not address the complexities of working from home while you have kids in the house.)

Here are KV's guidelines for working from home.

  • Set your alarm and wake up at the same time each day. I do not mean set the alarm for some ungodly hour, such as 8 A.M., unless that is when you would normally wake. I mean you want to keep a regular working schedule. During the university gig I mentioned, I worked from 8 P.M. until 4:00 A.M., five days a week, and then I slept until noon each day. That happens to be how I like to work, and that job did not demand any day-to-day interaction with co-workers; I only had to produce new versions of the software each Friday for review. If you work with a group of other people, you should ensure you have some overlapping hours (two to three) with the majority of them, so meetings are possible.
  • Shower and dress as if you are going to the office as you normally would. Many people think those of us who normally work from home do so in our pajamas. KV does not wear pajamas, ever, but he does put on pants and some sort of shirt every day. Do not underestimate the effect that a change of clothes will have on a change of your attitude toward work. If you work in your sleeping clothes, you are very likely going to have a problem delineating work time from nonwork time.
  • Set a finishing time for each day and stick to it. Keeping a proper life/work balance for someone who is used to going to an office is more difficult when you switch to working from home. Suddenly you do not have a commute and can roll from bed to desk and back.
  • Take frequent breaks of at least 15 minutes per two-hour block throughout the day. We all love to be in the zone, but our eyes do not, and staring at a screen without interruption for eight to 10 hours a day is even easier at home where there are no coworkers to interrupt you.
  • Silence all your messaging apps. Slack, IRC, Hangouts, and every other messaging app ever invented now cause a lot more interruptions than they did when you were in the office because everyone is now alone and cannot survive without the hallway conversations that lubricated their days. These apps are a major source of distraction and should be silenced, while leaving their counting badges on. When you take one of your 15-minute breaks, you can check these apps to see if anything of true importance lies there. The nice thing about ignoring them for long stretches at a time is that people will often have found the answers they are looking for on their own by the time you check, which saves you time and gives them a learning experience.
  • Do not use social media during your breaks. "Doomscrolling" is problematic, and it is not the right way to take a break. Breaks are meant for getting up, walking around your cell (I mean home office), getting another coffee, maybe looking out the window ...
  • Arrange social time with actual humans outside of work. Yes, we are all masked, wrapped in plastic, and supposed to wave at each other from the sealed confines of our homes, but one of the things that all humans need is human connection. Many companies have been hosting videoconferences, games, and other such activities during or after work hours, but I find these to be tedious and pointless as they are just like being trapped in yet another meeting with your coworkers. A reasonable antidote to these distractions, if you cannot get out to a park to meet friends at a social distance, is to call a friend. Back in the old days we had these telephone things, and we would call friends and talk with them, sometimes about nothing at all. The sound of a friend's voice on the phone is far more likely to keep you sane than a contrived game with your co-workers, with whom you might have just spent the day online.
  • Exercise. I can hear you screaming for my blood now, but KV is an ardent cyclist and has found he is riding even more now that it is something he can do that is physically distanced from others and gets the blood moving. Gyms still seem to be problematic, but a walk in a park is not, so try that. When people went to offices at least they walked to and from the parking lot or from public transit. Now, you can literally take 100 steps per day and that, actually, is not good for you as it is not enough.
  • Use your old commute time to learn something new. The average person commutes two hours per day. You could give that time to your employer—who will happily take it from you—but you could also use that time to learn new skills, hack on a personal project, or read about a topic you want to know more about. Someday this pandemic will end, you will go back to commuting, and you will again lose those two hours, trading them for food and shelter, so take advantage of them now, while you have them.
  • If you schedule meetings, make them count. One thing the pandemic has taught us is that most people do not know how to run a meeting, which, honestly, is going to be the topic of another KV column because I am nearly out of space here. In these troubled times, where everyone seems to want more status meetings, it is important to note meetings should be short, have an agenda, and be run with ruthless efficiency. That does not mean you cut people off without provocation, but it does mean you do not let meetings meander into unproductivity. Meetings are meant to share information quickly and, often, to arrive at a group consensus on solving a problem. Don't be too shy to shut down meetings that are pointless. KV does this all the time, pandemic or not. Let's face it, over the past six months we have all had enough of Zoom, Hangouts, and the like to last us several lifetimes.

As a devotee of mobile computing and remote work from my earliest university days I have, over time, developed a number of useful habits for maintaining a good and productive working rhythm, and I have found many of these apply well to those of you who are newly working from home.


I hope these tips and tricks help you now and serve you well if you continue to work from home after the current emergency is past. Best of health to all of you.

KV

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Author

George V. Neville-Neil (kv@acm.org) is the proprietor of Neville-Neil Consulting and co-chair of the ACM Queue editorial board. He works on networking and operating systems code for fun and profit, teaches courses on various programming-related subjects, and encourages your comments, quips, and code snips pertaining to his Communications column.


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Article Contents:
  • Introduction
  • Dear Kabin,
  • Author