Making the Best of a Less-Than-Ideal Remote Work Environment

Posted on March 16, 2020

I recently wrote a blog post about perfecting your remote work setup with lights, mics, and cameras. I took a deep dive into a very small segment of the remote work puzzle: getting your audio, video, and lighting good.

Today, worrying about those things feels pretty luxurious. In light of the number of companies moving (temporarily?) to work-from-home due to COVID-19, I sent out this tweet this weekend:

I've already received quite a few messages that go basically like this:

My company is suddently remote and we've never done this before. Help!

Like I wrote in the tweet, we've been remote for almost a decade, and tried almost every tool and trick you can imagine. There are so many aspects of this to cover. Here are a few places I've talked about remote work in the past (check the time stamps—some of them are a few years old)

But what I want to talk about today is the other side of my previous blog post. That post was about how I've spent years working on getting my not-at-home remote office just the way I want it.

Today, I want to talk about remote work—especially right now, as so many people are unexpectedly being told/allowed to work from home—and how so much of it happens in less-than-ideal environments, and what we can do to make the best of it. I'll assume you're working from home, but many of these tips apply in other less-than-ideal remote work environments as well.

What's the ideal for remote work?

If I'm working remotely, I want these things:

  • Schedule and structure
  • Isolation when I want it
  • Social connection when I want it
  • A perfect computer setup
  • A perfect audio and video setup
  • Excellent communication channels
  • My kids somewhere else, having a great time and learning
  • A clean room
  • Exercise
  • Healthy food, when I need it

I've got most of these things in my normal day-to-day remote work. I pay for an office in a coworking space that's a few minutes from my son's school, and during the day my kids are at school or with their mom.

I've got a great tech setup, a stocked refrigerator and great restaurants nearby, my room is clean and isolated, and there are other folks around when I want to see them.

However, at least for the next few weeks, I, and millions of others, will be working from a place that likely hasn't been set up to perfection. Me? I'm working from our spare bedroom—also known as a room with no desk—bad light, and a lot of junk. Plus, it's just a dozen feet away from where my kids are playing all day. I need to get my stuff together, and you may too, so let's talk about it.

Note: I'm going to do my best to give this advice assuming you don't have kids, and then talk about kids at the bottom.

Structure

The most important thing that disappears when you start working from home is structure. There are a lot of structures we get from going into an office: time structures, physical structures, even management structures. These structures' sudden disappearance don't turn us into freeloaders who watch Netflix all day while getting paid for it, but it does add stress and uncertainty that can weigh on us.

🌟 Tip: Make a schedule

Schedules are our best tool to create structure. I use my calendar to plan out my entire day, both during the work hours (write for an hour, pair program for an hour, meeting for an hour, etc.) and also outside of the work hours.

Folks at Tighten, the consultancy I run, who always work from home told me to be sure to mention the daily routines that start and end our days. Wake up, run, take a shower, eat breakfast, get dressed, start work. Close laptop, turn off the lights, take a walk, start dinner prep. Whatever works for you, make a plan.

The consistency, regularity, and predictability will bring much of that structure you miss. And managing those transitions can often be the most important thing for controlling your stress in a less-than-ideal environment—this is what helps set those boundaries between "home" and "work".

🌟 Tip: Set aside a space for work

Another great tool for creating boundaries between your work and personal life is to try to make a dedicated space for your work.

Obviously it'd be great if you had a home office, but if not, you may be able to carve out a space that's entirely dedicated to work. This might be one end of the kitchen table, a certain corner of your bedroom, a desk in the living room, the garage, or anything else.

Make that, for now, your work space. Your computer lives there, your work gets done there, and most importantly, when you put yourself in that place you're "at work" and when you leave that place you're not "at work" anymore.

🌟 Tip: Get dressed for work (be like Mister Rogers)

You might be surprised, but getting dressed specifically for work has really powerful effects.

First, you'll feel more mentally put-together when you're not in your pajamas.

Second, this is another boundary you're building between home and work, sort of like Mister Rogers changing his shoes when he gets home.

And third, you'll be much less averse to video calls—I'll talk about their importance later—if you're looking professional.

But here's another pro tip: keep a nice shirt and a hat nearby. That way, if you have to jump on a video call and you are wearing that one t-shirt you're a bit embarrassed by, or you haven't had time to do your hair today, you can just throw those things on and be ready for a call.

🌟 Tip: Pomodoros

If you've never worked with them before, a "pomodoro" is basically a period of work (often 25 or 50 minutes) followed by a period of rest (often 5 or 10 minutes). This is a way to build little micro-structures into your day, which can be especially helpful if you're used to a day that's not just sitting in front of the same computer at the same desk for eight hours.

Note: The actual Pomodoro technique is a bit more complicated than this recommendation, but when folks talk about pomodoro, they often just mean "period of work followed by a period of rest with a timer helping you remember".

Equipment & Video

My last post was about my perfect setup I have at my office, which is pretty useless right now when I'm sitting at home. I have no desk, a Macbook Pro, and some headphones. Not the same. What can we do to improve our working-at-home equipment situation?

🌟 Tip: Noise-canceling headphones

This is an obvious one, but I'll just throw it in here. Noise canceling headphones are so key when there are neighbors, kids, roommates, spouses, pets, or whatever else constantly vying for your attention.

"Less-than-ideal" work situations almost always have some element of distraction, and noise-canceling headphones and some chill background music can make a huge difference.

I personally saved up for Bose QC-35IIs a few years back, but those are $350 headphones. However, a few folks—including the Wirecutter—recommend the $60 Anker Soundcore Life Q20s.

🌟 Tip: Use a separate keyboard

Using a separate keyboard provides a lot of benefits when you're not working from your perfectly-crafted office. Separate keyboards are likely to be more ergonomic than your laptop keyboard, they give you more flexibility to put your laptop in the right spot for good posture, and they help with video angles (more on that later.)

If you're on a Mac, the Microsoft Sculpt Keyboard is incredible, and if you're on Windows, the Microsoft Surface Keyboard is even better.

🌟 Tip: Sit up

If you can sit in a real chair, do it. One common component of less-than-ideal work environments is the lack of a desk. I know it might seem fun to work from the couch, but your back will make you feel it after a few days. If you're working from a laptop, you can even possibly put your computer on a dresser and work standing up for segments of the day.

🌟 Tip: Video is best

This may seem crazy, because I think we've all see that news anchor working from home whose adorable children bust in on him, but when you're working remotely, video calls—not just for group meetings but also for one-on-one conversations—give an opportunity for human connection and communication that is hard to get with audio or text.

This is a bit controversial, but I believe that every meeting I ever have with anyone should be video. Even in your less-than-ideal work situation, which often translates to less-than-ideal video environment, I encourage you to consider it.

🌟 Tip: We look worse from below

Quick webcam tip! When your webcam is mounted on the top of a laptop that's on your lap, you're going to get both a bad angle—your chin smushed down and a bit of a view of the underside of your nose—and bad lighting. Overhead lighting is bad for us anyway, but your face will look especially dark if you're leaning over a bit to look into your webcam.

If possible, put your laptop on a desk or a stand and use a separate keyboard. This will both be better for your back and it'll get you a better angle on your webcam.

🌟 Tip: Get some (side) light

Overhead light is not flattering. Most rooms have overhead light. However, it's good when working from home to have plenty of light just for your emotional health, and most lights you could add to your room will not be at ceiling height.

Kill two birds with one stone: get some freestanding or desk lamps and put them near you. You'll have a brighter work space and get better light for video.

🌟 Tip: Consider the background

When you're on a video call, you're exposing your less-than-ideal work environment to the world, right? That messy bed that's been annoying you all day and making it hard to focus is now also in frame for all of your coworkers to see.

Some big things to watch out for:

  • Any kind of mess
  • Bright lights (shooting against a window will make you look like a mystery guest)
  • Unexpected guests (don't put the bathroom door behind you or your spouse might get an unpleasant surprise)

I've seen folks put up privacy screens behind them to block out the view, and I think that's a pretty advanced tip. For now, I just work with a wall behind me. It's not pretty, but there are no naked people or dirty underwear on my wall, so I'll call it a win.

Health

I won't say that working from home is necessarily worse for your health than working at an office. There are some huge benefits, including access to family and comfort and removing a commute and removing interactions with potentially plain-old-cold-or-flu-sick coworkers.

However, there are a lot of distractions and possibly negative influences at home, and a lot of our healthier habits like healthy food at work and going to the gym might be disrupted if we're working from home, especially during this particular moment.

🌟 Tip: Sit up

I wrote this above with regard to equipment, but I just want to say it again. Good posture is key. Your back is going to kill you if you work hunched over all day for weeks.

🌟 Tip: Take walks

Fresh air and sunlight and moderate physical exercise are three of the most important factors for our physical and mental and emotional health, and both fresh air and sunlight help kill germs and viruses.

🌟 Tip: Get natural light

Our minds and spirits respond better to natural light. Try to work in a place where there's as much natural light as possible. If you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, this may be the time to consider getting that artificial sunlight machine if you don't have a window near you.

🌟 Tip: Limit trips to the kitchen

One way working from home can seem very ideal is access to the kitchen. Finally, you think, I can cook my own home-made meals! This is true, and often it can lead to much healthier eating.

However, easy access to the kitchen also can increase snacking, which, at a time you might suddenly be going to the gym less, is not ideal.

Consider scheduling your trips to the kitchen. Once for a morning snack, once for lunch, and once for an afternoon snack. Make sure you have snacks available that are healthy, and if not, train yourself to get water instead.

🌟 Tip: Meditate

You may be tempted to replace your commute with more entertainment time, or more work time. Consider instead setting aside time for you and your body. Meditate, or run, or walk, or whatever it is that gives you peace. Especially if you can do that at the start of the day, it could be a huge help for your less-than-usual days going more smoothly.

🌟 Tip: Keep up with mental health care

If you're going to therapy, and you're reading this article because of COVID-19, you may be unable to visit your therapist physically. Contact your therapist now and see if they offer telehealth (e.g. Skype calls).

Making drastic changes to your work context can have a big impact on your mental health, especially if it's during a national crisis. Stress, anxiety, depression, relational conflicts—they're all going to come to a head.

Many people have joked about how many new babies will come out of this time, but I also think there will be new fights, new divorces, new anxiety attacks, and much more. Take care of yourself, however you do that.

Relationships

Our friendships and family relationship are both key to our mental health when things aren't going well, and also a possible source for things to be very tough when we're all of a sudden crammed together in the same space.

🌟 Tip: Keep up your relationships

Working from home, especially when you didn't chose it, can often feel very isolating. It can be helpful to intentionally keep rhythms and connections in relationships that you have in normal life.

Do you always catch up with one friend at lunch at the office? See if you can chat over Skype or Hangouts or whatever some lunch times. Always get together with your best friends at the bar every Tuesday night? Do the same thing, but over Hangouts. Each of you has their own separate drink, but you're still together and still connecting.

I just happened to stumble across an article Wirecutter wrote about How to be Social While Social Distancing, and it's also got some great tips there.

🌟 Tip: Set boundaries with your housemates

While your work and friend relationships may decrease, some other relationships will have increased access when you work from home, and this isn't always good for the relationship. Especially if it's during a time of stress, and especially if you have a smaller house, you're going to start feeling the stress of your interactions with the folks you love.

One of the best tricks we've come up with as from-home workers is to be very clear about our boundaries (but still gracious when they're broken). Many folks will make a "at work, do not disturb" sign they can hang on a door, or create a "if the door is closed, I'm working" policy. Others may choose hours: "Between 9-12 and 1-5 I'm in work mode".

The best way to avoid conflict is to express your unspoken expectations. Do you expect not to be interrupted when you're working? Say it, kindly. Remind it, kindly, if it happens.

Grace

Speaking of grace... grace is a key component of working from less-than-ideal situations.

🌟 Tip: Give others grace

If this situation is less than ideal, it's likely either new, or cramped, or something else that makes it less than ideal not just for you but also for the people around you. When your housemate unthinkingly plays loud music or your spouse asks for your help with something or your kid asks you to look at their painting, they're not trying to mess up your work flow. Give them grace.

Of course, giving someone grace is not the same as a free pass. You can still be direct and clear while being gracious and loving.

🌟 Tip: Give yourself grace

Most importantly, recognize that you're not going to be able to produce quite the same amount or quality of work when you're first entering a less-than-ideal remote working scenario. You'll get there. But it takes time.

Don't get mad at yourself for being distracted. You're going to get distracted. Your kids or housemates or spouse or cat merit your love and attention and sometimes those things don't happen in the timing you wanted. You're a human being and you'll respond as a human.

Give your systems and structures space for grace. Don't build something so rigid that, if you decide to take the cat for a walk at 2pm, the rest of your day falls apart. That's not a failure! That's a healthy and normal part of human life, and one which any structure needs to allow.

Take an attitude toward yourself that you're doing the best you can with what you have and you'll get a little bit better every day. That's all anyone can ask of you.

Kids

So, I'm going to rely on other folks a bit here. I do have two children. However, my wife's career field is mainly on hold because of COVID-19, so she's primarily taking care of the kids while I work. So, unlike families where both spouses work, or single parents, I have it much easier. My main concern with the kids is not having to be fully responsible for their safety and feeding and education, but just enjoying them without being too distracted by them.

However, if you have kids—especially young kids—and you're responsible for them during this time and have to do a job, you're in the hardest of non-ideal work settings. Here are some ideas I've had, along with a few from friends.

🌟 Tip: Make a schedule

Kids thrive on structure, despite how much they say they don't like it. Make a daily schedule for their education, food, play, screen time, and whatever else. Keep it flexible, keep it gracious, but make it clear so they can know what to look forward to.

This will also help you, as it'll become easier to know when to schedule meetings, and easier to let them have some screen time or play time without feeling like a terrible parent.

Pro tip: If your kids are old enough, involve them in creating the schedule!

🌟 Tip: Screens aren't evil

Sure, you read all those articles about how kids are going to melt their brains on screens. Screw that shit.

Your kids are not the only people in your house who matter. Your work, your time, and your sanity are also important. Use the tools you have available to you—which include educational screens and even non-educational screens—to make the best of the situation you're in. End of story.

🌟 Tip: Work while they play

All of us have some busy work, and I've found that I can work through the busy work while my kids play. That means if I want them to play outside (my kids are young and we don't have a yard, so I have to supervise them when they play outside), I could take them outside, sit on my laptop, and work through emails while watching them play soccer out of the corner of my eye.

Life doesn't always have to be binaries. Working or home. I do think boundaries are healthy, but sometimes, especially with kids, you gotta do what you gotta do.

🌟 Tip: Involve them

If your less-than-ideal work environment is your home, there are likely other tasks that are occupying your day as well: laundry, cooking, cleaning. These tasks often require us to put the kids in front of screens for yet another half hour, but there's an incredible alternative: involve your kids in the housework.

Get your kids to put away the laundry. Have them stir the sauce. Teach them how to clean windows and dust. They're both learning valuable skills, they're shaking off some entitlement to being entertained, and, if they're old enough, they might even help you out!


Not the end

That's all I've got for now. I'll be happy to update this post as more suggestions come in.

I'm pretty active on Twitter as @stauffermatt, so please feel free to ask me questions there, and I also have a YouTube channel and one thing folks do there is ask me questions that I answer in short video format, so if you shoot me a question on Twitter or in a YouTube comment, I might get a chance to address it there.

Thanks so much for reading. Remember: grace to you. Grace to your family. We're going to get through this.


Comments? I'm @stauffermatt on Twitter


Tags: remote work

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