COVID-19 is simultaneously keeping us apart while fusing many of us together in new, shared experiences — drastic lifestyle changes, an expanded vocabulary (“social distancing,” “flattening the curve”), and the world of working from home.
Remote work isn’t our new normal, it’s what we were doing even before Automattic officially ditched its San Francisco office (15,000 barely-used square feet) in 2016. Automattic employees (or as we call ourselves, Automatticians), work remotely from all over the world — 76 countries to be exact. We have data analysts and graphic designers, developers, marketing professionals and Happiness Engineers (our support team).
Helping the world embrace the idea of a distributed workforce is a mission of Matt’s — it’s why he created the Distributed Blog and Podcast — but it’s also a passion for our entire team. Those of us at Jetpack want to share what we’ve learned (and are still learning) about working from home. We put out a company-wide call for people to share their best tips, most effective practices, and favorite advice.
Environment and space
Remote work doesn’t always mean being at home. Before COVID-19, some of us worked from local coworking spaces, or spent part of the day at a coffee shop. Automattic wants all its employees to work in the way that’s most productive, so it provides a stipend for daily coffee or coworking fees. When there’s no shelter-in-place requirement, these perks empower employees to create an environment that supports them in doing their best work.
But even before the pandemic, many Jetpack employees made their homes their work hub. For several folks, the proper at-home environment starts with fresh air.
Jeff Golenski (Designer): “Always work with a window cracked open or fill your office with plants. As you stare at the screen all day and breathe, you create a lot of carbon dioxide. Your room can fill up with CO2, which can lead to fatigue, headaches, and more. The plants breathe in that CO2 and emit oxygen in return during photosynthesis.”
Woody Hayday (Developer): “Plants both inside and out. Areca palms are cheap at IKEA and serve as a baseline minimum. I find growing things also helps me get outside at lunchtime. If I have a green space to visit (and a reason to visit it) during my breaks and after work, my whole working life is far more sustainable; it’s the core feature of my most balanced days. A garden feels more important than ever, as we increasingly work with abstractions on screens.”
And Marly’s found that special elements can help her maintain a positive mood throughout the day.
Marly Ho (Jetpack Events): “Keep at least one sentimental/positive item on your desk or nearby you while working. I read in a book, I think it was by Marie Kondo, that you should place various items throughout your home that remind you about something positive. Then, whenever you come upon it, you’ll smile or think about it and be a little happier. I have a pretty large life-size plush Totoro sitting in my “office” with me. It keeps me company and helps me smile when I need a boost.”
Then there’s the sound of your environment. If you work from a coffee shop, you may be soothed by the buzz around you. In your house, you have to create this energy yourself.
Woody: “Music can be used for focus or for mood elevation. I have Spotify playlists that are large but rarely change. Through repetition they help me find good grooves at work — e.g., this playlist on shuffle if I’m working on code.”
And a specific work area, even if informal, helps with focus and boundaries.
Andrei Dinu (Designer): “I have a dedicated working area in my living room. Defining a space doesn’t have to mean being in a separate room. I use a different color on my wall to define the start of the working space. The desk is at the window, so basically I sit with my back to the entire house when I work. It does wonders for me.”
Rob Pugh (Marketing): “I have a home office, but on nights and weekends it doubles as my kids’ playroom. (My coworkers will often comment on unicorns or dolls in the background during Zoom calls.) And during the pandemic, it’s also my mother-in-law’s bedroom, so my morning routine now involves a wakeup call. Outside, I have a front porch and back patio that I’ll rotate between depending on the season and the sun/shade situation.”
Tools and equipment
Many occupations require specific tools — an espresso machine for a barista, a stethoscope for a doctor — and working remotely is no different.
There’s your usual list; laptops, mobile phones, writing equipment. But you also need something you might not think about: a good headset.
Just because you’re not in the same office doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t interact with coworkers. The loss of unplanned run-ins with colleagues or impromptu watercooler meetings makes the interactions you do have even more important. At Jetpack, we use Zoom for video conferencing. It’s great to be able to see each other face to face and helps us better understand the nuances of everyone’s responses.
To make the experience as realistic as possible, Matt stresses the need for a quality headset and microphone (the company pays for a set: Sennheiser SC 130 USB-C). In a recent post, he compared 11 different models, each costing between from $35 to $1,000, to demonstrate the difference in quality. Hearing every audible “ah-ha!” and “nice!” makes a big difference in the quality of our meetings.
The software you use for organization, communication, and planning need to be equally robust. Jetpack teams communicate on a network of company-wide P2s for formal work discussion. A P2 is like an all in one blog-bulletin board-social network-file storage system, It’s a tool we highly recommend for any organization, especially one that operates asynchronously.
For quick chats and real-time conversations we use Slack. Individual teams and projects have their own channels, company-wide channels create space for higher-level discussions, and “watercooler” channels are a place for casual conversations and sharing news. Your coworkers become an extension of your friends and family.
We also use a variety of other software, including:
- G Suite to collaborate in real-time on documents, spreadsheets, presentations and more.
- Asana, which helps with project management and task scheduling.
- GitHub, a place where developers can collaborate on code.
We asked the team about their other favorite tools and equipment:
Rob: “I have a stand/sit desk with preset levels so it’s easy to switch between them. I’ve found that standing for long periods is just as painful to me as sitting for long periods, so I’ll try and switch back and forth every 30-60 minutes all day long.”
Jeff: “I prefer to have three displays and run different apps on each:
- My Macbook screen is my primary browser screen. This is where my P2 reading, calendar, and other various internet things live.
- My ultrawide display in the middle is best when doing design work in Figma, Whimsical, and others. Wireframing, flow mapping, and visual design all happen here. It allows me to see entire flows and multiple screens at one time.
- On the right, I have a very tall vertical monitor — the extra space is great for coding, Terminal, Spotify, and Slack.”
Andrei: “A good speaker also does wonders; at some point I just like to blast music. I also completely recommend Hue Lights. They’re amazing for a working environment.”
Woody: “I’m working from a temporary office at one end of our sitting room. Having the majority of my previous home office in boxes has shown me that a good setup really boils down to the essentials: a good desk, ergonomic chair, laptop stand, headphones, mouse, and keyboard.”
You can find a full list of our recommended equipment, tools and software here — everything from standing desks to bluetooth speakers and gear for working on the road.
Distractions, focus, notifications
Even with a thoughtful environment, great software, and sophisticated equipment, it’s hard to escape the potential for distractions. How does our team stay focused?
Woody: “Boundaries: no notifications when in deep focus, limited otherwise. Closed door means to expect that I’m on a call.”
Eric Binnion (Developer): “I used to get notifications for everything on my phone, including the WordPress app, Slack, and email. I had some time to sit and think during a flight to Germany last year, and I decided to get rid of all notifications, work and personal, on my phone. I started to look at my phone as a tool for me to use rather than a tool that others use to reach me.
Over the next couple of weeks, I noticed that I was a bit less stressed, and a bit more focused.
It’s easy for us to feel like we need to answer our coworkers as soon as they reach out to us. But, much more often than not, that’s not the case. And if someone has something truly urgent to talk to you about, they’ll find a way to reach you.”
Jeff: “YES. I may or may not keep my phone on ‘do not disturb’ mode 24 hours a day. Works wonders.”
Physically separating work and personal equipment is also helpful:
Sergey Mitroshin (Developer): “If you keep your phone on the table while working, cover it with a piece of paper. You won’t have to fight the urge to see notifications. And have a separate computer just for work; don’t use it for anything else.”
Productivity, even with the right tools, often comes down to a solid schedule — especially when scheduling cues like the beginning of a school day or a set lunch break aren’t present.
Jeff: “It’s easy to break or lose a routine. Routine leads to a better sense of accomplishment, self accountability, and productivity. Use methodologies like habit tracking, a decision journal, the Eisenhower Box Method, or Ivy Lee Method to keep yourself on track.”
Woody: “It’s taken me years, but I now have a ‘runway’ (a routine that prepares me mentally) before work, and I’m working on a closing ritual for after work. For me it’s meditation, the Alexander Technique (or yoga), then journaling. They’re my spiritual windscreen wipers.”
Andrei: “Find something that you look forward to every morning. For me, it’s having a delicious cereal with oat milk. Then I consult my to-do list — If I don’t have one, I don’t know what to do next. My rule is that I have to create my to-do list the evening before so I don’t have to think about it in the morning.”
Marly: “Keeping a routine and setting boundaries is very important. Changing into my day clothes in the morning is the first step to subconsciously tell my brain, ‘it’s the start of a new day. Go get it and be productive.’
I also think you should make sure to plan at least one activity you can look forward to (no matter how big or small) that involves doing something that’s 50% or more different from your normal work. For me, it’s cooking a meal, coloring, or playing a video game. It’s important to switch gears for your body and your mind.”
Paolo Belcastro (Product Lead): “I switched to time-boxing my life before the pandemic. If I have to point out the single thing that’s helped me during the confinement, it would be that.
My time is budgeted in advance, and I review it weekly on Mondays. There’s a clear division between the mornings, where I have no Zoom calls and keep off notifications, and the afternoons where I make myself available for synchronous interactions. I take short breaks between work sessions and schedule longer breaks for meals. Personal time, family time, and sleep time are also on my calendar.
Having blocks of focused time each morning with close to zero synchronous interactions lets me focus on deep work and allows me to be 100% present in every meeting or one-on-one. Monotasking keeps me sane.”
Woody agrees: “Days without at least a few hours of focused work are the hardest days for me.”
Sergey: “I personally like the Pomodoro Technique. I split my day into 25-minute sessions and spend five minutes in between walking around or doing some light exercises. And during work sessions, I only have 25 minutes to get something done, so it keeps me focused.”
Michelle Weber (Editorial): “Same! During the breaks, I’ll meditate for 5 minutes, or do a little yoga, or — my favorite — put on some music and sing at the top of my lungs. My dog doesn’t always approve, but it helps keep my creative neurons firing.”
Working with kids
For those of us with children, an added benefit of a flexible work arrangement is the ability to spend more time with our family. However, working with kids at home presents its own set of challenges. And it’s about more than setting ourselves up for successful work; we also want to maximize our ability to be a positive influence in our childrens’ lives.
Kristinia Plauche (Happiness Engineer) has eight children, six of which returned home during the pandemic: “My youngest is ten years old now, so it’s different than when they were babies and toddlers, but here’s what’s worked for me:
- Set up your office in your closet and shut the door. (This is truly where my office is and it works great. It’s quiet. )
- Since the kids are doing school online, I can also communicate with them online. Sending them an email or Google Hangouts message saves me from putting down my work to find them. I can ask them to come to me.
- Give them responsibilities. They can make meals and help out.
- Plan the day, but don’t do it for them. Ask them to write down what they plan to do. This has been really effective for us. I know it may sound over the top, but it’s made a huge difference to give everyone a sheet of paper with a time schedule and ask them to make a plan.
- Have them be accountable for what they did and report back. At dinner, the kids talk about what they accomplished that day. Keeping them busy reduces my worry and guilt about what they’re up to while I’m at work.
- Take real lunch breaks. Taking time to actually eat together in the middle of the day is a nice break for everyone.
- Do a project during lunch — something that you can accomplish in less than an hour. It gives everyone something to look forward to.”
Brandon Kraft (Code Wrangler) has six daughters at home, between 18 months and 10 years old, “Here’s my best advice:
- Communication: With all these things, having open communication with your kids (age-appropriate) and your partner is key.
- Flexibility: This goes both ways. You need to be flexible and know that kids are going to be kids. Sometimes they’re going to get loud and, to a point, you need to become comfortable that it happens. Sometimes all hell is breaking loose and you may need to step out for a minute to help settle a fight. At the same time, I make a point to let them know that I’m about to be on a call (at least those that I really shouldn’t be interrupted during) and they’re flexible on doing quieter activities during that hour. My wife and I have been flexible between our respective work; I’m privileged that she also works at home and only part-time, but still some days, I plan on taking a longer lunch break and intentionally working in the evening to help fit her professional needs.
- Expectations: Setting expectations has been huge. My office is off of our main living space with French doors, so the kids can always see me. But, if the doors are closed, “Daddy is working”. My youngest knows she can knock and wave and I’ll wave back, but nevertheless, the closed door means something.
- Scheduling: Likewise, we’ve set the expectation that I’m going to take lunch at 12:30 and I’m going to log off at 5:30 p.m. — exactly. At 5:30 p.m., an alarm goes off, my youngest grabs her milk cup and knocks on my door. For me, that means at around 5, start winding down my work. Push that last commit, then catch up on emails for a few minutes. I try to set expectations at work about what I’m able to get done in a day. If I do need to put in extra time, it’s after the kids are all asleep and my personal household work is done.
- Take advantage of being home! Sometimes, I plan for a longer lunch break specifically so I can help the kids with their school work, work on a Girl Scouts project with them, or throw a ball around the backyard in the middle of the day instead of in the evening.
- Don’t try to wrangle kids and work at the same time: If I try to follow a Slack conversation on my phone or run a long script that I need to check on every so often during times I’m “off work”, I end up just getting frustrated and not doing either one well. When I’m working, I’m working. When I’m not, I’m not. Short interruptions are one thing, but I’ve found I can’t plan to try a mix of both at once with any real success. Just like we have the expectation not to disturb me as much as possible when my door is closed, I need to be mentally available to them when I’m outside the office.
- Talk to your kids about work: For most of the younger kids, devices are things they play on and they see me “playing” on the computer all the time. I make a point to talk to them about the work I’m doing in a way that they can understand: ‘I wrote some code that didn’t work and I had to keep trying almost all day to get it to work right. It was tricky because when code breaks, it is supposed to tell me an error message, but this one only did some of the time.’ It’s tricky, but I try to explain it in ways that the younger ones can understand part of it, but also helps the older ones learn at the same time.”
Physical and mental health
Spending your entire day in a single position until you solve a problem or complete a milestone may not be great for your work or your body. Physical activity, breaks, and positive self-care make your focused work periods more productive.
Sergey: “Your productivity is uneven throughout the day. If you find it hard to concentrate, it may be better to switch to something else rather than keep pushing yourself. And get some physical activity between work sessions; your body will thank you.”
Sergey also talked about stimulants and their effect on your body: “Coffee is a stimulator, and I try to use it strategically. If used often, the body will adapt and lessen its effect. On the other hand, if you usually don’t drink too much coffee, half a cup can give you energy when it’s most needed. I also try to avoid using my phone within an hour of bedtime because of its stimulating effect. It makes it easier for me to fall asleep and increases the amount of deep sleep I get, so I wake up well rested and more productive.”
Jeff: “I stick to a strict routine and take frequent breaks. I also mix exercise and work. I have an exercise bike specifically made to fit under my standing desk. Break up your day with a workout or take a walk around the block, apartment hallway, etc. every hour or so. Keep that blood pumping.”
Marly: “Coordinate at least one to two coffee catch-ups with people you work with — preferably by video, but audio at a minimum. We’re all humans who desire some type of connection. As an extrovert who enjoys getting to know people (especially in a distributed workplace environment), reaching out to others is good for the soul and overall morale when it comes to working on teams, even cross-functional teams. Not to mention, it’s nice to engage in conversations that are non-work related with people and bring out their interests, talents and passions.”
Rob: “I’ve found that when I get into a rut or feel extra tired, I usually haven’t exercised in a while. If I have time, I like to go outside for a run or bike ride. If it’s a busy day, even doing push-ups, squats, and sit-ups in the office between calls give me a boost of energy.”
Michelle: “It’s a small thing, but I try and remember to look up from my screen and let my eyes focus on something distant every half hour or so (or every time my pomodoro timer rings). It’s so easy to spend way too long staring at the laptop, getting eyestrain and a headache, and so easy to avert them by letting your eyes focus elsewhere. And it gives your brain a little breather, too.”
Andrei: “I’ve been using Freelatics lately and it’s been great so far… stretching is also great, especially when sitting at a desk for so many hours.”
It’s not a prescription
A few tips really stuck out during our research:
- Use physical items to distinguish your workspace even if you can’t set aside a dedicated room.
- Minimize distractions, especially at times of peak productivity.
- Set expectations with yourself (through the discipline of scheduling) and with those around you (adults and children alike) so you can foster mutual respect for personal and professional needs.
- An effective workspace can include special lighting, music, stand-or-sit desks, and other unique equipment, or it can simply be a flat surface and a laptop.
- Don’t expect perfection, but make a conscious effort to respect your physical and mental health.
But in the end, what works for some of us might not work for you. For Woody, “ways of staying sane and productive have come and gone over the years.” Even though you might have your own work-from-home strategy, we hope that a few of our tips inspire you to find your work bliss.
Take the time to reflect on what’s working for you, what’s not working for you, and always be willing to adapt. You’ll find that remote work is both challenging and rewarding, and provides the opportunity for greater personal balance and self worth.
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