- TJ VanVoll – Developer Advocate for KendoReact.
- Dan DiGangi – User Experience Transformation Team Engineering Manager for DocuSign. Co-manager of React Loop – Chicago-based React conference.
- Dan Skaggs – Software Engineering Leadership for a large multi-national media company.
- Rob Ocel – Architect and Front-end lead at ThisDotLabs software consultancy.
- Dan Wilson – Director of Marketing and Developer Relations at Digital Primates. Reformed software engineer.
On this edition of React Wednesday, we approached the idea of remote work and how to make it suck less. We thought it would be helpful to have an open discussion around which elements worked well for us in our home offices and routines. We wanted to share any useful gear. Additionally, we wanted to discuss our habits with an eye on improving our own experience with Remote Working.
Dan Wilson’s Home Office
I’ve been working from home since 2007. My first week working from home was a bit of a mess. I didn’t have a separate office area in my house, so I set up on the couch. The ergonomics of working on the sofa are horrible, and I do not recommend this to anyone. Further, the couch faced the TV. At the time, I hadn’t had access to a TV for about a year. I got enamored with the show Deadliest Catch and spent my first two weeks working from home trying to balance my TV watching, couch sitting, and software development activities. After about two weeks of this, my back hurt some; my productivity was hurt worse, so I carved out an office space in my home and never looked back. Having a dedicated “work” space where I could control my distractions was very important. Owning my zone contributes significantly to my productivity.
Below is a notated picture of my home office. There are useful items such as my adjustable standing desk, fatigue mat, special house shoes, 34″ monitor, etc. I raise and lower the desk, depending on my mood. For example, if I have a lot of energy and need to focus, I raise the desk.
The great thing about the monitor is its size of two standard monitors side by side, but I never have to play the “Where is the cursor?” game.
I also have an ergonomic chair from Ergohuman. I’ve had this chair for 12 or 13 years. Once you adjust the chair to your body geometry, you will be much less tired by the end of the day. You spend more time in your chair than you do in your car, so feel free to upgrade from the big box store’s $100 office chairs.
To Sit or to Stand, that is the question
We had a bit of a discussion on how much to stand in a day. TJ, Dan Skaggs, and I all have desks with a standing capability. We mostly all like to stand for part of the day. Having the option to sit or stand is very helpful in finding the appropriate productivity flow. Dan Skaggs and I both use desks from Autonomous.ai. The pricing is fair, and the build quality is excellent.
TJ VanToll’s Home Office
TJ has an adjustable desk he uses to change between the sitting and standing positions during the day. He uses dual monitors and a Microsoft Natural 4000 Ergonomic keyboard. I noted he uses the wrist riser on the keyboard. I have the same keyboard, but I throw the wrist riser part out immediately as the angle isn’t comfortable.
Dan Skaggs’ Home Office
Dan Skaggs has an adjustable desk from Autonomous.ai. He swaps between sitting and standing during the day, depending on his energy level. He has a superhuman amount of monitors on his desk, all tied into various systems. Three screens tie into a custom-built windows system. This system also is designed to connect to a VR Headset. On the right-hand side of the picture, you can see his Macbook Pro provided by his company.
One element Dan highlighted was his choice of microphone. He uses an Audio-Technica ATR-2100 USB mic for conference calls. He says he’s had many compliments from executive staff on how good the sound quality is. The attention to sound quality is an important reminder to examine how we interact with others. It can be tempting in a work-from-home environment to overlook elements of professionalism. Your sound quality on conference calls can be related to a company dress code. You wouldn’t show up to an important meeting in ratty jogging pants, so you should not show up to meetings using lousy sound quality.
Dan Skaggs received compliments from the group on his wire management strategy. Even with five monitors, an external keyboard, an amateur HAM radio system, and other electronic components adorning his desk, there was a conspicuous absence of visible wires.
Dan DiGangi’s Home office
One of the first things you will note in the below image is Dan DiGangi uses a flat keyboard. He swears by the typing experience. The next thing you’ll notice is the Steelcase Series ergonomic chair, costing around $1,300. He took his ergonomics seriously and arranged his home office according to ergonomic principles, even using a tape measure to get the angles right. Dan does not use a standing desk, but he uses his apartment square footage to pace on calls.
One thing Dan suggested is to use windows management software. He uses a product called Moom that helps partition monitors using Apple software. Some monitors have this built into their management software. For example, my Dell 34″ monitor has companion software with many monitor real estate partitioning modes. Check the software provided by your monitor vendor.
Dan mentioned another valuable item is setting the monitor color scheme to one that produces less blue light. I use something similar also, and I find it does reduce eye fatigue.
Rob Ocel’s Home office
Hats off to Rob Ocel for letting us dive right into his real world. Whereas most of us tidied up a bit before our picture, Rob kept it honest. Kudos Rob!
Rob keeps a blanket handy as the air conditioning vent is pointed right at his feet. On the lower right-hand side, you’ll note a fancy button-down shirt useful for important meetings. When an important appointment happens, Rob can convert into Work-Mullet mode, business up top, party in the back.
In the image below, you’ll notice there are two chairs. Each chair has a specific set of characteristics Rob likes. One chair has lovely cushions and broad comfortable arms – used for gaming, relaxing, and thinking purposes. The other chair has a nice high back – more useful for heads-down work. If Rob has a work-heavy day, he’ll use the upright chair with the high back. If he has a meeting-heavy day, he’ll use the more comfortable chair.
I was excited to see his Mario Brothers lamp. What an icon! Rob is currently working out the best combination of monitors and monitor characteristics to support his work. His desk was once a gaming desk, and he is converting it over to a high-performance work environment.
How to work from home better
At 27:39, we shifted the conversation from home office configuration to what skills contributed to being an effective remote worker. The diversity of backgrounds contributed significantly to cover individual work, interpersonal skills, how to communicate better with your team and leadership, and how not to go insane as a remote worker slowly.
A Phone call can save 25 emails
Email, Slack, and other written forms of communication are not always the best for collaboration. It can be hard to understand the true meaning of something if you only get it in written form. It can also be hard to refine ideas in written form. Often jumping on the phone for 10 minutes can save a lot of back and forth time. Remember, if you send an email to 10 people, you expect ten people to read it and come to the same conclusions. It’s much more efficient at times to work through issues synchronously.
Video calls can build trust
It is important to have quality, trusting relationships with your coworkers. As a remote worker, you often do not get the opportunity for face time. You’ve no doubt heard it said that the majority of communication is non-verbal. Thus, it is vital to interact with others in a manner that leverages non-verbal communication, like a video call. Not all calls need to be video. Not everyone needs to share video on every call. However, it is crucial to make an effort to be seen from time to time.
Later in the broadcast, Rob pointed out that remote meetings make it easier for the talkative folks to take a larger share of meeting time, crowding out the less talkative meeting participants. Managers need to be mindful of this tendency and manage the meetings, so that team members aren’t crowded out accidentally by more forward meeting participants. Video can help with the non-verbal cues, but video sharing isn’t a panacea to solve this team issue.
“Got a minute?”
At 30:28, Dan Skaggs brought up a communication method that, while well-intentioned, is lazy and harmful. Indeed you’ve been asked via text, email, or Slack, “Got a minute?”. This universally caused anxiety in our group. Some of our team felt that not knowing the topic made the communication uncomfortable. Others felt like not knowing the request’s urgency status made it hard to stand by waiting for the rest of the conversation. We unanimously agreed that adding the subject and urgency status helped the communication effectiveness immensely.
I believe this issue comes about because the original communicator wants to take action while thinking about something. By injecting the phrase “Got a minute?” they start the discussion in their minds, almost like putting a note on a todo list. The more useful and respectful approach would be to say, “Got a minute to talk about the TPS Report job failure? Not urgent; need to discuss today before 3 PM. Now the recipient of the message knows what the subject matter is and can prepare mentally or gather essential data to fulfill it. The recipient also knows when the request needs action so that the recipient can responsibly put down whatever work they are engaged in and switch over to the new task with minimal loss of context. Finally, knowing the request’s subject helps the recipient know how to size the request in terms of time needed, they would then know when to slip it in their workstream.
The Pitfalls Asynchronous Communication
Rob Ocel brought up that email and Slack are easy ways to communicate asynchronously, but do not readily facilitate collaboration. He mentioned that Slack is chatty, and much of the context gets lost in the ever-appending flow of messages. Many teams fall back to using Slack history as documentation, but this leaves a lot to be desired. The Slack Ether eats much work and context.
How to Own your Calendar and Keep your Calendar from Owning You
At 36:11, we started to discuss the intricacies of working in collaborative environments, especially calendar-driven ones. I posted the link to Paul Graham’s classic piece on Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule. This article should be required reading for anyone in the tech space, including developers and managers.
Makers and Managers have their way of operating efficiently, and of course, these ways are diametrically opposite to each other.
- Managers live in a world of scheduled meetings with frequent context switches. Much of what managers do is collate and organize information, then distribute the information upward, downward, or outward.
- Makers bring things into life. In the tech space, making involves gathering context, organizing it into a mental model, then distilling the mental model into an efficient, correct work product.
Where this can go sideways is when managers treat makers like managers, causing inopportune context switches. A 30-minute meeting in the middle of the day can cost an hour or more of lost productivity for an individual maker. The maker has to “tear down” the mental model and switch to the meeting context. Once the meeting ends, the maker must rehydrate the mental model before another productive work cycle can begin. A similar productivity tax exists with a poorly timed Slack message, email, or otherwise context-shifting interruption.
Dan Skaggs discussed how he treats his team members like makers and gives them explicit permission to stay in their flow-state until they reach a natural stopping point. Dan was once a maker, so he understands the impact of context-switching interruptions. This empathetic management style allows his team members to work productively while still giving Dan the information he needs in a timely fashion.
We also discussed “The Art of Defensive Calendering,” the practice of proactively blocking off time on your work calendar for heads-down work. By setting aside blocks of time in your workweek, you can make sure there is enough space in your week to accomplish your work tasks. In meeting-heavy organizations or roles, this is essential to maintaining sanity and productivity.
Overcommunicate when Remote
Rob Ocel started a segment at 38:13 about effective communication as a remote worker. Rob makes the point that you are better-served as a remote worker overcommunicating with your team and management than under communicating. Further, Rob says that what may feel like too much communication to you as an individual contributor won’t be received as such by the recipients since they aren’t in close contact with you daily, as would be the case in an in-person office environment.
Often annoying managers are annoying because they aren’t getting enough information out of you and request it in inopportune manners. If you increase your communication quotient, you may find they interrupt your work less. It’s OK to send communication and let the recipient know you aren’t expecting a response, especially if you both work different hours.
Use your schedule to be maximally effective
TJ kicked off a discussion at 41:41 about using your schedule to be effective. For him, this means taking frequent breaks and letting his internal contexts reset. There are naturally occurring breaks throughout the day in an office environment, and these are much rarer at home. It’s essential to embrace the breaks and use them to reset. It can be harmful to try and slog through your work every day.
Most people find they have productivity peaks and valleys in the course of their day. Once you know your peaks and valleys, it makes sense to schedule your work around these periods. I am better at completing routine or high-concentration tasks earlier in the morning. In the afternoons, I’m much more creative and social. I can use my strengths best when I schedule my day around the work types that need doing.
Dan Skaggs – Lodestone is designed to be the modern and digital equivalent of a home filing cabinet. If you’ve gone searching for something similar in the past, you might be familiar with terms like Electronic Document Management System (EDMS), Document Management System (DMS) or Personal Archival. Dan is helping this open-source project and wants to spread awareness.
Dan DiGangi – DocuSign is hiring React and C# Developers. Contact him directly if you are interested in exploring a career with DocuSign.