On Working from Home, Better

Balsamiq is a company optimized for working remotely. Of our ~20 employees, only nine live within commuting distance of our only office in Bologna, Italy, and even those employees rarely go in five days in a week.

As I come upon three years at Balsamiq, I find myself reflecting on what I've learned about working from home in that time. There is truth to what Peldi has said: "the first year is great, then it gets hard."

The Daily Routine

There are a lot of articles out there with tips for working from home (like thisthis, this, and this). Many of them will tell you to get dressed and/or shower first thing in the morning, to create a routine as if you were going into an office.

This is good advice for someone new to working from home. After all, we all want to avoid this.

But I've experienced that getting really good at working from home (especially if you do it full-time) is less about replicating your office job life and more about unlearning it.

Forget what you think working looks like.

The first thing I tell people when they ask me for advice on working from home is to forget what you think working looks like. In an office, working looks like typing on your computer or sitting in a meeting room. Well, many of us have learned that meetings are a waste of time (to generalize). And sitting in front of a computer screen all day, typing away? What are we typing, anyway? TPS Reports? Just "stuff," to look busy?

At home nobody is looking over your shoulder, which is probably the best thing about working from home. So forget about "looking busy" and do whatever you need to do to do good work. It's very liberating once it really sinks in! The problem with sitting in front of a computer is that it makes it hard to think. And, for most of us, good thinking leads to good work.

Working from home as a skill is about managing a balance of working with your natural inclinations and working against them. You should work with own rhythm when it aids your productivity and work against it when you get in your own way.

Working with yourself

I find that I like to start work right away when I get up. I drink my coffee and check in on things, then I get up for breakfast after about an hour, then get dressed sometime after that. I enjoy being able to do things in that order (that would not work so well at an office).

I've also started embracing that I sometimes need a long-ish break early in the day but that I'm often ok with short breaks for lunch. This actually took some time to occur to me because that's not how I was "taught" to work in an office.

Pushing against yourself

For me, I've learned that if I start tabbing through all my windows without doing anything in them that I've hit a productivity wall and I need a break, even though I may not really feel like it. So I try to get myself to just stand up as the first step. Once I'm up I'll go for a walk or do some chores. This often does wonders. Being physically away from the computer makes me feel more ready to work when I come back.

distractionsImage credit: © The Oatmeal

"Commuting" by walking around the block can help transition from home to work.

Another challenge that I've tried to work around is the difficulty of transitioning from "home" to "work" and especially from "work" to "home" at the end of the day. To combat this I started taking a walk around the block before I start working and another walk around the block (in the other direction, of course) when I finish. I call this my "commute." Those few minutes can make a big difference and help me arrive back in a better state of mind than when I left.

Zooming Out

As for the broader picture, I tell people (ok, usually myself) that there will be times of low productivity. Days, weeks, or even longer. The first time this happens you might freak out ("I will never be productive again"), but after the 3rd or 4th bout you start to realize that it's an ebb and flow, that fighting it isn't the right response. You just gotta ride it out and know that it will end.

There will be times of low productivity. Ride them out.

One of the first articles on working from home that really resonated with me was David Tate's "How to work from home without going insane" and he has a section in it called "Crippling Depression – ride it like a wave." I return to this article at least once a year. That expression "ride it like a wave" has come back to me over and over and it helps me accept the state of things whenever I'm in a tough place with working from home.

How Balsamiq Deals with Working from Home

Balsamiq is optimized for working from home (more about that here). Even people in the office use our wiki and HipChat to communicate and keep people in the loop. This ensures that we really don't miss all that much from the office.

Even office employees use remote tools to communicate and keep people in the loop.

We also have two pages in our digital handbook: one called Managing Your Time and another with tips for working from home that contains a list of helpful articles about working from home.

Our Managing Your Time page starts by saying "With practice it should be possible to work fewer hours and get more done." We are not rewarded here for working long hours ("Pace, not Deadlines"), and we really value work-life balance, so this idea is something that feels right for us.

The page also lists some tips and tricks that reoccur in articles on getting things done, although it also acknowledges that what works for one person may not work for another.

Of course, we also find ways to see each other. We have monthly video calls with everybody to check in, encourage local get-togethers for people in the same region or time zone, and spend a week all together on our annual retreats!

The Lighter Side

Finally, working from home can be a great source of humor, especially when you can share it with your work-from-home colleagues.

timeImage credit: © The Oatmeal

You know you work from home when...

  • You put "shower" on your to-do list
  • Instead of wearing different clothes each day you wear the same shirt and pants for 3 days and then switch to a different set
  • You laugh at yourself laughing to yourself
  • Your friends think you're "trendy" because you have a beard, but really you just stopped shaving
  • You lose track of time easily
  • You actually miss your old commute sometimes (just for a minute)

Although some of us relish it more than others, I think that all of us "Balsamici" would agree that having the opportunity to work at home is a benefit to us and the company.

Do you work from home? Do you agree or disagree with any thoughts above? Have any tips to add? Feel free to reply in the comments!

- Leon

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