Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

No place like home: What 40 years of working remotely taught me

I've managed teams, authored and edited books, maintained a clockwork news production schedule, and conducted daily editorial conferences -- all from home, for decades. Here's how I've made it work.

My home has been my headquarters -- wherever my home has been -- for the last 40 years. I started as a professional computing consultant. Then, on advice from my colleagues, I became an adult. Throughout that time, I've been a writer and author on the topic of things with processors. 

"Telecommuting" isn't really the word for it; rather, I bring my clients to me, remotely. I married my editor, then I became an editor, and we both share an office. I've managed teams, hired and fired reporters, authored and edited books, maintained a clockwork news production schedule, and conducted daily editorial conferences. At a time when global connectivity was achieved with a 1200-baud modem, I contributed to international editorial teams.

20141209184747frank-lloyd-wright-home-and-studio-1024px.jpg

The home office of architect Frank Lloyd Wright from 1889 to 1909, photographed in 2007 by John Delano.

(Image: Photo in the public domain)

Last month, I began receiving pitches from public relations contacts, offering me interviews with folks claiming to be experts in working from home, in the wake of the global pandemic that's making more folks stay home. Some of them very well may be. But it occurred to me now, as people in mostly intellectual and creative trades are being compelled, in many cases for the first time, to work from home on a sustained basis, that I may have actually lived to become the world expert in this one topic.

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Give yourself space

Working from home is not only an exercise in self-management but in building the trust you need for others to refrain from micro-managing you.

If you've ever tried to improve your child's homework performance by giving her a real desk with drawers, a proper computer or tablet station, and filing cabinets, you already know in your heart that it's ridiculous to expect yourself to be productive from your bed or your sofa. You need an office that reflects who you are as a person and how you best feel about yourself. You should inhabit the space that reinforces your competency, and that reminds you that you are for real and that you do have a job.

I don't work well at all in a tightly enclosed space or a room of any size without windows. I work very well outdoors. In the 1980s, before laptops were the least bit rational, I converted what had been sold as a microwave oven station on casters into a portable computer station I could roll outside. I moved into the space that best suited me and adapted my tools to suit that space. And, because I like variety in my life, I refrain from constraining myself to just one space at all times.

As an intellectual and creative worker, you should get into the habit of projecting your "office space" as wherever you find yourself, like a foreign correspondent. You may need to be around people, even if just in your general vicinity, to spark your creative interests or keep your mind from settling. It's for this reason God created coffee shops and public libraries. But if you work better with quiet and no personal interruptions, then you should create "office hours" for yourself, choose whatever space best represents your headquarters for the day, and claim that space as inviolable and exclusive to you.

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If you've ever taken your kid to work with you, you know this can be a struggle. I did have it easier than some because I raised only one child. (We wanted more, but that's a story for another essay.)  A child will demand your attention, and should. For a person who's normally away in the day and home in the evenings to suddenly be home all day, it will be difficult at first for children to become accustomed to the idea that you can be home but at the same time busy and unavailable. Your patience will be tested, and even when they're not bothering you directly, they may distract you indirectly.

This will be a learning experience for everyone. A child is accustomed to seeking and acquiring your attention. Yet what a child needs most of all from you is presence. In a commercial or industrial office, work can be accomplished more readily when people in the same area become accustomed to each other's presence, without always demanding direct attention from one another. This can hold true for you as a parent as well, and a child can learn, when they're in your presence, to trust you that the time will soon come when you can devote your full attention to them.

It's also extremely important to have a spouse or partner who supports you without doubt or condition. There's where I've been extremely lucky as well.

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Manage your time

This, for most folks, is the scariest part of working at home. How, I've been asked, do you ever get anything done?

As a managing editor for an online news publication whose entire staff worked from home, I learned a method for improving productivity through trust. I instructed my staff to learn to trust the clock. If you understand how much you're capable of producing in a set period, then you can divide the clock in your mind into slices, and expect that each slice is proportionate with one "unit" of work -- an abstract idea of how much you can accomplish. For myself, I divided the clock into 20-minute segments. And if I gave myself an hour to produce a 1,200-word article, I could visualize the three segments of 400 words being smoothly produced.

Then, as their manager, I conferenced with my staff every morning and worked out an itinerary for all of us based on how I expected us to make the best use of our segments of time. In the news business, a more important story can delay a story in progress. If you're just managing yourself, or if you're managing staff, you can begin each day with an itinerary of expectations. Knowing that a normal day still fluctuates, you can establish milestone times for completing your main goals on your normal schedule. Then, be ready to make delays, or to speed up production at certain hours, if and when the day changes. With my staff, I suggested they make contingencies to narrow their slices from 20 minutes to 15, which often happened on Tuesdays -- typically the biggest news days of the week.

A chef in a professional kitchen learns to manage time by observing how long food preparation takes, at a normal pace and an accelerated pace. When those observations become regular, the chef can learn never to set expectations beyond what she already knows to be possible. Any other professional intellectual or creative endeavor can be managed the same way, learning to work in nugget-sized increments with reasonable milestones and goals.

Visualization is your most important personal tool when working on your own -- being able to see yourself succeeding with your own expectations. You can then adapt that vision of your time allotment to allow for unforeseen interruptions. 

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Enforce your barriers and respect others'

The problem many people have working in a shared office environment is that they're never able to perceive space, time, or even work product as their own. For the entire time they're on the clock, nothing belongs to them. Some folks who rely on earbuds end up receding into themselves. A few snatched minutes watching a possum chasing a squirrel on YouTube is perceived as a stolen time for oneself.

This is an office environment that is mismanaged, to begin with. When the work moves into employees' homes, some workers wrestle interminably with the notion of when work ends and life begins, or how to get the boss to respect workers' privacy and personal time.

This problem is best illustrated by the phenomenon of "Slack fatigue", which comes from expanding the notion of "virtual presence" into so many simultaneous channels that employees feel overwhelmed. In a shared office without virtual connections, your location at any moment determines what you're engaged in during that moment; with Slack or Microsoft Teams, you're everywhere at once, so the leaders of each virtual location can assume you're always available and present for them.

This phenomenon cannot be traced back to the software; Slack is a tool for building engagements, not an architect for work processes. In no office, physical or virtual, anywhere in the world, is there ever a reason for you as an employee to be personally surveilled. What can and must be monitored instead are the products of your work, your engagement with others in a formal meeting, and the integrity (along with, in the shared office case, the physical presence) of the tools with which you work. Nobody needs to make sure you're at your desk, but somebody does need to make sure you're meeting deadlines.

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Everyone, at any level of the organizational chart, has the right to negotiate for how her or his time will be utilized. This may include asserting that it's impossible to get the assigned or expected work done and still do three or more meetings per day. For each organization, there will some reasonable compromise. But a company that can't decide how to limit meeting times in a virtual workspace probably has no clue about the physical space either. Learning to respect one another's space, time, and persons -- who we are as people -- are requirements of every work environment; only the logistics change in a virtual space.

My problem -- and man, did I ever have it bad -- was when to stop. Here's me practicing now.