Work from home? Things I wish someone had told me before I started

After a year dealing with the COVID-19 coronavirus, more and more businesses are sending their employees home to work, possibly forever. For those trying to adjust to this new normal, we have some suggestions.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Note: I originally published this article on March 5, 2020, about a week before the reality of COVID-19 started to make itself felt. Now, after a year of somewhat drastic change, we're coming to terms with our new reality. On re-reading this article, I was struck with how naïve and hopeful it seemed. We had no idea COVID would be with us this long. I've gone in and removed outright anachronisms and updated this so it's relevant given the rocky year we've just experienced.

I've been working from home for almost two decades. At first, I missed the camaraderie of the office, but I eventually grew to love managing my time, setting my priorities, and customizing my work environment to be optimal for my ever-changing work responsibilities. Plus, you haven't lived until you've met deadlines while holding a warm puppy on your lap.

While broadband has been a working-from-home enabler for years, we saw a big push in demand because of COVID. There were many companies who followed Twitter's lead and strongly encourage employees to work from home.

Over the past year, ZDNet has been writing a lot about working from home. Not only does working from home become practical because of technology, but also many of our editors are long-time work-at-home folks. We've been down this road and have a lot of experience to share.

This is a list of very much unprioritized thoughts about working from home based on my own experiences. Stay tuned. I'll be updating articles with more in-depth suggestions in the next few days.

With that, let's get started.

Find a dedicated workspace

When I first started working from home, I just used whatever space in my apartment that I had. But in the decades (!) since I've worked at home, I've made my choice on where to rent or buy not only based on what's good for the family, but also on what has the right spaces for being able to do my work. Making sure there's a dedicated office space with a closable door was essential, and in my case, I also need workshop/project space dedicated for work.

My advice to you, whether you're just working from home temporarily or setting up space for the next decade of your career, is to make sure you have a workspace with a door if you share your space with roommates or family. There will be times that you can't avoid family noise. You will need to have quiet to concentrate or to carry on a phone conversation with partners and clients. As many of you have come to learn, this isn't exactly a short-term experience.

Set boundaries, for pets and family

Setting family boundaries is key, but doesn't always work. Even so, I try to be clear with my wife when I'm concentrating on writing. This, unfortunately, doesn't work for the dog who, as I was actually typing this paragraph, attempted to push the keyboard away and lick my nose. As is almost always the case, because he's so cute, I stopped working and played with him.

Think outside the box, if you have a baby or puppy: When Pixel was a puppy (and even now), he freaked out if I left him in the living room and went to work in my office. But he hated my office. So, I stuck a monitor on an Ergotron arm and bolted it to the side table next to the couch. Now, while working (email, some writing, research, some coding), I can sit on the couch with him on my lap. I'm doing this right now.

Optimize and re-think your environment

Hook a computer to your big screen TV in your family room. This serves as a great conferencing tool, even if you're just working out details on a home project with the family. Plus, YouTube is much nicer at 65 inches.

Don't work in the kitchen. After evacuating from our home because of a hurricane and losing a roof, we moved into a temporary rental. I had to set up my office in the bonus room that was part of the kitchen. This made productivity incredibly difficult because the kitchen is the hub of the home, and there are too much traffic and activity. It's hard doing voice-overs while someone is cooking dinner or making smoothies in a blender. Here's a short video that showed that work environment just before we moved away. And this is a tour of my current office.

Also: Storage, servers and more: We found 24 cloud services for your business

I move between computers a lot during my workday. To keep things in sync, I use Dropbox, iCloud, and other cloud-based services so whatever I'm working on is available pretty much everywhere.

Run Ethernet from your router to your office if you can. When on a deadline or a push or moving big videos, you don't want to rely solely on Wi-Fi.

Get as much bandwidth as you can afford, both up and down. Read this to understand bandwidth at home:

Also: Speed up your home office: How to optimize your network for remote work and learning

Set up a local NAS for shared files and backups. But also be sure to back up to the cloud. 

Also: Best NAS in 2021: Network-attached storage devices for your home office or small business

If you're going to do videos, make sure you have a space where light doesn't cause issues, where you can have quiet, where the sound doesn't reverb, and where you don't have confidential stuff on the whiteboard behind your head. I had this issue with an executive who I interviewed me back in the day and we had to scrap the whole video.

Coffee. Keurig is your friend.

Continually optimize and re-think your work environment. If you can find a new way to save 10 minutes every day, there's an hour a week you can use for something else.

Tips for remaining productive

Make lists and be prepared to change your priorities at the drop of a hat. Because you're at home, you're in a fluid environment. You may need to move to another room, change the hours you're working because the fridge decided to flood or respond to other unexpected events. Having lists allows you to switch up and remain productive, regardless of events.

Don't be afraid to invest in a good chair and a large monitor. Both will more than pay for themselves in reduced pain and increased productivity. A second monitor is also a big win. Don't rely solely on your laptop screen for full-time work. It will leave a mark.

Also: How to find the best VPN service: Your guide to staying safe on the internet

When I originally wrote this back in March 2020, I actually said, "Know what local coffee shops and restaurants have good Wi-Fi." We were so, so young back then. I haven't been inside a coffee shop since, well, it's been a year. I miss them. Their owners and employees miss us and all the rest of their customers. It's been a rough year.

I continued with the whole coffee shop theme. I'm leaving it in just for its bittersweetness. Here's what I said: "Have a VPN for those days. If you need to escape the chaos at home, you'll have a known bolt-location (this is also important if your local network connection goes out). Also, know coffee shops a half hour or more away with Wi-Fi. If your local ISP is down and you're on a deadline, you'll want to know where to drive that has Wi-Fi and bandwidth at a more remote location."

As if.

Other dos and don'ts

My doctor says don't work seven days a week, 18 hour days. Apparently, that's not healthy once you're over 40.

Don't bring food to your desk, just liquid. Once you bring food to your desk, it's a slippery slope to the bag of Reese's miniatures.

Invest in sound-blocking earplugs or earmuffs. They'll save your productivity on days where the home chaos is too insane and you need quiet to concentrate.

So, there you go. Even though we've been talking COVID all year, we'll be keeping it up for as long as it's an issue we have to deal with. These tips should give you some food for thought and help keep you productive over the long haul.

Do you work from home now? Are you expecting to start soon because of COVID-19 concerns? Do you have any tricks or tips you want to share with our readers? Any questions or worries? Let us know in the comments below.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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