darrylcauldwell.com On a journey around the datacenter and public cloud.

Remote working with Home Schooling

When I was co-located in office with the other members of my team I never really had to put much thought into the structure of the working day. I turned up around 9am, took 30m lunch at 12noon and left around 5:00pm. My work is delivering solutions which often span several weeks or months as such I have a great deal of flexibility on how I structure my day.

Around ten years ago I moved to be a remote worker based at home. During the years I’ve had many learning opportunities for how best to work and get into a routine where I am equally as productive as I was when based in the office. As more people are now forced to become remote workers ( at least temporarily ) it seemed a good time to write out my thoughts.

My Perception Of What Others Think

When I first moved to remote working I felt being out of physical sight of colleagues they would think I was slacking off. I thought my work was less visible so I looked to increase my output by piling on the hours, a typical day would be something like.

06:30 - 07:00   Turn laptop on in kitchen while making coffee, read emails over coffee
07:00 - 07:30   Breakfast while thinking about replies for emails
07:30 - 08:30   Reclocate laptop to dinning room table write replies for emails and form daily to do list
08:30 - 09:00   Wash, brush teeth etc
09:00 - 17:00   Laptop in spare bedroom, work tasks
17:00 - 19:00   Dinner with my wife I'd try and switch off but typically would have something work related going on so would be maybe only 80-90% present
19:00 - 22:00   Spending maybe 50% of time catching up on tech news or personal projects

I quickly recognised that being at work to some extent every waking hour was unhealthy. I’d never had to speak about topics like this with my manager or colleagues, so I was unsure how to even raise the topic. I gradually tried to introduce exploratory questions when we were talking about other things. Talking around the subject with my colleagues and manager I found cathartic for me and I soon realized this whole thing I had constructed in in my mind only. Becoming aware of this allowed me to proceed without guilt towards a much more normal working life remotely. If I had not done this one thing, I would have certainly needed to have moved back to a co-location workspace.

Separating Home and Work

The secondary cause I identified was that I didn’t have a dedicated working space so wherever I was became a temporary working space. While I used laptop with a monitor, keyboard and mouse in the office these were not things which I could take home for remote working. At home I had a desk in a spare bedroom for my personal computer, monitor, keyboard and mouse. When I started remote working, I used laptop only so I could have it on the counter in the kitchen, use at dinner table for most of day and then take to the couch for the evening.

My first attempt at improving this was to remove personal computer and use desk monitor/keyboard/mouse and use the spare bedroom as home office. Having two monitors increased my productivity during core office hours I still ended up with laptop in the kitchen over breakfast and on the couch in the evening.

I spent the next year saving up for a summer house to act as a home office. This has proved to be an invaluable solution which really has enabled a practical long term way of working. From day one of having the summer house my family noticed a massive difference in me. Albeit only 100feet from the house the separation of home and work life is incredible, I now keep laptop powered off until I go to work and power it off when I leave. I still have access email via smart phone for anything urgent.

Smarter Working

When I was working the longer hours I got projects finished quicker, studied so was always at front of new technology, both of which got me recognised as a high performer. Being a high performer got more complex and interesting projects. When I moved to a have clear separation between work and home I had less hours to work. I began exploring techniques for better time management with goal of maintaining high performance.

A friend recommended I explore the pomodoro technique, at a high level you break your workday into 25minutes intervals separated by short breaks. The premise didn’t seem like it would be right for me. But I was wrong I actually ended up really liking this and was very productive. It does become difficult to do every day to do planning correctly especially when attending calls and meetings.

The biggest drawback I found of the pomodoro technique is that my concentration capabilities vary through the day. I have various types of tasks I need to complete during the day which for me require different approaches. When I am doing a complex task such as writing software or deeply thinking about design it takes me 20-30minutes to get into a rhythm and I can only sustain that for maybe an hour and a half. I need to spend the time immediately before and after these two hours doing work which doesn’t require as much deep concentration. I don’t always have concentration work for two blocks every day, personally I feel more effective in a morning so where possible use the morning time block over the afternoon.

When external actors allow a home office day optimized for high performance for me looks like:

06:30 - 07:00   coffee and drive to gym
07:00 - 07:30   HIIT session at gym
07:30 - 08:30   family breakfast then walk my daughter to school with dog
09:00 - 10:00   process email, schedule meetings, scrum team stand-up
10:00 - 10:15   clear mind and take coffee
10:15 - 12:00   perform focussed concentration work
12:00 - 12:30   take lunch
12:30 - 13:30   low concentration work
13:30 - 15:30   perform focussed concentration work or low concentration work
15:30 - 15:45   clear mind and take coffee
15:45 - 17:00   low concentration work
17:00 - 19:30   family dinner, family dog walk, daughter book and bed
19:30 - 20:30   self-study OR tech meetups OR gym session
20:30 - 22:00   family time

Project Management Lite

When your sat in an office with team it is very easy to keep up to date with what everyone is doing through general chit-chat. When your remote from the rest of team it is easy to have two people working on same thing. Its equally east for no one working on something which is needed, and everyone assumes someone else is doing it.

While full project management of a team’s tasks is overkill, a form of project management lite is useful. Technology can really help here, many teams I’ve worked on towards a common goal have used Jira. The product owner managed requirements and forms well defined epics/stories which they can track visibility of progress. The feature lead takes the story breaks into sub-tasks and engineers with right skills and cycles picks them up. A daily 5-10minute stand-up call between people working together at the start of every day ensures everyone is aware of progress and status.

Collaboration

Writing scripts and other assets for solutions delivery can be done in isolation but typically talking things through really helps. When working on knarly issues in an office we would typically sit at same desk to maintain a dialogue and both watch same screen when writing the code. This pair programming is super useful way of getting better quality and faster with more chance of things working right first time. When everyone is remote this style of working could be really difficult and lead to inefficiency.

I was an early adopter of Visual Studio Code as it fitted a very specific use case I had. My use case was that I used to regularly switch between text editing on Windows Server RDP and laptop local on macOS. VS Code was a free and lightweight tool which offered same UI and shortcuts on both OS. It is very extensible and in last few years the Live Share extension was released. Live Share allows you to collaboratively edit and debug with others in real time. When used in conjunction with a phone call its perfect way to enable remote pair programming.

Pet Therapy

One of the key challenges for remote working is the lack of social interaction. For the first few weeks and months I wasn’t aware that I was missing social interaction. Before long I began feeling a little different, a general feeling of loneliness, I think maybe even I was suffering a mild depression.

As a child growing up my parents had always been dog owners. We hadn’t been able to have a dog before as we both out at work. Being a remote worker meant now I was home many more days. I still had to travel to customers meetings but found a local kennel offered doggy day-care. We ended up getting an english cocker spaniel, he keeps me company in the empty house. A spaniel has many character flaws but is an entertainer who has boundless enthusiasm and keeps me sane. He is also very friendly with other dogs and so his regular walks typically lead to me talking to other owners while he plays with their dog.

Exercise

When I worked in an office regularly attending gym was a really easy way to stay in shape. There was a little group of three of four of us who looked to go together. There always challenges to attend, meeting schedule, not feeling like it, busy with work but the encouragement of each other we made it much more often than not.

Working from home it is very easy to fall out of the habit of exercise. We live in a rural area with many footpaths and bridleways which means for most of the year we can easily do walking, running and cycling. In the winter when day light hours are much shorter the weather is cold and rainy/snowy it easy to drop back.

To help maintain some exercise during winter when I got the home office built it gave space for some indoor exercise space. As part of my gym routine I’d always liked to include some time on the Concept2 rower so bought one for home from eBay. The rower was great but after a year or two I found indoor rowing as primary form of exercise a little tedious. I sold the Concept2 rower on and bought a Nordic Trak treadmill.

While I’ve always enjoyed running outdoors, I never really enjoyed the treadmill in the gym. I tend to stand when I’m watching recordings of conference calls to avoid the temptation of getting sidetracked by the computer and loosing focus. The treadmill is useful as now I can be walking instead of standing. It is also really useful when need to step away from a problem for a few minutes, I do a 1km jog which takes about five to six minutes. With outdoor running there is the scenery and you lose track of time on the treadmill the dynamic is very different and while I do occasionally do longer runs they are very rarely more than an hour.

Pandemic Adjustments

Since the global pandemic our now seven year old daughter school has closed, my wife has been furloughed from her job and the gym has closed. We always spoke to our daughter about school, approached homework and read books together. As the situation developed and we faced with this unexpected home schooling opportunity my wife and I realized we really didn’t know what she did for the 7hours of the day she is at school. My wife and I were apprehensive at first as how to home school our daughter.

Having both my wife and daughter off at the same time has meant his has affected my schedule too much. Becoming a teacher is a challenge for my wife so I’ve try and give her as much personal time as possible. I do an lesson first thing in morning before I start work which gives my wife an hour to walk dog and get ready. The lessons aren’t back to back, so this also allows a good transition for us both. We also take advantage of them being around by taking breaks together.

06:30 - 07:00   Coffee
07:00 - 08:00   Family breakfast
08:00 - 09:00   Home school while wife walks the dog
09:00 - 10:00   Process email, schedule meetings, scrum team stand-up
10:00 - 10:15   Family snack break
10:15 - 12:00   Perform focussed concentration work
12:00 - 12:30   Take lunch
12:30 - 13:30   Low concentration work
13:30 - 15:30   Perform focussed concentration work or low concentration work
15:30 - 15:45   Family snack break
15:45 - 17:00   Low concentration work
17:00 - 19:30   Family dinner, after which I take over with daughter dog walk, book and bed etc

Since the pandemic I found the Peleton was offering three months of membership for free. Previously I had only ever thought you needed the Peleton equipment to do the sessions. There are two membership levels one for using your own bike/ treadmill and the other which requires their equipment. The class based Peleton treadmill workouts have proved to be really enjoyable alternative while the gyms are closed.

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