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Why I Decided to Spend More Time Working from Home

At Parse.ly we pride ourselves on having a distributed team. In fact our CTO, Andrew, wrote an excellent piece on whether fully distributed teams are viable. Two-thirds of our team is distributed across the US, Canada and Europe. However, we also have a “home office” in NYC, and this is where our business team typically works.

That all changed when Hurricane Sandy hit New York City. The outer boroughs were cutoff from our office in Manhattan and all subways were shutdown. That meant everyone in NYC at Parse.ly was forced to work from home for the entire week. This post is less about the affect on the Parse.ly team and more of what it meant for me to move from working in the Parse.ly office to working from home.  

A quick history of Parse.ly first. When Andrew and I first started the company we were, for over a year, working from home and in coffee shops. We couldn’t afford an office and were forced to work around the city when we wanted to meet, and at home when we didn’t. Thinking back, it’s quite amazing to me how much we were able to get done in some of the worst working environments possible. Neither of us had large apartments and shared it with other people. When we did want to meet up, it was actually pretty difficult to find a place that offered wifi and had space to work. A lot of meetings that were originally intended as productive work sessions ended up unproductive brainstorm sessions due to a lack of wifi. And back in 2009 there weren’t really as many opportunities to co-work with other startups, work in startup spaces, or find like-minded folks. In fact there was only one place, Gramstand, that we found through Cooper Bricolage (sad to think this hasn’t been updated in over 2 years), and that was shutdown within months. Suffice it to say, the caveat here is that though the working environment matters, an amazing one is not necessary to work. Parse.ly was built in the crappiest conditions possible and I couldn’t be happier with the results.

Yet, there are clear reasons why working from home works and doesn’t. The week after the Hurricane reminded me of many of the advantages and disadvantages. The single largest realization (reminder, even) though, was that working from home takes a serious amount of discipline.

One of the easiest ways to discipline yourself is through routine. Toms Baugis, a Parse.ly engineer living in Berlin, talks about how routine can strength your ability to work at high level of productivity in his LifeHacker post, Find the Right Routine to “Surf” Productivity. I found this was critical for me during the week of working from home due to Sandy.

The first couple of days almost felt like a lazy Sunday during a typical week. When I have a free Sunday I usually spend the day lazily responding to e-mails, finishing admin tasks, and straightening out my schedule for the week. During the first few days of working from home I began to find myself in a rut of just completing menial tasks and not getting serious work done. I quickly came to the conclusion that this was because working is modal, and I was just not in the right mode. I was in my lazy Sunday mode, and not in the I’m going to kick some ass at work mode that I usually am during the work week. I quickly changed some small things to help jumpstart me into the right gear. I wouldn’t start working until I showered, left my apartment to get a coffee, and wrote down three things I wanted to complete in the morning. This had an effect of getting me ready for my workday and setting my mind on accomplishing the tasks at hand.

Probably one of the biggest complaints I’ve heard from people working from home is that there are just too many easy distractions. There’s TV, a fridge full of food, a bed to nap on, video games to play, no direct pressure to work (through co-workers or managers), etc. Distractions are waiting around the corner, urging you to take the bait. And, if you don’t keep them in check, they can certainly win. Thinking back on the early Parse.ly days though, I remembered how I used distractions to my advantage. I was the most productive when I use some variation of the Pomodoro Technique. The Pomodoro Technique uses small sprints of work broken up by short breaks. I used to employ this all the time when I was working from home, but found that I no longer required it at the office. Being back home made me realize why – it’s the distractions. The Pomodoro Technique gives you the ability to take all of those distractions and embrace them. You can work for 30 minutes and then take a five minute break to eat a sandwich. Or work for an hour and then take a 15 minute break to play video games. Essentially, you can work and play all in the same space – it’s actually quite amazing.

Because working is modal and your body and mind gets used to working “at work.” You limit yourself to exploring how different environments can influence how you think about problems. Working from home, though, gives you full reign over your environment and that means the change in environment can change your approach. Deciding to work from a desk vs. on the couch vs. outside vs. at a coffee shop can all have a strong effect on how you react to the task at hand. I found that the more rigid my environment (for example working at the desk in my chair) the more I was inclined to work on concrete tasks, while working outside or on my couch gave me the flexibility of exploring the problem.

Finally, and almost overlooked, is the fact that working from home just means more time. I spend almost 1.5 hrs commuting to and from work everyday. That 1.5 hrs is saved if I stay home and can be dedicated to a variety of things; for example more work, health, or leisure.

Working from home, at first, was a cause for concern. I was troubled by the fact that I couldn’t concentrate as well as I could from work, when it used to be a snap back in the day. However, after a few days of getting into the swing of things, I realized not only how working from home was plausible, but why it can be beneficial. Moving forward, I plan on dedicating a day every week or two to strictly working from home. Unfortunately, because almost every day is filled with in-person meetings, I can’t afford to do more than that. After a month or two, I plan on doing a quick update on the value of working from home sporadically.

Let me know what your tricks and thoughts are about working from home in the comments below.

Comments

  1. I actually had the same fears you described when I started working at my company (I’ve since moved to Data Center Operations which requires my physical presence). I was able to work from home as the need arose, and I was always worried that I would get too distracted and wouldn’t get my work done.

    After doing it a few times it wasn’t hard to stay focused. It wasn’t a matter of limiting distractions or having self discipline, it was that I was comfortable. If I was hungry I had my own food right there and I could cook something instead of having to plan ahead to bring a mediocre meal to work, or wasting money and ordering something I didn’t /really/ want to eat. I could take a shower on one of my breaks, or play video games. What helps a lot is enjoying the work I did. It wasn’t particularly glamorous, but the benefit of being in the tech/IT sector is that a lot of us found our way here out of passion, not as a means to an end.

    • Hi Carl, I think found the same thing when I first started out. It was really easy to just get comfortable and stay there. You really need to “jolt” yourself out of that mode and into a work one to get things done.

  2. I spent 9 of the last 10 years working remotely full time both as a contractor and as the co-founder of two businesses. It took me about three years to develop a set of rules that kept my productivity up and prevented depression but once I found them the work environment became immensely rewarding. If you’re interested, here are the rules I use:
    * don’t open the computer until you’ve been outside
    * have at least one relaxing, personal conversation with someone each day
    * begin with work you know you need to do, don’t start with email
    * listen to your body when you feel tired/distracted
    * write up what you’ve accomplished at the end of the day. <- this focuses you on results, not time spent, unlike an office environment.

  3. Carlos Nunez says:

    I worked remotely frequently at my last job (which I left a few months back, so the experiences are still pretty fresh). I discovered that being in the right environment is absolutely key…and absolutely non-static. I did some of my best work on the bus to the coffee shop (and in those same coffee shops as well). Conversely, I’ve hardly been able to work while at home because it was too quiet (weird, I know.).

    White noise and chatter helped me think, and fending off the distractions was pretty easy because I was in a zone where I was most productive.

    Nice reference to the Pomodoro Technique; I’ve, unknowingly, done variations of this technique and it works really, really well. It’s exactly like exercising.

    • Pomodoro is definitely like exercising, but I do find that I tend to get more anxious generally when I use it. I think it’s something about the stop-and-go nature.

  4. I’ve had a lot of success by utilizing a simple timer that chimes every hour as a reminder to stay focused and on track. Actually just wrote my first blog post about it.
    If you have time take a look, but forgive the horrible theme and lack of everything else, I was trying to actually ship.

  5. I had been working from home for more than 5 years. It does not require more discipline than the usual way, it requires knowledge, and as you said routines, but look into the usual way you work and you will discover routines everywhere.

    It takes 30 days for making a routine catch. That is the most powerful learning I did from productivity books and videos, and you have a very limited ability for change so trying to change multiple routines at the same time means changing none.

    Everything is a routine, from washing your hands before eating to cleaning your teeth, or changing gears in your car if you have manual transmission like we Europeans have, what you eat, how you eat it, going to sleep, taking a shower.

    Once you learn how to work without anybody looking at your shoulder, it is amazing.

  6. The big thing I’ve enjoyed when I get to work at home is the ability to switch quickly between (mostly intellectual) work tasks and (mostly physical) home chores. If I’m stuck on some particularly tough code, I can always get up and do the dishes. By switching to something else that’s worklike, I maintain my “it’s worktime” mindset, and by moving to something that’s entirely physical I get a chance to let my mind drift and come up with some insight on the intellectual problem. Additionally, when my workday is done, I’ve also done a lot of the regular maintenance tasks around the house. This gives me a full evening to relax and work on other projects. If I could, I’d work from home probably 80+% of the time.

  7. I really appreciate that article.
    I’m a PhD student in Machine Learning and my office is far one hour (one-way) from home, so working from home let me to spend the hours on my car, for working (or for something else), distractors are quite low, because I work in my room, with my headphones and my music, isolated completely from the rest of the world, while in my office, I’ve some distractors like my officemates that need help or need to natter. Well sometimes is useful to break up coding rhythm, but it depends on the frequency of these office distractor.
    But I think, as well explained, in the article, that you have to be “trained” to work from home thus wasting time is usual!
    And I appreciate the openings in telecommuting job, I mean is obvious that a proficient homeworker is better than an unefficient officeworker!
    So if you want an italian telecommute coder… :)

  8. I have just started working from home, a few days in, so I am still experimenting with different ideas & approaches. It is a little bit tricky to get right, but I think that once I have the knack, it will be fantastic for both productivity & balance.

  9. Solo Scrum has always been a big help for me, especially when dealing with widely distributed teams – most challenging I’ve had to deal with was living GMT -8:00 and having team members GMT +8:00 and GMT +1:00.

    I would email the team at the end of my work day with the 3 following items:

    1. What I completed today.
    2. What I will complete tomorrow.
    3. Any blocks.

    I think it’s important, especially with distributed teams, to focus what I’ve done vs. what I’m working on – I’ve been working on organizing my .mp3 collection since 2003.

  10. Hey Sachin,
    I’ve been working from home for Treehouse for the last 5 months and I think one of the most effective tactics has to be working out. There’s a great post on how working out makes you happier on the Buffer blog here (http://blog.bufferapp.com/why-exercising-makes-us-happier) and I can say that it’s 100% true. I’m not only happier – I’m more productive and focused.

    Using an ‘Anti-To Do List’ (also known as a ‘Done’ list: http://blog.idonethis.com/post/34170232603/marc-andreessens-productivity-trick-to-feeling) is another technique that leaves me feeling refreshed. I typically assign 3 major tasks to myself throughout the day but we all know that there are a lot of things that require your attention. Noting that you’ve completed these tasks gives you a sense of accomplishment.

    And last but not least: I try to focus on one main task for 90 minutes as the very first thing I do. That means no checking e-mail, no instant messages, nothing. If something urgent comes up, my rationale is that they’ll call me. This tactic is always a nice jumpstart to the day because you’ve accomplished something meaningful (hopefully).

    Anyway, that’s all I have. Thanks for the great post!

  11. I really liked it when I had the opportunity too…
    one thing I really liked to do was going to a public library… it had nice chairs, people, but zero distraction and silence… almost like an office but more pleasant(silence²), I didn’t need to rush to get there, could take the public transport, give nearby places a stroll if I was feeling tired(mall, museum, park)

  12. In last 5 yrs most of the time i worked from home till recently moved to a physical office. Biggest challenges of working from home is isolation. Although, it looks really tempting not to be in the office on a monday morning but if you are doing it for many years it is likely to end up in physiological complexities due to isolation. Working from home best works in an environment where your co-workers are adaptive and you have the technology at your disposal or even in same timezone. Sitting half way round the is really challenging where you rarely have the chance to grab a coffee with your co-wokers during the afternoon breaks or with colleagues who are not used to work with a person who do not have any physical presence or there is no cisco tele-prensence

    Besides few drawbacks, it is always being productive for me since I waste less time in commute and I can choose some part that of day when my brain is in the most positive state to get some serious work done. However, I always need a dedicated room at my house designed as an office and keeps me away from day to day distractions.

    Apart from that I still do some work from home a day/ two which is possible since my team is distributed throughout the US and some in Europe.

  13. I used to work from home for at least 1-or-2 days a week a couple of years ago, and still spend a great amount of time (approx. 40 hours a week) at my “home-office”; and I can say that it definitely needs a different discipline to get the same productivity level as if you were at the office.

    I personally:
    1) have decorated my study room as an office, which has the greates effect to realize that you are actually “working” as if you were at the office.
    2) take a shower, do a 15 mins breakfast, have my coffee, read the news for another 15 mins and dress up casually
    3) do not use any techniques to track time, like Pomodoro, but when I give a break I keep it at a maximum of 10 minutes even if I have even worked for 2 hours.
    4) and the most important thing: love your job, then you’ll work with passion wherever you are!

  14. What a great blog! You hit the nail on the head!! I worked from home for a major company for 10 years. My company’s whole department was laid off in 2010. I took the time to interview hundreds of people working from a home office. Then I wrote a short comical booklet to help others learn to work from home too with best practice tips. Working from a Home Office Successfully has been a huge hit on Amazon. Check it out if you have time. http://www.outskirtspress.com/homeofficeguru Good luck to you!

  15. Heard a great quote about this during an Oracle presentation, “Work is not a place”.

  16. If the distributed team has the time gap, I wanna to ask how to deal with it?

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Cantankerous Robots: Why I Decided To Spend More Time Working At Home Sachib Kandar, CEO of Parse.ly, chronicles his experiences working remotely during Hurricane Sandy. No stranger to dispersed teams, Kandar was surprised to initially struggle when working from his apartment in New York. His solution? Kandar embraced a disciplined routine by clearly delineating between “work mode” and “relax mode,” and by using the Pomodoro Technique—a practice where bouts of productivity are interspersed with short breaks. Once he got into the habit of structuring his work-from-home days like that, he “realized not only how working from home was plausible, but why it can be beneficial,” he writes. [...]

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