Soldiers of the Work at Home Revolution

30 Mar 2020


Offices have shut down, and employees are working from home. For many, this is a new experience and a struggle. At ALTADATA, we have been working remotely for almost five years now; we learned a lot from this experience and wanted to share tips, tricks, and tools that make working from home easier. Our small team is spread over three countries in different time zones. We hope what we share here will make life a little easier, more collaborative, more productive, and healthier for the reader. This is not just for companies and employees. Many great new ideas and innovative companies rise from the ashes of crises, and maybe you are working at home setting up one of these future operations.

The world is a confusing place right now. There is a growing feeling that we may never go back to the office. Making this new modus operandi work well will require a bit of adjusting. We need new habits.

It is never too late to change our habits to make working from home easier and more productive.

It takes four “easy” steps:

  1. Set up the environment
  2. Align your mindset
  3. Get on with new communication skills
  4. Arm yourself with the tools

Set Up the Environment

The first rule of working from home is the separation of work and home. It is difficult to use the same space for two completely different purposes and mindsets. We need to work at this consciously.

Remember, the objective is to be more productive, healthier, and make it enjoyable. We list a shortlist of guidelines of what works (🚀) and what does not (❌) with the work environment at home:

🚀 Productive - Enjoyable – Healthy

  • Set up a designated place in the living room or a separate room.
  • Stiff comfortable work chair
  • Table-top or desk
  • Task lighting
  • Soundproofing or noise-cancelling headphones

Wastes Time – is Confusing or Unhealthy

  • Work from the bed, the bedroom, or lying on the couch.
  • Soft chair, loveseat or couch
  • Literally lap top
  • Dim lighting
  • Brain cancelling noises
A sample work environment at home

Align Your Mindset

Create a morning routine. This will prepare you for the workday and distinguish weekdays from weekends. You will devise your own routine, but we suggest a few basics any routine should include.

When you get up, make the bed and don’t get back in it until nighttime when you return to a perfectly made bed. It feels good! The bed is not a work environment. Do not work in your PJ’s or worse yet in your bathrobe. Change into work clothes even if you will not go out of the house at all. If you normally shave, keep shaving. If you normally put on make-up, put a little make-up on. If you normally go jogging, do some core exercises.

Some people create a routine that mimics their past routines from commuting to the office days. Instead of listening to the news in your car, listen to a podcast or a catchy song while making coffee. You can’t get coffee at the corner shop nowadays, so get on with making a pot of coffee or tea at home. You probably can’t duplicate the routine from your old office days, but a set routine will mentally prepare you for the workday at home.

After the morning routine, we recommend following a few guidelines during the day. Take your breaks around the same time every workday. This will create some normality. Measure certain habits in order to manage your habits. You can’t manage without measuring. How many times did you open the refrigerator? How much time did you spend on social media (or games) outside of your breaks? Did you remember to get up from your chair and do your 3-minute stretches?

Follow some end-of-workday rituals. Turn off your computer; everything is on your mobile anyway. Plan for a movie, plan something different to cook, call a friend. Habits like setting the table for dinner will help separate work and home mindsets.

New Communication Skills

Learn to listen for cues: We exchange a lot of information even during a simple chat at the office. We convey information about our mood, our stress level, and our relationships. During these sessions, words are used for communication, but body language may matter even more. You would think that you would lose these valuable cues when you are physically separated. Not all is lost. Our senses know we are "at work" and help us filter the necessary data from the environment. It is more challenging, and you may need more time to understand feelings, small details and nuances during remote conversations. Great communicators have good listening skills. It is even more important in remote communications. Over time, the cues come to good listeners. In the meantime, practice. Make small talk with your co-workers and collaborators online.

Online Meetings: If you work in a large team, meetings can become too frequent and too long. Team members may bring up and discuss small details. At first, there may be more interruptions and disagreements. Not to worry. We found that this situation is temporary and is due to the paradigm shift in your group’s culture. Meetings will be smoother, more focused, (and yes, shorter!) and with fewer participants, once the new working culture settles. Trust is important. Break down issues into smaller components and trust your team to resolve them in smaller, more focused meetings. Even if you are working just by yourself, break large tasks into small components.

Assign someone to take notes in meetings if there are three or more attendees. The note-taker should distribute the minutes by email shortly after the meeting, and when he does, the team will get on the same page and go on with its mission. At ALTADATA, this is one of the few times that we use internal email; more on that later. Three popular and easy to use tools for taking notes are:

Manage Asynchronous Communication: When we have a question or need help at the office, we can lean on our colleagues’ shoulders and get an answer quickly. However, it will not always be possible to get instant answers when working remotely.

Email communication becomes asynchronous, especially when the team is stretched over time zones. To deal with this delay productively, we schedule asynchronous parallel tasks at ALTADATA. If someone is blocked on a task waiting for input or help, they can continue to work on another task on their list. A task scheduling tool with an “open issues board” helps here. We use some great tools to communicate and allocate. These tools enable us to re-synchronize the team at least once a day. We’ll talk about these below:

Collaboration Tools

Shared On-line Project Management Apps to manage the team’s to do list, resources and projects.

Video and Online Meeting Apps

Chat & Instant Messaging

Besides all the tools, there are a few habits we found very useful when collaborating remotely:

  • We have a 15-minute online meeting every day that we call the “heart-beat”. Every team member gives an update with a few sentences, at which time they can request for help or set up a smaller focus meeting on the issue they are facing. We use Microsoft Teams for online meetings. Microsoft Teams is based on Skype technology and works quite well if you already have Office365.
  • We use the project management tool Asana diligently so that everyone can track the daily status and see blocked or done tasks. This saves a lot of time; it is much faster than asking, “hey, what’s going on with xyz?”. This also gives an instant snapshot of who is too busy and who may have time to help. ASANA allows projects to be privileged so that even managerial tasks can be managed here.
  • We use Slack’s channels feature for announcements, overall discussions, and quick questions. Usually, this is more efficient and provides faster solutions than having to a call a meeting or starting long e-mail chains. Slack is great for keeping constantly in touch and feel connected. It replaced the internal e-mail at our company.

Lastly, it is fair to guess that we sometimes cheat and not always follow our own advice. However, these are the target habits that we try to stick to every day. The important thing that we figured out is that following these guidelines help us be more productive, avoid conflicts, and enjoy our work more. Hope it helps you as well.

All the best, and good luck.