Working From Home - An Envatian Perspective

Why are we writing this?

Envato has been a remote-friendly workplace since the beginning. Our founders are keen travellers and understand that work is something we do, not somewhere we go. The authors of this article are well-versed in working remotely both from home and from abroad. Working from home for a day can seem pretty sweet: you don’t have to take a day off work when you’re expecting a delivery or a tradesperson (“tradie” to the Australians) but working from home longer-term comes with more challenges. Recent events that have overtaken the world mean that our entire workforce is now working from home and for some people this is their first time experiencing this for more than a day or so. We’re writing this for them. One of Envato’s core values is, “When the community succeeds, we succeed”, so we’d like to share this with you, our community, too.

Who are we?

  • Jaymie Jones - Engineer living in Northern NSW. Walking the path of the generalist diving a bit deeper into areas such as Ruby and front-end work.

  • Lucas Parry - Engineer in Melbourne, hates winter and has worked from Thailand, USA, Honduras, and Northern NSW in the past to avoid it.

  • Mary-Anne Cosgrove (aka MAC) - Senior Developer living in Canberra. I’ve worked from home for the last 5 years.

  • Patrick Robinson - Senior Dev Ops Engineer from Wangaratta VIC. Working from home for 8 years.

  • Pete Johns - Development Team Lead in Melbourne. Has been leading distributed teams since 2013 and recently worked while travelling in Europe for three months.

  • Travis King - Community Management Specialist in Saskatchewan, Canada. Don’t worry he has no idea where that is either.

Cool. How do you work effectively when you’re not at Envato’s HQ?

Patrick

Online, video-based, daily “stand-ups” are an important touch point for remote workers. Working remotely creates barriers to communication, I can’t turn to a co-worker to see if they’re busy and attract their attention naturally. I have to interrupt them, potentially while they’re in a meeting or deep in thought. Being aware of what each other are working on, and establishing if someone is free to be interrupted at a certain part of the day helps that process work a bit more freely. A simple “Can you help me after lunch with X?” can go a long way.

Lucas

Setting aside a dedicated workspace if possible, and only using it when you’re working, can really help with the blurred boundaries between work/home.

Change your expectations around communication, expecting near-instant responses to emails or Slack messages is setting yourself up for disappointment. Don’t send “Hi <coworker>” and wait for a response, just ask your question and the answerer will get to it when they get to it, I’m sure you are capable of finding something else productive until they do. If it’s truly urgent, maybe call the person, but really stop and think if it actually is since you’ll be interrupting someone else who is probably in the middle of their own important thing.

Meetings over video are great, but delays and varying connections can sometimes cause unintended talking over one another. Stop and agree who is going to speak. Sometimes a meeting facilitator can be helpful for ensuring everyone gets to say their piece in larger meetings.

Getting all those waiting-intensive chores done during the week (e.g. washing clothes) means less time wasted on weekends.

Travis

I only come to Envato HQ once or twice a year so I actually find my productivity drops when I have actual people around to chat with. The great thing about being in community is that it is active 24/7 from all sides of the globe, so I can drop in anytime I like to see what’s going on. The big downside to that is that I can drop in anytime I like to see what’s going on. So I’ve had to find a good work/life balance.

MAC

The big question for me is how do I work effectively when I AM at Envato’s HQ. During work time I tend to work much more intensely than when I am in the office. I like working without interruption, and am lucky to have a dedicated space that makes that easy. Occasionally I turn off my Slack notifications for focus. I tend to make the assumption that others will also turn off Slack notifications if they want to focus, so I generally ping people on Slack without worrying about interrupting them. I always make sure to include my question as well as a greeting, so that they can get back to me with the answer without another delay. I have been in teams where different members had different expectations around communication. It’s very worthwhile having a chat with your team to figure out what works best for each person and for the team as a whole.

Desks of Envato # 1

Sounds great! What are the benefits of working from home?

Pete

Having young family, the most obvious benefits relate spending less time commuting and more time with them, whether that’s playing with the kids, preparing meals, or helping with homework. I also enjoy the benefits of having access to my own kitchen at lunchtime. Work-wise, the environment at home is much quieter than our open-plan office, which allows for more deep thought and focus.

Jaymie

The flexibility, whether that is changing up my environment, using the time I would normally be commuting to do chores or time with family. The more I think about it, the list could go on and on.

Travis

For me being able to focus on my work from a quiet home office really allows me to get a great deal of work done quickly. I only have to really worry about a cat who seems to only want to go into my office when I close the door for a meeting. I also really love the flexibility of my work day when I work from home.

Lucas

Not commuting to the office saves at least 1-1.5 hours out of the day, which makes taking care of myself in the way of daily exercise much easier. I like to get in a run before or after work every second day or so. I find I also make much healthier food choices when I’m at home with access to my own kitchen than I ever would buying lunches at the office. Finally (and probably not so helpfully right now), I’m a natural introvert and not spending my “social points” in the office leave me with more points to spend with friends before I need to stop and recharge.

Patrick

For me it’s having the freedom I get about structuring my day. I can go to my Daughter’s assembly on a Friday morning, pick my son up from daycare early for swimming, go to the Gym or for a run at lunch. When you have to commute, it makes it harder to organise and i’m not great at being organised.

MAC

In addition to all the benefits others have mentioned, working remotely gives me the opportunity to work for a modern, progressive, caring company. It’s very hard to find places like that in my location.

I bet it’s not all beer && skittles. What are some of the pitfalls when working from home?

[Fun and enjoyable. “Skittles” is a British game that is similar to bowling. -Ed]

MAC

The big pitfall for me is getting so wrapped up in what I’m doing that I end up stiff and sore. Must keep moving!

Patrick

Not having a routine for starting and ending your day inhibits the mind’s ability to start and stop working. Some people have trouble focusing, others have trouble switching off, sometimes you get both in the same day. Building a routine for yourself and having triggers that gently guide you towards the desired outcome helps. My routine is to get dressed while getting the kids ready for school and daycare, go for a walk or run most days once they’ve left and sit down with a freshly brewed coffee ready to work. Once the kids get home it’s often distracting, they want to talk about their day and show me a picture they drew. Giving them 15 minutes of attention, for me often this involves making them food, avoids hours of broken attention as they interrupt me constantly.

Pete

If you’re not used to video or teleconferencing, it can take some adjustment. Consider joining a call a few minutes before the scheduled start. Checking that your microphone and camera are working properly before others join can save five awkward minutes of people asking, “can you hear me now?”

Travis

I’ve never tried beer and skittles together so I think I need to get on that. My biggest pitfall is not being able to disconnect. The community is always talking and I have a strong curiosity to check in even when I shouldn’t. So I’ve had to set my devices and tools like Slack to automatically enter a Do Not Disturb mode at night. It helps reduce the temptation to check in when I get a notification. Now I just have to find something to reduce the temptation to drink beer and play skittles…

Lucas

I definitely sometimes struggle with finishing up on time when I’m deep in problem solving mode; Not being in an emptying office means there’s fewer external signals that it’s time to stop. I sometimes need to set alarms for myself when I start in the morning to remind me when to stop. If you don’t consciously focus on keeping active, it’s extremely easy to be waaaay too sedentary; Get a fitness tracker of some sort, so you’ve got stats to feel guilty about.

What about the tech? Are there any good tools to use with remote teams?

  • 1Password: For keeping secrets secret.

  • An external microphone: the built-in microphone in most laptops picks up way too much background noise. If you’re running video conferencing software on a laptop, the cooling fan may sound like a jet engine to other meeting participants.

  • Comfortable headphones: these will dramatically improve your online meeting experience and if your schedule is meeting-heavy, you’ll appreciate the padded ear cups by the end of your working day.

  • External webcam so you can still look at your main screen and be seen to be looking at folks.

  • GitHub: We’ve written about this before.

  • Google Docs: We drafted this article in Google Docs. It’s so ubiquitous in our organisation that Pete forgot to list it while we were talking about our tools.

  • Google Meet: This is our go-to tool for team meetings.

  • Krisp: for audio, reduces external/ambient noises in both directions, e.g. street noise, fans, etc.

  • Slack: Mostly used for text-based chat, operations, and pairing over video.

  • Trello: Most of our teams use Kanban-style boards for visualising our work.

  • Zoom: For larger company meetings, we get to see each others’ faces on the big screen. Comedy backgrounds are very much an optional extra.

Working remotely sounds isolating. How do I stay connected?

Some of our colleagues have recently written about Staying social during social isolation, be sure to check that out on the main Envato Blog.

Travis

I’m pretty introverted, so I don’t get my tanks filled up talking to people like those crazy extroverts seem to do, but I still enjoy social interaction. So I try a schedule a night or two a week to just enjoy hanging out with friends. I also fortunately seem to have a lot of extroverted friends so they usually make all the plans and I can just show up…and now I feel a bit bad for calling them all crazy.

Lucas

I’m like Travis, if I’m in the office that’s introvert points I can’t spend with my social friends. Probably not helpful.

Patrick

When I first started working from home I also moved to a new town where I didn’t know many people. At first it was incredibly isolating. Prior to that I’d leant on my work colleagues to provide most of my social connections. I realised I needed to make an effort to build those relationships and through sports clubs and not-for-profits I’ve managed to.

It’s hard to replace unplanned interaction with people you know, at the supermarket, gym, parkrun or the coffee shop.

MAC

I attend virtual lunches or afternoon teas with three different groups (my team, women engineers, and remote workers). I also have regular one on ones with some people. Locally, I run a Humanist group and sing with a choir. During the pandemic lockdown I have helped both these groups to continue to meet via Zoom. We need to replace Social Isolation with Physical Isolation plus Social Connection!

Pete

Keeping connected with my team is really important to me. One-on-one meetings are the most important meetings of my week, where I get to spend time with the individuals on my team and make sure they’re supported. Each Wednesday afternoon we have “Working Together Time” where we all join a Google Meet and go about our normal work, as if we were co-located. Every other Wednesday we get together via Google Meet for a team lunch, which is a work-free social occasion.

Outside of work, as an ex-pat, I’ve grown accustomed to using FaceTime to keep in touch with family members and friends overseas. Like Patrick, I’m a keen runner and being in the open air with my running buddies keeps me healthy physically and mentally.

Jaymie

Working from home has its challenges, what I have found works quite well is having general conversations with the team (not work talk), as well as one on ones, then attending meetups when I can.

Desks of Envato # 2

What about health and safety?

Pete

Workplaces tend to have health and safety teams, who look after things like ergonomics, risk assessments, first aid and so on. If you work from home, these concerns still need to be taken care of. Using your laptop at the kitchen table may work for you when you work from home for a day but longer-term you’re going to want a dedicated workspace that is as comfortable as the one your employer provides. Office furniture can be expensive; consider checking out your local second-hand office furniture store for an ergonomic chair and a comfortable desk. Reusing these items is better for the bank balance and the environment than buying new and also is more readily available. Ask your IT team whether you can borrow peripherals like an external display, keyboard and mouse to use with your laptop while you’re not in the office as this will be better for your posture.

Check your home working environment for hazards, such as trailing power cords to make sure there are no trip hazards for you or for anyone else who might be nearby.

Take regular breaks from your screen. When you work in an office, you are likely to spend time walking between meeting rooms, when working from home, all of your meetings are at your desk. Try to finish meetings a few minutes early, and use that as a cue to get up, stretch, walk around your home and refill your water (hydrate, hydrate, hydrate).

MAC

Pay attention to your body. Notice if you have any aches and pains, and see if you can figure out what’s causing them. For me, I get neck pain and a back of the head headache if I work too long on a screen that is not at eye level, and pain in my left shoulder if I’m leaning on my left elbow (a bad habit!).

Jaymie

Sometimes you can get lost in your work and forget to take breaks. Using the pomodoro technique can be a great way to ensure you take regular breaks.

In addition to breaks, it is important to set boundaries on when you start and finish your work. If you don’t set boundaries, it can be easy to overwork yourself.

For example, your working boundaries may be starting at 8am and finishing at 4pm. When 4pm strikes, ensure that you log off for the day.

When attending meetings, ensure to have your webcam enabled so others can see you.

Travis

I’ve recently purchased a standing desk and started a short daily exercise program. I’ve never been a fan of exercise because yuck! So I had to find a routine that worked for me that I wouldn’t try to get out of every morning. So it’s coffee in the morning, 30 minutes on the stationary bike while listening to a podcast and then a nice soak in the tub before work starts. It’s gotten to be so enjoyable that I miss it when I can’t do it. I can’t believe I could actually miss exercise.

Lucas

Ergonomics! Don’t just sit on your couch and stare down at your notebook. At a minimum get an external keyboard and pointing device and sit your notebook on something to make it eye level. Ideally use an external display at the correct height. Get a decent chair, you’ll be sitting in it enough hours to justify spending on a comfortable one. Get outside, be active.

It’s going to take some time to adjust

Like so many things, we’re not going to get this right the first time. Adjusting to working from home if you’re used to working in an office may be hard, especially when you’re dropped into it at short notice. Communication here is important: regularly discuss what’s going well with your teammates and look at what needs to be improved for you to be effective. Iterate and adapt. You’ve got this!