Working from home

Like most software people in the UK, I’ve been working from home since March. There have been some bad times, some mediocre times, and now some good times.

Here I discuss my particular experience of working from home as an employee of Arm.

Lockdown begins

COVID-19 goes very quickly from a subject of small-talk to real worry.

On the 12th of March, we get an email from the CEO saying every office in the world was to move to work from home by default. This was not unsurprising news: the news in the UK had been talking about the lockdown for quite some time.

So that was it; we were all working from home. We’d been told to start bringing everything we needed to do our jobs home for a few weeks at that point, so I had my laptop with me and not much else.

I made a quick smash-and-grab to the office to grab a few things, but this was the last time I would see the office for quite some time.

Getting to grips with WFH (Mar-Jun)

Before it happened, I always thought I’d like to work from home. Surely being able to do what you want while working is better than being in an office where you have to do certain things and act a certain way to not come across as a lunatic.

It turns out; I hated it. Shortly after the lockdown began, I moved to a new project, so I now faced working from home on an indefinite basis and having to upskill on a new project with new people. All while sitting on a sofa working on a 13-inch laptop.

The first few months did not go well.

  1. I wasn’t getting the new project
  2. I felt like I was asking stupid questions
  3. pairing with people over Teams felt awkward
  4. I was working from a laptop on a sofa

My motivation crashed through the floor and opening the laptop becoming a struggle. I felt stupid; I wasn’t a productive member of the team at all, and it felt like I was under pressure to perform. Everyone was very understanding, and I didn’t feel any pressure externally. Still, I was putting a lot of pressure on myself.

Breaking through (Jun-Sep)

Improvements in work

Finally, something clicked, and what I was working on started to make sense. I felt like I was beginning to make a positive contribution to the team rather than dragging the rest back with my tedious questions.

Instead of just asking hundreds of questions and converting the answers to code, I was getting to the point where I was able to see how something could be done myself. Like a snowball down a hill, my motivation and confidence just kept growing.

Improvements outside work

Cycling

I started cycling (a lot, here’s my Strava profile)about 40 km a day. I think this is one of the most important things I did. It gave a massive boost to my mental health, and since I was a beginner, I could see improvements pretty much every time I went out. Using Strava meant I could gamify and see how my times and average speeds were improving.

Accepting WFH

Before this time, I always had in the back of my mind that WFH was a temporary situation. I suppose it still is, but at this point, the point it stops being temporary is still indefinitely far away. I’ve now accepted this fact, and I’m no longer waiting for the day we head back to the office.

How I learned to love WFH (Sep-present)

Despite the improvements mentioned above, I was still working from my tiny laptop on a sofa. In the meantime, Arm released a system allowing a few of us into the office per day, so I booked a day in and raided my desk, running away with two monitors under my arms.

I assembled a cheap desk we had in a box somewhere and finally had something resembling a home office.

By the day of writing, I am now as happy or happier WFH than I was in the office.

Good things

I can work to my schedule

I’m sure everyone has their idiosyncratic way of working; it’s why I don’t think the standard Western model of everyone gathering in an office 9-5 is a very good system. I like to take regular breaks where what I’m working on allows as I find it helps keep my concentration levels up. For example, every 45 minutes, I’ll noodle around on my guitar or do some tidying.

I have more time to do things out of work

I cycled to work, and I liked to be in early to leave early, so I was up at 07:00 every morning and getting home around 16:30, by which point I badly needed a shower and couldn’t be bothered doing anything.

Now, as soon as the clock hits 16:00, I’m out the door and on my bike. I have time to spend with my family in the morning before they leave for wor, and I’m helping out around the house more.

Unfortunately, there’s not much in the way of pubs and cinemas; most are open with social-distancing measures, but I still don’t feel safe going (I’ve had pneumonia twice). Fortunately I don’t seem to require as much human-interaction as some of my colleagues, so I’m not feeling the effects of this yet.

Mentally, work feels less like work

At first, this was an issue; I liked having the separation of an office where Work Things happened, and a home where Home Things happened. Now it’s all merged into one location (i.e. my bedroom), I’m personally finding it a lot more enjoyable. As mentioned above, I find my productivity improves with regular breaks. Sometimes breakthroughs about what I’m working on come to me while I’m playing my guitar or walking around the block.

Company has been very supportive

I’m pleased with how Arm have handled this. They are not taking a one-size-fits-all approach, and if you have some circumstances (kids, short appointments, etc.), within my team at least, they trust you enough that a Slack message is enough. If you need to go AFK for 30 minutes, that doesn’t seem to be an issue.

Throughout this whole process, they have emphasised that they understand people will have different circumstances and will need to take time during the day to take care of them.

Unofficially the policy seems to be “don’t take the piss”. As long as your assigned work gets done on time, and you let people know what you’re doing, that’s enough.

Bad things

Difficult to switch off

Whereas before there was physical separation between work and home, there now isn’t. I find it can sometimes be difficult to change modes in my head, and not always check Slack or make small adjustments to code.

I’ve set up a mute on my Slack notifications to try to mitigate this, but in today’s data-addicted world it can be difficult not to log in every so often and see what’s happening.

Difficult to onboard new people

As mentioned further up, joining a new project while everyone was working from home was not ideal. I’m not sure how this problem could be solved, perhaps there’s a gap in the market for a company to create some software to do this. Because we communicate mainly via IM, I felt like I was bothering people with my inane questions. We do have a well-maintained Confluence, but as I’m sure anyone who’s used Confluence knows, its discovery features are… lacking somewhat.

Spontaneous conversations have disappeared

There are people I would have spoken to on smoke breaks or in the kitchen that I’ve barely talked to since the lockdown. If you’re having a bad day it can be nice to commiserate with someone over a tea, but in today’s world of everything-happens-in-IM, the spontaneity just isn’t there, and it can feel awkward. We tried having some daily “tea break” open-conversation calls, but attendance was just so low we cancelled them; the general feeling was they were enforced fun.

Takeaways

While I’m not sure WFH is the future in an unchanged form from how we’ve been practising it, I certainly think a move to more flexible working is both inevitable and beneficial.

I would like to see the office become more of a place of meeting rather than a place of work.

Further, it’s clear it has not worked for everyone. WFH definitely didn’t work for me for the first few months, and I’m not sure we can expect new joiners, perhaps people who’ve just graduated from uni, to be able to hit the ground running without physical, in-presence support.

The main takeaway from this experience for me is this:

The one-size-fits-all way of working we currently have does not fit everyone.

I think going forward companies will have to look at their approach to flexible-working. As I said, not everyone works in the same way, and enforcing a certain way of working may help those who find that way of working productive, but it can hinder those who don’t.