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On working from home

Recently an ex-colleague of mine changed jobs and suggested that I write something about the pros and cons of working from home. I've thought about this subject, off and on, for a few years and frustratingly I think most of the pros and the cons are the same:

  • When you work from home you're working from home.

I live in a two-bedroom flat in Edinburgh. (Having just spent thousands on a new bathroom I don't expect I'll be moving any time soon. A rough budget of £40-50,000 would let me convert my attic into two/three rooms. So there is growth potential!)

In my flat I have made one of the bedrooms an office. The office contains:

  • A huge desk with two PCs, and two telephones on it.
  • Several book-cases.
  • A wall-mounted fan.
  • Very little else.

One PC is for work. One PC is for me. One phone is for work. One phone is my own.

Every working day I switch on the work router, the work phone, the work PC around 09:30. I then work, taking a lunch-break between either 12:00-13:00 or 13:00-14:00, until 18:00 at which point I switch off the work toys.

I ignore my personal PC during the working day with the exception that it is the source of my music. I can reach across and hit the appropriate multi-media keys to select Play/Pause/Next Track/Previous Track/Volume Up/Volume Down. (When thenever the work-phone rings the first ring is ignored as I scramble to hit "Mute" or "Pause"..!)

So what are some of the advantages/drawbacks? Well I'm at home. So the environment is one that I've made myself, and enjoy. The music is mine. The colour-scheme is mine. The pictures on the walls are mine. I have a Steve-loving chair. There is no soulless air-conditioning, no horrible cubicles, and no noisy people talking.

The downside? No people talking. If I didn't leave my house at lunchtime I'd speak to zero people face to face in an average working day. That took a while for me to notice, but it is not nice.

Since I work from home "the commute" takes seconds. I tend to get out of bed and wander straight to the desk. I'll work non-stop, then get dressed around lunchtime so that I can go out for lunch. Hail, Rain, Snow, or Sunshine I leave the house for lunch every single day (unless waiting for an atypical delivery). Because if I didn't I'd have no human contact. In the afternoon if it is a nice day I'll get undressed again, because I can, so why the hell not?

Providing you're focussed working from home has several advantages that I can think of - I've no qualms about setting the washing machine going before I start work knowing that I can "spare" five minutes to empty it later in the day. Similarly I've no concern about ordering (even large) items, because I know what time the postman comes, and I know I'm never going to be out and miss a delivery.

When I first started working from home I had a laptop instead of a PC and there were mornings when I worked, lazily, from my bed, or from my sofa whilst watching TV. That didn't last for long because I just didn't do a good job. I think I got away with it in the sense that I don't think people noticed, but I expect if it had lasted for longer it would have been quickly apparent. I stopped because the line was blurring between "home life" and "work life".

Having a dedicated working area is essential in keeping me focussed. I don't do "home things" when I'm in "work time" - with very rare exceptions. Yes I wander around and pace if I'm thinking, yes I make more tea and coffee than I would in a real office, and yes I might open windows, phone a friend, read my gas meter, washup dishes, or similar as I'm "making coffee". But on the whole it only works if I work when I'm working.

I could save money by using my work-internet instead of paying for personal-internet, but keeping the two links separate is another way of being focussed. I don't do "dodgy" things on the internet, on the whole (haha), but if I do I'd want to be damn sure that that was via my link and not the work-link - and having two PCs and two network links I know that is the case. There have been times when the work link has broken and I've used my personal link + openvpn to continue working, or at the very least re-join our internal chatroom and say "Internet down, brb".

As a system administrator there are times when I have to do things either early in the morning, late at night, or even during a weekend. I guess a final advantage is that this is not a struggle - providing I don't schedule such operations at times when I'm in the pub, meeting friends, or taking pictures of cute strangers, it isn't a struggle to say "I'll do this after 8pm tonight", or set the alarm early. No long walk to an office, and if I've already got food cooking for my tea I can eat it nearby whilst still configuring things and testing sites/services/machines.

So pros: I'm in my own environment, I don't worry about receiving parcels, meter-readings, and have wonderfully pleasant music all day. Ancillory bonuses are really side-effects of being in my environment: I have my good coffee, my nice cups, I can eat food I enjoy. etc, etc.

Cons: You must be dedicated. You must be focussed lest you give in to temptation and cease working for minutes/hours at a time. You lose part of your home space - I can't turn this room into a childrens bedroom, for example.

Nothing earth-shattering. I've done this for five years now, and although I was a little skeptical initially I thought "Why not?" It has worked out well and I think if I ever did need to leave my current position I'd have no hesitation about working from home in the future.

Finally it has to be said that when I've had partners in my life they've traditionally been the type to wake up later than me. I get significant brownie points for being able to wake them up around 10/11AM with a cup of hot coffee & breakfast in bed every morning. By virtue of having a separate space I can close the door and not be disturbed by them walking around.

I'm sure I've forgotten things - but as an initial pass the benefits and disadvantages of working from home are the same: You're in your own house.

ObQuote: "Explorers in the further regions of experience." - HellRaiser

Comments On This Entry

  1. [gravitar] Iñigo

    Having two separated desktops is clever.

    I've been 2 years working from home... at the beginning I used just a VPN cert, from my home firewall, to the work firewall, and SSH to my job desktop. Then I started to use different SSH keys for home and for work. Then I started to use different "program" profiles (i.e. firefox). etc...

    But definitely, if I got a job where I can work from my home again... I will copy your strategy of using two different machines... and different phones. I like the idea.

  2. [author] Steve Kemp

    Two phones is mostly an accident - my employer gave me a VOIP phone, and my personal phone was already terminated in that room.

    But I think having two PCs and deliberately powering off the work machine every evening (unless I've got a long-running job going) helps me a lot. Even if I'm waking up early to do something at 6AM I use the work machine for it, rather than my personal machine. That is how ingrained it is for me now, that I'd rather wait 3-5 minutes to boot up the second box than open OpenVPN on my always-on personal machine.

  3. [gravitar] Jon

    Remember when looking at expansion that you might spend 40-50, but what would it add to your possible sale value? I couldn't recoup the investment for a loft extension due to ceiling prices in my area. YMMV.

  4. [author] Steve Kemp

    Jon, you could be right. I guess I'd only spend the time and the money if it was more worthwhile than not.

    Happily round the area where I live there are many houses with and without attic conversions. So I think there shouldn't be a concern about mine being the only one.

  5. [gravitar] Andres

    I've been working from home as well for approx 5 years now. 3 years ago, I took an office job; that lasted about 2 months before I quit. I was miserable dealing with an office environment again (the only part of it that I enjoyed was the commute, which was a nice 20mi round trip bike ride almost entirely on a bike trail).

    I'm much less dedicated than you, though. I do have separate work and home machines, but I don't really keep a schedule, and I don't have a separate office. Some days, that works really well; when it's nice out, I go outside and work (on my laptop) from the garden. Other days, I put in 14 hours of work because I've forgotten when I started. Being a contractor, I figure it balances out in the end. I work hard for a couple of months, and then take a couple months off. The biggest problem I've found with not having a separate space is that when my wife stays home, I find it impossible to get anything done. That doesn't happen very often, though.

    I live in a shared house, so I have housemates to talk to. I find that satisfie my need to not feel like a total shut-in. I try to get out on a regular basis as well, of course.

    Overall, I love working from home. I just don't see myself ever going back to working from an office. I've been too spoiled.

  6. [gravitar] David Schmitt

    Having a separate machine/environment is essential for focus. Also it is a way for flat-mates and SOs to realize whether an interruption would be a "call to the office" or not.

  7. [gravitar] BBoppie

    Hey, were do I get a job like that at?