I used to work for a financial services firm. I’d get up very early in the morning so I could work out, have breakfast, shower and get dressed in time to drive to the train station to catch a New Jersey Transit train into Manhattan. That typically 45-minute train ride took me to New York’s Pennsylvania Station where I’d catch an IRT subway train up to 42nd Street, then walk about a half a mile underground to the Times Square shuttle and take that to Grand Central Station, then walk a few blocks to my office building.
By the time I got there – especially in the summer – I felt like I needed another shower. I’d sometimes commute in just a t-shirt or polo shirt and duck into a cold computer server room when I arrived at the office to change into business clothes that weren’t wet from my perspiration.
I did all of that just to sit a desk and write emails and reports.
It wasn’t that hellish commute that made me leave that job; it was the frustration working for a horrible manager (which is a different but interestingly related story I’ll explain later).
My next professional role was as an industry consultant for an ICT services firm. It allowed me to realize that traveling to that new firm’s New York or New Jersey offices was just as ridiculous as the commute above.
My colleagues at this new firm were in New York, Raleigh, Atlanta, Miami, London, Johannesburg and many other locations. None of my colleagues were regularly in the same office. We all learned that we could collaborate very well using technology — we sold and installed that technology, so we “drank our own champagne.”
Of course, we met at the occasional team-building events, industry conferences and customer sites, but, on a day-to-day basis, we had no need to physically slap each other’s backs in order to be trusted colleagues and friends.
The Biggest Revelation I’d Ever Had
It was as big a revelation as I’d ever had, and it occurred (for me) over a decade earlier than now — when the same thing has just occurred for nearly every other knowledge worker. Both then and now, if there ever was a win-win situation, this one was it.
For my employer, they no longer needed to pay the real-estate, HVAC, network and security costs (and everything else) to have a desk for me in a central office. For me, that nightmarish commute was reduced from three trains, taking approximately 90 minutes, to 12 steps down to my basement office, taking 30 seconds.
As I wrote about at the time in multiple blogs and articles, the ramifications of this were exponential. First, I learned that the traditional idea of “magic, impromptu collisions” between employees at a large organization’s office was a total myth. I didn’t work at the supermarket or a corner hardware store or a 10-person business.
I worked for large companies with colleagues in multiple cities and countries. If we didn’t use collaboration tools to facilitate our scheduled and impromptu communications, then we’d be dead anyway. There are simply no in-person, impromptu collisions at the modern, multi-location organization.
Then, I learned about how much productivity would soar in this work-from-home model. If one of my children was ill in school and I was in Manhattan, I’d have to commute back home to get him. That’d be the end of my workday. If it happened when I was home; I could get him, make him comfortable and easily get back to work.
Multiple research studies completed before the pandemic (and as it happens, also studies completed during the pandemic) proved that most of the time saved not commuting went back to company productivity. Too much of it, actually. During the pandemic, instead of hearing about the often before sited “lazy remote worker” watching TV or playing video games instead of working, we heard about “video fatigue” and people working too much and risking burnout.
Working remotely also opened the possibility of living anywhere that was desired based on criteria other than a commute distance to an office. Maybe I’d like to be where the neighborhood is as quiet or as bustling as I desire. Maybe I’d like to live near relatives or religious intuitions or where the property costs or tax base better suited my family’s needs. All of that suddenly became possible without impacting for whom I worked.
Amazingly, even way back then, the tools existed to support this remote working. Instant Messaging platforms replaced the “hey do you have a second” office peek-ins. Videoconferencing replaced the conference room. Shared servers replaced filing cabinets. Then, later on, entire technology suites optimized for work from anywhere were released, and these enabled true document collaboration alongside the collaborative audio-visual communications. We had everything we needed to enable this cost saving and soul saving model of working.
A 12-Step List of Considerations
So, with my more than a decade of experience of remote working, I’ve learned a few lessons about how to use the technology to one’s best advantage. At CEDIA 2021, I created (another) 12-step list of considerations to create the perfect work-from-home experience. Every one of them is not for every individual. Sometimes, one simply doesn’t have the space. It is, however, a great checklist to use as one sets-up a home office:
1. Pick a Dedicated Location
It is important for the knowledge worker’s mindset to have a “place to go to” that subconsciously tells family, pets…and themselves that they are “at work”. In some cases, this is obviously not possible, but it should be the target state for everyone.
2. Ensure There’s Enough Bandwidth for All
Once you’ve committed to the idea that your home will often be your place of work then you need to make sure there is enough bandwidth for everyone that may be online at the same time. I’m frankly stunned that the industry hasn’t already published guideline for employees, college students, grade-school students, preschoolers, etc.
As a basic guideline from me, you should have at least 15Mbps up and down per person who might be on-line from your residence at any time. Personally, I’d feel more comfortable with 25Mbps per person of any age.
3. Have a Roomy Desk
Whether it is a sit-down desk or one that allows you to stand while working, make sure you have a surface area that not only holds all the needed gear but also gives you room to lay out any papers or devices that you may need to look at during the course of a day.
4. Get a Great Camera
When you’re actually mobile (for example, sitting in your yard, at a park or on a train) then using the built-in camera in your mobile device is sufficient. However, when you’re at your home office you are most definitely not mobile.
Get a high-quality external camera. Clients, co-workers and supervisors are human and cannot avoid the human nature of judging you based on the quality of your image. An external camera can be set at the optimal height (eye-level) independently of any screen it is attached to.
If you get a really good one, it will also produce clearer pictures and truer colors. If you work for a large enterprise, make sure you check with them before purchasing one.
Many firms will provide cameras that are within their standards and can be remotely updated and diagnosed if there are problems.
5. Look at the Camera
There is a difference (in how you appear remotely) between looking at the people you are speaking with on your display and looking instead at the camera you use.
At least when you are speaking, look directly into the camera. I realize it is counterintuitive — as you want to see the people you are speaking with — but to the people on the other end, it makes you appear to be looking at them in the eyes.
It creates an essential subconscious feeling of trust, just as not looking into their eyes creates a feeling of mistrust.
6. Get More Than One Great Audio Device
There will be times when you will want to wear a headset in your home office — like when you don’t want other people to hear the conversation or when there is noise that is distracting you (nearby construction, vacuuming, gardening, etc.)
There will also be times that you don’t want to wear a headset. Good hands-free systems will be able to make you sound good and will prevent any unwanted noises (typing, pets) from reaching the other end of the call.
Whatever you do, don’t use the earbuds that came with your mobile device. Again here, you’re not mobile so you can do better, and in addition, it makes you look unprofessional.
7. Use Dedicated Lighting
Great video is created through illumination using a process that is known as three-point lighting. There are many online documents and even master classes on how to get lighting right. For your home office, it is important to realize that while you should definitely use this process, you don’t need to invest in expensive video lights or the now ubiquitous (and silly) ring lights.
Online merchants sell many lamps that cost only about $30 and are both dimmable and color-temperature adjustable. Color temperature is also an important topic with plenty of online education, but at a high level, just make sure all your light sources match each other (either daylight at ~5200 degrees or indoor lighting, historically called “tungsten,” at ~3200 degrees.)
8. Use More Than One Display
When you work remotely you will often be on video calls and need to share content. That means, at a minimum, you will need to both see your personal computer screen and share another computer image.
Having two displays — one for you and one for them — makes this process much easier. If you’re in a tech job or are someone who constantly creates content, then I’d recommend three displays at a minimum.
As for me, on a typical workday I keep one display on my email, a second display on my team chat suite, a third display on my current tasks, and still have my fourth one free to share any raw content I want to drag over to it.
9. Use a Background That Says What You Want
I’m not a huge fan of virtual backgrounds — although they do serve to cover what may be a bad background when needed. I’m also not in the mainstream that says you need to have a boring, businesslike background.
Just make sure the camera sees what you want the people you communicate with to see. Maybe it’s your college degrees or how tidy you are; maybe it’s your company logo or a pop-culture conversation piece (like I use). In any case, just make sure the far-end view is intentional.
10. Use a Comfortable Chair
You’re going to be at your home office desk a lot. Don’t let yourself be uncomfortable. Get a chair that you can sit in all day if needed. Try out a few at your closest office supply store before buying one.
11. Watch Out for Glare
If you wear glasses, as I do, make sure you get a pair specifically prescribed for computer use (18 to 24 inches distance) and purchase the top-of-the-line anti-glare coating on the lenses. You won’t be distracting people on your video calls with reflections of your screens and lights.
12. Have a Window on Life
If you can set up your home office in a room where you can look out a window then you definitely should. It is important for our soul to see if it is daylight or evening outside, if it’s raining or if it’s sunny, and to look at the occasional car driving by or squirrel climbing a tree.
If you can’t set up near a window, then do what I did. My home office desk is in my windowless, finished basement, so I put an IP camera on my front window, and I watch it from an old tablet.
It is a superb reference I can always peek at out of the corner of my eye…and I also know when the mail and packages have been delivered.
The Role of Supervisors and Managers
When employees set up a functional home office and organizations successfully transform to a mostly remote knowledge-worker workforce, the role of supervisors and managers becomes much more important than it had been in the past.
In a remote working world, people managers need to be properly trained on how to effectively manage a remote team. (This is not a new skill. It has existed for years for global organizations and 24/7 shifts.)
The bad managers I referenced above are now not just a horror for employees, they are now a liability for employers who now must take steps to change the past management selection processes.
Instead of the common practice of promoting individual contributors (who excel at their tasks) to management roles, managers need to be individuals skilled at supporting and leading teams with remote employees — and keeping them feeling appreciated and happy. “Management By Walking Around” is as dead as the dinosaurs. Organizations that want to survive and thrive will have to finally take seriously the need to put good people managers in place.
For far too long, bad (or non-existent) 360-degree reviews and poor feedback for managers have been nearly ignored at many companies. Organizations need to learn that if a potential manager can’t provide references and comments about how great it is to work with them, they’ll need to bypass that person for management roles.
The criteria for these roles have been totally flipped. The strict, tough manager is now just an off-ramp for unhappy employees.
Content Creation from Home
There are many additional aspects of working from home that we could and should discuss. For one example, there is content creation from home. Webcasts, podcasts, company-wide announcements and more suddenly become not just possible but even easy using the same tools we use to work remotely.
For example, we learned over the pandemic that top-down communications and business messaging worked very well using remote collaboration tools, but peer-to-peer social communications did not happen organically.
To nurture a sense of culture and camaraderie when knowledge workers are mostly remote, specific steps need to be taken to create the ideal environment.
We will get to those topics, and many others, in future columns. For now, however, the message is simple. Setting up a home office for knowledge workers is easy to do correctly, helps transform the organization, and is a total win-win for the employee and the organization.
The only losers are stodgy organizational leaders and bad managers. Those individuals will stop at nothing to call people back to the prior environment where they can wield full control.
Organizations with this type of leadership will eventually lose their best talent to competitors. Bad managers and non-support for remote workers are and will continue to be key drivers of The Great Resignation.