The last time I was on-site at a customer was March 10, 2020. I usually spent about 20-40% of my time working from home. But working exclusively from home is something completely different. A new experience. After a year it’s time for a brief personal retrospection.
Pretty obvious. I know. Anyhow, I’m spending more time with my wife. She also works from home, at least most of the time. It’s good to see that we get along well and spending more time together doesn’t become a problem. And I don’t miss dinners with her because I want to finish some task at work or avoid traffic jam or both.
Our boys are 29 and 27 years old. Both are healthy. Our older son changed his career path and is working part-time while studying computer science. Overall he is doing quite well. It’s not that easy for our younger son who is a producer, musician and DJ. Berlin was a perfect place for his career. However, the party scene is pretty dead at the moment. However, we as parents are happy to help were we can. When I hear about the problems other parents have with their younger children, pupering teenagers and the school, then I’d say we can be really happy. Proud parents, for sure.
I spend much more time with our dog. I believe that my mood is generally better when he’s around. When I grab a fresh cup of coffee he demands his strokes or he can persuade me to play with him. Anyway he always makes me smile.
I improved my workplace at home. Here’s a list of some gadgets I ordered during this time:
Due to supply bottlenecks, I’m still waiting for some of these gadgets to be delivered. However, my workplace at home is now better than everything I ever had at a customer site or at one of my employer’s workplaces.
During working hours, I am always ready to have a video call. Microsoft Teams is open all the time. Establishing a call and sharing the screen has never been easier. In the past, I’ve joined the meeting a few minutes early because more often than not, I’ve run into a problem. Video, audio, or both. Maybe because I rarely used these tools and only launched them when needed. As a result, I was either early or late (restarts always take longer than you expect). These days I dial in on time, and technical problems are the exception. It’s almost as stable and easy as making a phone call. I also like that almost everyone has their webcam enabled. It makes the conversations more personal and makes communication better.
In my experience, the fewer people participating in a video call, the better the call. For reviews or pair programming I find the video calls even more efficient than physical meetings. Giving access to input devices happen in a much more controlled way. Grabbing the mouse or the keyboard does not work. You have to ask and wait for the other person to accept your request. I also find some Scrum rituals better in the virtual form. Tools such as Miro help to improve collaboration in a way which I never experienced in a physical meeting. Working in parallel on a board works surprisingly well. I experienced that we are much faster and all team members are aware what others have written. A lot happens in parallel. Sorting and grouping while adding sticky notes. Better results in less time.
I participated at various mixtures of physical and virtual meetings. Typically most of the people met physically in a specially equipped room where some few others joined virtually. I call the persons in the same room first class participants. The others are second class participants. Why? They are not equally present at the meeting and they miss a lot of non-verbal communication. If audio and video is badly configured some persons cannot be heard and sometimes you never get a video stream of the talking person. A pure virtual meeting makes us all second class participants. All participants are equal from a technical point of view. For the former first class participants the meeting experience degraded. For all others it improved, a lot.
I never felt comfortable with webinars. When I present, I need to feel the audience to get an immediate feedback. The audience help me to adapt during the talk. Go faster, go slower or ask questions. This does not work in webinars. In the last year I had the chance to present at various virtual events. I think I’m getting better. For one event I pre-recorded two talks which was very instructive. I completely underestimated the time required for such a task. For one talk I spent more than 12 hours to record 45 minutes. At that point I just decided that the result is good enough. However, I developed a new skill. And that’s good.
So if you would ask me to do a webinar now, I might say yes.
When I work at the customer site there are a lot of unplanned interactions. At my desk. Near my desk. At the coffee corner. After a meeting. During lunch. These are informal meetings or events. Where we exchange business or non-business related information. They happen more or less unplanned. When everyone is working from home these kind of information exchange does not happen. The virtual coffee or lunch meetings are no suitable replacements. Why? Because when we meet physically we discuss things in groups. Persons interested join. Persons uninterested leave and join another group. So there are several bubbles. And certain information is exchanged between two persons only. A virtual coffee meeting using Zoom, Teams or similar cannot work this way. In the end it is unsatisfying for everyone. As a result I stopped joining these meetings.
After a year I think I feel the missing information. Scheduling virtual meetings does not help, because you cannot connect to the persons while they are in the “right” mood. And there is no way to check without starting a conversation.
This is bothering me because I did not found a good alternative yet.
That, too, is somehow obvious. A consequence of isolation. Some people need more social interactions than others. I’m one of those who can live with fewer social contacts. However, almost none is too few even for me. I’m very lucky that I don’t live alone. So I am complaining on a very high level.
Everything is accessible via my MacBook. Some things even via my iPhone. So it’s easy to switch between business and personal work. This is nothing new, but since I work 100% from home, I’ve had to introduce some additional rules to make sure business doesn’t creep into personal life and vice versa. I’m not super successful in this area. It’s a risk. Constant monitoring and control is necessary. In my view, the recipe for success is not to be controlled by others.
The more sensitive a topic, the more important a physical meeting is. Why? Because we communicate on different levels. The spoken words. The tone of the voice. Other sounds or even smells. And last but not least the body language. In my opinion, body language accounts for more than 50%.
I believe that I can feel the mood of the persons in a room to a certain extend. Without special effort. I get these impressions intuitively. It’s just there. However, in a virtual room I do not trust my impression and often I do not get a good one, even if all persons have enabled their video feed. Maybe it’s just a matter of practice. Nevertheless, the face is what we see in a video stream and never the whole body. I think I miss legs, feet, arms and hands. Maybe also some sound. I don’t know. Furthermore in some situation persons hide their video stream. For a short moment or even a longer period. This is not possible in a physical meeting.
Technology might help in the future, but right now we have to live with the capabilities of the current technologies.
I mentioned earlier that I like to give a talk in front of a real audience. A virtual setup is better than nothing, but not more. At a conference, there are a variety of opportunities to connect with people you know and people you don’t know. It’s natural. It’s the way we are used to interact. It is often the basis for future (virtual) collaboration.
However, I think there will be room for virtual or hybrid conferences in the future. As a result, there will be fewer physical conferences. The remaining physical conferences must offer clear added value beyond that of their virtual counterparts.
Every year since I started to work we take three consecutive weeks for vacation. We spend the time out of home. For me it doesn’t matter where. The most important thing is a change of scene. Apart from that, nowadays I’m happy with a comfortable armchair where I can read some books. This year we had to spend the vacation at home. I was only partially successful in breaking the routine. As a result the vacation was not that refreshing as in previous years. We have planned this year to spend three weeks in a very nice house at the Baltic Sea. However, I suspect that we will have to spend this vacation at home again. This gives me a chance to improve.
When working at a customer site I spend typically two hours commuting. At first I thought that working from home with a commute from the kitchen to my study would be a good thing. It surely is from an environmental perspective. And I clearly do not miss the traffic jam. However, sitting with the hot coffee at my desk feels like a cold start. I’m not ready for work yet.
Driving from home to the office was like a “fade in”. While listening to my favorite radio station with news, music and jokes I thought about what work I had to do at the office. When I arrived I was ready for work. I knew exactly what I wanted to start with.
It was similar on the way home. Like a “fade out”. I left the office after finishing some unit of work. In my car I listened to the music while driving and enjoying being alone. When I arrived at home I was really there and was interested to hear about my wife’s day. Nowadays it’s more like an interruption of work. Not a real closure. It’s like my mind and my body are not at the same place. And guess who is figuring that out every single day?
It sounds strange, but I miss commuting.
That’s the weight I gained during this time. The temptations at home are simply too strong. I guess I need to start working on my self-control.
When I look at the list, I feel pretty privileged. I still have a job. I like my work. My family is healthy so far. I have no real reason to complain.