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Reblogged:Making Sense of Work-From-Home Advice

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Whether out of prudence or government compulsion, many are having to figure out working from home for the first time. Accordingly, there has been a veritable avalanche of such advice lately. This brings to mind two things: (1) The utter confusion anyone interested in nutrition advice will feel when he learns that everyone has an opinion on the subject and everyone apparently disagrees about it; and (2) the saying, "The man with two watches never knows what time it is."

The situation isn't hopeless, but one must read between the lines to profit. I'll use as examples, two writers who each have a couple of decades of such experience under their belts -- and yet give advice that is prima facie diametrically opposed.

The first is commentator Robert Tracinski, who offers what he calls "counterintuitive" advice for those who "want to enjoy" telecommuting. The second is San Francisco-based tech writer Kieren McCarthy of the UK-based Register. McCarthy's advice sounds much more like what Tracinski calls "typical," and summarizes as follows:

standing_desk.jpg
I, too, have a standing desk, but I don't use it all the time. (Image by Jackie Chiu, via Unsplash, license.)
It usually runs somewhere along these lines: make a separate and closed-off space just for work, keep a regular 9-to-5 work schedule, and get dressed and ready in the morning the same as you would if you were heading to the office.

I'm sure this sort of advice will be useful to a lot of people -- but on the other hand, I've been doing this for 25 years, and I routinely violate every single one of those rules. In fact, being able to violate those rules, flagrantly and repeatedly, is the whole attraction of working on the internet. [link omitted]
Here's part of the piece from The Register as an example:
If you have a spare room, this is the time, right now, to turn it into a home office. It doesn't have to be Instagrammable, it just has to have: a desk, a chair, a powerstrip, Wi-Fi reception or some networking, and dedicated space for work stuff. Move the bed out the way, or against the wall. If you have kids, having a clearly defined space that they know is not to be touched or played in is going to save your sanity.
See? I can almost hear you saying, Check. Check. Check.

Those approaching this the first time are apt to drown in details, and perhaps miss out on McCarthy's reasons, stated or implied -- like sanity, or not having to set yourself up to be able to work when you need to work.

The latter is easy for a veteran like Tracinski to not mention: The reason he can be productive when he lounges on a couch with his son is that the tools he needs are already on his laptop and (as he notes) he has trained his son not to bug him when he is working. (He isn't so much "relaxing" boundaries between work and family life as he is refining them.)

The point I want to make becomes clearer with the subject of phone calls.

McCarthy says:
[T]ry to find a good space to make and receive calls where other people's noise can't spill over. A bathroom may seem like a good idea but the acoustics may drive you, and the other people on the call, crazy.
And Tracinski?
Talk to other people when you need to, not when you're forced to... [M]ost of us have probably worked at some point in a cubicle farm, an arrangement seemingly designed for the purpose of refuting this idea. Note to office design experts: "collaboration" is not fostered by overhearing everybody else's phone calls, getting dragged into random conversations, and trying to tune out other people's conversations. [format edits]
Now, they don't sound so different. McCarthy is focused on helping his reader get a job done in circumstances new to him; Tracinski is focused on the advantages the situation offers. It is important to bear this in mind when reading such advice: What is the author focused on? McCarthy isn't saying "set up your own noisy cubicle at home," any more than Tracinski is saying, "to hell with phone calls."

Bearing this in mind, both authors make great points. McCarthy will help the novice get up to speed, by mentioning details many people won't think of -- while Tracinski will remind the seasoned veterans that they have the power and room to improvise, and promise the newcomer that things can really improve.

There is another saying all of this reminds me of, and it is to the effect that a great artist knows when to "break the rules." The saying is borne in part out of a common misunderstanding of rules as customs, or as commandments from on high, rather than attempts to apply principles to kinds of circumstances. McCarthy and Tracinski are both professional writers. Phone calls are part of the job and obviously work best when everyone can hear each other. But they also break concentration. McCarthy reminds us that we need a good place for calls so we can be efficient and effective; Tracinski reminds us that we can better dictate when they occur at home, removing a serious disadvantage (broken concentration) that they bring.

So, sure, at most jobs, there is a "rule" that one has to be available for calls at all time. But that might merely be a custom or a ham-handed, one-size-fits-all policy. Does one really need to answer every call right away, or does being "available" for calls mean returning a communication at some reasonable time? If the latter is true, one might be able to apply that more rational standard from home than in an office setting. Many, if not most workplace practices can be reexamined and improved upon this way, especially at home.

Working from home offers different kinds of challenges to the newcomer and to the veteran alike, but with challenges can come rewards.

-- CAV

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