Yes, You're Ready to Work from Home

Coronavirus has forced millions into remote work but the tech is ready

I’m writing this from home.

My company has asked me (and hundreds of others), as a commuter on normally crowded railroads and subways, to work remotely and help encourage social distancing in our Time of Coronavirus.

Working from home
 Lifewwire / Joshua Seong

I’m on board with this and am prepared. In fact, as a society, we’ve been preparing for this moment for decades and are more equipped to operate as a vast remote workforce than ever before.

This is Familiar

I’m luckier than most. Sitting at a home office desk is a return to a life I was leading just 10 months ago. In December of 2017, I lost my job and started working out of my house. I took it seriously and invested in home office décor and equipment. Within a few weeks I had an Elfa system that included a desk, shelves, and drawers installed in my home. I bought a comfortable office chair, got a nice desk lamp, and settled in.

Video conferencing
Captain America: The winter Soldier had the ultimate video conferencing system and it's not far off from reality.  Marvel / Disney

After more than a year of working out of my guest room (er…home office), it feels a little like coming home. But I also feel oddly lucky because much of what I and others can do today, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute, wasn’t possible at the turn of the century.

Bad Memories

The last time I was forced to work from home, I really couldn’t. It was the aftermath of 9/11  and after working my way back to my house on that horrific day (it took 12 hours), I didn’t really have the ability to do much.

Left in my New York City office was my work computer, virtually all of my data, and my high-speed connectivity. I had a cellphone that did no more than make calls and text and a home computer connected to email and AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). So, there was some communication, but precious little work.

Even though I didn’t spend many days at home, I remember being concerned about our ability as a team to create content, update our web site, and put out a magazine. It just wasn’t possible from home. Fortunately, we only spent a few days out of the office.

Today, we enjoy ubiquitous, high-speed connectivity on an array of devices that range from the increasingly uncommon home desktop computer to our laptops, tablets, phones, and watches. Communication is virtually inescapable.

Home Office
My home office.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Every single one of our computing devices is powerful enough to handle productivity as well as they do entertainment. Each screen offers enough resolution to reveal the finest print in legal documents.

Our work materials are, thanks to the cloud, always at our fingertips. Even if I leave my computer in the office, I know all of my documents are instantly accessible on any computer where I can log in, whether I’m using Microsoft’s OneDrive or Google Docs. If all my computers die, I could buy another or borrow one and log in for instant file access.

Our virtual offices function in some ways better than the real ones.

For the last few years, I’ve lived on Slack, a virtual meeting, communication, and workgroup space that not only lets me communicate in real time with individuals (à la AIM), but ad hoc and fixed groups, as well. Slack (and Teams for you Microsoft Office users) isn’t confined to the laptop or phone. It can reach out to me wherever I am and even tap the watch on my wrist.

Because all companies now outsource services like human resources, healthcare, and payroll, there’s little concern that remote employees will lose access to benefits, their doctors, or pay. Sure, companies have, for instance, HR departments, but the systems they use are all cloud- and remote server-based. There’s no heavy iron system in the basement holding all employee files.

We are more equipped to operate as a vast remote workforce than ever before.

My point is, the tools are there, but working from home (telecommuting or remote working) takes discipline and a willingness to expand your toolset to ensure normal communications and well-functioning teams.

In remote work, just as in at-the-office work, I spend a lot of time sending emails and communicating on Slack. But sometimes those communication methods fall short of the face time necessary to ensure clarity and, perhaps, action.

Video conferencing has long been the holy grail of distributed workforces and, over the years, I’ve seen a lot of bad implementations. Most of them have failed when it comes to managing multiple people. My company, however, has one of the most distributed workforces I’ve ever seen and, by necessity they’ve worked out how to manage remote communications.

Systems like Zoom and even Google Hangouts, as well as much better cameras and the aforementioned broadband options, all do a fantastic job of delivering high quality images and managing multiple talking heads. I’ve always appreciated the way Google Hangouts juggled speaker focus.

Where would we be without Slack?. Slack

There are other great options for keeping the lines of visual communication open like Apple’s FaceTime (yes, it supports groups) and even some VR- and AR-based solutions. Microsoft’s HoloLens for instance is pretty adept at connecting people and letting them work together in an augmented reality space, but it’s mostly in use in the enterprise. There are even cutting-edge systems like Glue VR that try to create virtual workspaces complete with adorable avatars floating around 3D offices.

Harsh Realities

Remote work, which may become a longer-term reality for millions, requires a certain level of discipline, though, one that goes beyond technology and into habits. In my own experience, I quickly learned the value of routine and self-motivation.

The rules of successful remote work are thus:

  • Take it seriously
  • Set a schedule
  • Don’t sleep in (aside from the extra hour you gain from not commuting)
  • Shave and shower
  • Get dressed
  • Put on your watch (yes, your smartwatch)
  • Take breaks
  • Eat lunch away from the desk

It’s also important to imagine your coworkers are sitting right next to you. Answer those emails, engage in Slack, hit your deadlines.

There are still many jobs, mostly outside the financial and information workforce that cannot be handled remotely. Even with all the robots engaged in factory jobs, many still require humans. Just ask Elon Musk who once tried to build a wholly automated electric car factory and learned the hard way that robots are no substitute for humans when it comes to fine work.

Guy working at home
Don't let this be you. Getty Images

I’m also concerned about utilities like water, gas, and electricity. It’s not all automated and most of the people running those facilities can’t stay home. Perhaps the tools that let the rest of us work remotely can be used in some of these places to at least keep employees separated, so they have their own little remote workspaces within the same building. Just a thought.

Obviously, there are many for whom working at home is not a viable option. I'm thinking wait staff, chefs, theater people, hair stylists and barbers, healthcare workers, taxi drivers.  

So What

The Coronavirus outbreak is hard on everyone, but despite the hardships, we are technologically ready for this. Our work can get done remotely and the sooner we accept that and stay home, the faster this is all over.

Also, it isn’t so bad. We also now have Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+. Can you imagine being trapped at home without all that?

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