what i learned about working from home from covid

Disclaimer: This is not an anti-WFH post. I think it’s great that many people do well working from home. I hope those people can continue to do so as much as they want indefinitely. At this point in my life, it is not for me.


I had a lot of trouble working form home during COVID. There were three moments when things made a jump for getting better.

  • Right before Memorial Day when I made concrete plans to see a friend. (For the first time in 11 weeks)
  • “Fully vaccinated” day – I went to see The Office (off-broadway). There weren’t a lot of people there because of social distancing, but it was a nice way to celebrate.
  • The day I got accepted for the pilot at work where I will be able to start working from the office the middle of this month.

So on to the learnings

I have a finite amount of ability to focus at home per day/week

This one really hurt me. I learned that I only have so much energy to do work from home. And it’s a good amount less than I need to do my job to the best of my ability. I was puzzled for months before I properly understood this. After all, I’ve written books from home. (Well partially from home – I outline/proofread on the subway, at parks, at robotics meetings, etc). It took a long time to stop getting super frustrated that I couldn’t perform as well at home as in the office.

Additionally, there’s a quality of life element. Since I was using almost all my ability to focus on working from home, I didn’t have much left over. Which meant I couldn’t do many personal projects that give me joy. And on the occasions where I did use that energy for personal things (ex: moderating the NYJavaSig’s 25th anniversary panel (see YouTube video), it impacted my work for a day or two thereafter.

I’ve always known I get distracted at home. With the book, I can compensate my setting a Pomodoro timer. But for work, I have too much interaction with other people for that to be effective.

Work environment can create an upper bound on productivity

We are computer people, so all we need is a laptop, right? Of course not. I can see other programmers rolling their eyes. In the office, I have two monitors and an l shaped desk so I can have stuff in easy reach and in front of me. On that desk, I have various papers including notes on what i am doing and stray thoughts I have. At home, I have

  • a laptop as my primary screen (which is smaller than the monitor I use at work)
  • a second monitor – sorta – it’s about two feet away. Which is good for seeing people on video, not for working.
  • a place to put papers on the side – I can’t read them but at least I can reach them
  • my lap – yes, when I run the sprint planning meeting, my notes are on my lap

I’m an optimizer. If I can use a keyboard shortcut to save 5 seconds and use it 100 times a week, I’m all over that. My work environment at home is the opposite of optimized. So I leak time. Additionally, not having stuff I can see at a glance slows me down as it forces me to have more things in my head or work slower.

The place on my work on my book is better. My second screen is only six inches away so I can read. But it doesn’t matter there because again – less going on.

Spatial memory and separation of work/life

I’ve always known that I had some level of spatial memory. Having my work at home (in a studio apartment) means I see it constantly. And I see my home stuff while I’m working. This makes it hard to de-stress. And to stop thinking about work. I’m good about having my work laptop off when it isn’t worktime. But just because it is off doesn’t mean I can forget about it.

Early in the pandemic, I thought about using my personal laptop area for work and moving (a lot) of things every day. I’m glad I decided against it. As bad as it associating a spot in my apartment with work, having that be the spot I relax on my computer would be even worse.

Working form home has tradeoffs. For some people (especially those with more space), it is worth giving up space (or even a room) to avoid a commute. By contrast, taking the subway and reading gave me time to focus on reading and separate things.

Fun fact: Scott and I did a brief video chat in the middle of the day once to test something and he said “I think work Jeanne is coming over to tap you on the shoulder.” I’m really good about separating my focus and I miss that.

Reactions can be like earthquakes

When something bad/stressful happens, a good technique is to take a breath or pause or something to not react immediately. There were a lot of times at home that I was so frustrated and stressed that I couldn’t do it and my emotions reacted before my brain could. When this happened, it was like an earthquake. I had a strong initial reaction. But then that or other things would set me off periodically thoughout the day. It was like my mind was broken and unstable.

Open ended’ness is hard

A lot of the problems I had were not knowing when things would get better. So i kept pre-worrying. Shortly before I got accepted for the summer pilot, we started reading about the Delta variant and I started freaking about having to WFH full time for *another* winter.

Compensating only helps so much

There are certain type of work that I minimized of actively avoided. (My teammates knew). I just couldn’t get myself to do it from home. And I felt about about that which created a negative feedback loop. And even with that, I till had problems.

Why I did three months of book errata checking on CodeRanch in one weekend

About three months ago, my team got a high visibility and time critical project. Since it needed to be done quickly and I’m a fast programmer, I’m one of the (4 or so) people who focused on it. I worked 9 hours days during much of that project. [Normally I work closer to 8. I did work 9 for years when I got every other Friday off in exchange for doing so.] In hindsight, this was a poor choice because I didn’t have enough energy/focus for 8 hours WFH.

While I managed to find the energy to check in periodically on CodeRanch, that fell to zero during that period. After that I went on vacation and caught up on life from being on vacation. But I still didn’t go back to checking in on the errata. It was too overwhelming from having two months of data there.

This weekend I was able to do it because it is a three day weekend. I know I have tomorrow to recover energy/focus. And I know I only have to work four more days at home before I go back to the office. That’s a short enough time that I can “defer” some of the harder things til then.

So why did I share this?

As more companys are thinking about plans for “returning to the office”, there is a lot on line about how people are happy at home, want to continue to work from home, will quit if they can’t work from home, etc.

And again, I’m not suggesting those people go into the office. (See my blog post about the location of teams). However, it is just as important to recognize that some people want to go into the office. It doesn’t mean those people are broken. It doesn’t mean there is something wrong with them (and yes, I’ve been told to my face that I’m crazy for not wanting to work from home). It means that people have different needs and preferences. We should be respectful of both points of view along with the ones in between.

Chromebook the fourth

Two years ago, I bought my mother her third Chromebook. The 2012 and 2014 ones were good choices. The 2019 was when I learned about the secret Chromebook end of life policy and inadvertently bought a Chromebook that expired in only two years. So here we are again.

I went the Best Buy like the last three times. This time I chose to use Best Buy online so I could easily return it if it didn’t work. However, i did not go to the store to buy it. Instead, I started by looking at the expiration dates.

Selecting a model

I started by making a list of all the Chromebooks that expire in 2028 or 2029. Then I looked at screensize, CPU, hard drive and connectors. I also confirmed there was a security slot for my mother’s existing Kensington lock.

Comparing the stats from 2 years ago

Last time I got my mother a laptop with good speakers for music. This time, the speakers aren’t as good so I got her external speakers. This laptop cost twice as much as last time. However, I didn’t know I was getting such a good deal last time because the machine was due to expire.

Acer (2019)Acer (2021)
Screen size15.6″14″
CPUIntel 1.6 GHzIntel 2.6 GHz
Hard Drive16GB54GB
USB2 USB 3.02 USB 3.0 + 2 USB C
HDMIYesNo. Bought USB C to display port adapter
Weight4.41 lbs3.42 lbs
Headphone jackYesYes
Battery life12 hours10 hours

Setting up the Chromebook

  • I got started and connected to my home wiki.
  • Signed in as both my mother and myself. Also uploaded a profile photo for me that she likes better than my gmail one.
  • Confirmed the wallpaper was solid light blue
  • Made a recovery disk. I installed the ChromeBoook recovery utility on my Chrome browser on Mac to do so.
  • Accepted Google Play/Google Drive since I want to use an app. I did not enable location services.
  • Tested the all four USB ports headphones and that a Kensington security lock works
  • On settings
    • disabled Bluetooth
    • disabled sync for passwords/addresses/google pay
    • changed time zone to Pacific
    • turned off check if have payment methods saved
    • on site settings, set microphone and camera to ask before recommended
  • Installed Keep Awake browser extension
  • Covered camera
  • Finally, I deleted a bunch of apps. This time I did it from the Chrome OS settings so I didn’t need to right click. I left amazon music, chrome, files, gmail, play store and web store. I also plan to install Zoom but waiting to do that together so my mother can learn how to install an app

streamyard, virtual backgrounds, and room dividers

I live in a studio apartment. That means quite a bit of stuff is visible from my computer camera. As you might imagine, I’m a bit fan of virtual backgrounds. For work, it is easier. It’s not a problem if my co-workers see my work stuff, I don’t care if they see my mess and seeing a place that isn’t ideal for work just shares the message that I’m not enjoying my working from home full time here.

For non-work, it’s even harder. I have a nice spot for my personal machine/desk. I didn’t have a good spot for my work machine/documents. I wound up using the “empty” path that is right behind my personal computer. (Empty is in quotes because I used to do physical projects, store things there, dump them as I walked in, etc)

This means that the camera on my personal machine has a great view of all my work stuff. For JChampions Conf, I’m moderating a few sessions. Streamyard doesn’t have virtual backgrounds (unless you have an actual green or blue screen.) I don’t know how much I’ll be on camera if at all. But I won’t know until the day of. This leaves me with some inconvenient choices.

  1. Put away my work stuff. That’s problematic as some of the sessions I’m moderating are adjacent too or in between work hours.
  2. Move my personal laptop elsewhere. That’s awkward because I have two monitors, a proper keyboard, etc at my personal desk. Moving to the couch or my bed is not going to be comfortable.
  3. Turn off my video and be audio only. The default image is a blank circle. That looks terrible. (I don’t know how to upload a photo instead. And it’s a shared account so I wouldn’t even if i could.)
  4. Use a physical barrier. I own a room divider so I dragged it behind me. It’s annoying to set it up and leaves a crack of orange (the wall). But it does hide the stuff. I actually thought about using it to block off my work area so I wouldn’t see it constantly. But it comes with a limitation. I have a width of 14 inches to get to my personal computer and a width of 13 inches to get to my work machine when it is setup. Which means I’m not leaving it up and will need to set it up each of the four days. (The width of a human shoulder to shoulder is typically larger than 13-14 inches so I have to turn sideways to move around my apartment when this is setup.