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.

Responding to a co-located/fully remote/hybrid article

I read Should Your Organization Be Co-Located, Fully Remote, or Hybrid from Scrum Inc. It’s nice to see the agile community starting to accept that co-location isn’t necessary to be an agile team. (I’ve been on a team for many years with people in multiple locations and it never stopped us from doing Scrum. We even figured out how to make in person agile games remote. A few takeaways/responding


I really like this quote

Uncollected feedback is perishable; the longer you wait the less reliable it is

Many years ago (even before doing Scrum or remote.), I noticed that people had trouble recollecting what they wanted to contribute to the retrospective. They were quiet at meetings and didn’t remember problems not fresh on the mind.

I solved this by putting a shoebox and post its in a common location. This let the team put in their thoughts right as they happened.We had someone organize the post its by topic and used the retrospective time to discuss them.

Over time, that shoebox became electronic. But the benefits still stand. Real time opportunities to record those thoughts. I really like the perishable quote and am sharing it with my current team at our next retrospective!

Purpose of an office

The article lists the following benefits of an office. It was interesting reflect on how much of this applies to me and my troubles over the last 15 months. The table shows my thoughts on them both for work and the high school robotics team I mentor

Item from articleWorkRobotics
Collaboration, communication, and the sense of belonging that comes with colocationI’m not sure. It’s definitely good seeing people, but my team has been distributed for years. So a lot of my connections were with people not on my team anyway.Definitely. The kids noticed how much they feel not being able to hang out, have team dinners, bond over dodgeball, etc
A place to work away from the distractions of homeYes! This is one of the problems I’m having. (I put not having a good physical work space in this area. A subpar work environment is certainly distracting.)Some of the students share rooms or have distractions on calls.
Creation of physical products and use of specialized tools n/a – our tools are computersDefinitely. Not having access to the lab, tools, robot greatly limits what can be done.
Space for gatherings and training While I don’t need to see my teammates every day/week, we do all meet in person on occasion. In person meetings allow for more flexibility and cross training
A need to directly interact with customersn/an/a
A place to focusAnother one for me. I only have so much energy to focus at home. It’s less than 8 hours worth which isn’t even enough for a day let alone fun things after work. I also notice, I can’t carry as many thoughts in my head at home.Not sure.
The status and stability a physical location conveysn/an/a


Another quote I found interesting:

Working more hours to get less done is not a recipe for success. 

For most of the weeks of the pandemic, I refused to work more hours. (I made an exception for the a month and there was a high cost. I’m still recovering to get myself to the point I was at the week before I made that exception.) I got less done but it wasn’t from more hours.

Most of my colleagues get the same or more done at home. They should be able to to telecommute forever! I am not one of those people. At the office, I have a desk so I can see more stuff at once. I have two monitors so I can work faster. I can hold more thoughts in my head

And also

There will be times when after-hours work will be needed. These need to be the exception – not the rule.  

I agree with this. And I made that monthlong exception intentionally. Also my employer passed the “test” of it being important. I worked one weekend day in exchange for a comp day. So at least it was my employer’s time too, not just mine.

I hear a lot of people say “since I’m not commuting, I can work more.” I strongly disagree with this. I used my commute time productively. I read the news in the morning and a computer book on the way home. (My computer book reading is also down because my at home energy isn’t available when I have time to read now.) Commuting time belongs to me, not my employer. It being gone isn’t a reason to work more hours.

Hybrid workspace ideas

The article also lists some ideas for hybrid work. My thoughts on those

Have designated team days for in-person workWe did that when we were a colocated team with telecommuters. (Monday was the day nobody could telecommute.) I consider this a crutch that we long moved past. Luckily we became a multi-city/time zone team after I no longer needed that crutch!
Institute policies to fight ‘Zoom Fatigue’ and burnoutThe article suggests holding 10 minute breaks between meetings. I’ve had meetings 9:05-9:55 for as long as I can remember. So meetings i control do come with those breaks.
Always hold team events in virtual conference spaceThis one we didn’t quite do. We did have people at the same site connect from the same room rather than everyone being at their desk. But everyone did contribute equally. It wasn’t most people in one room and a handful alone at home.
Publish all meeting notes in a visible space which can be accessed remotelyEverything is electronic. While we do publish notes, we aren’t an async team though.
Only use virtual whiteboardsDefinitely! The only time we used physical whiteboards was for pairing when the two people involved happened to be in the same location.

re the interview question “what did you do with your extra time during the pandemic”

I turned on the television and heard a sentence about expecting a question during an interview – “what did you do with your extra time during the pandemic”. I don’t know the context or if this is a common question. I certainly hope is isn’t!

Is this an illegal question?

I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know. It feels dangerously close to illegal questions though. You aren’t allowed to ask someone at an interview if they have kids. And guess what group of people did not have extra time during the pandemic? People with young children.

Similarly, you aren’t allowed to ask if someone had COVID-19. Guess what other group of people did not have extra time during the pandemic? People with long haul COVID-19.

Is this an insensitive question?

Absolutely. Some people had less time during the pandemic. Some were upset. Some found it hard to concentrate. Some lost an immediate family member. Also, it’s none of your damn business.

Why are you asking in the first place?

I’ll assume you aren’t being nosy or trying to cleverly find out information that would be illegal to ask. And how does it help you find out that your prospective hire is now an expert in making sourdough bread. The only answer I can think of that is relevant to the job is what skills the person has learned that are RELEVANT to the job. In which case…

What could you ask instead to accomplish the same result?

“What is the last thing you learned about technology?” – this is an appropriate question to ask. I’ve asked it before the pandemic. This question doesn’t have assumptions in it about how recently you learned something. It doesn’t suggest something is wrong with you if you haven’t had time or energy during a pandemic to learn something new, you can still list something you learned in 2019.

What would be my answer

It’s hard to answer this hypothetically because it depends on how much one needs the job. Let’s assume I do and decided to answer the question in some form.

Side note: When I was interviewing for entry level jobs, I was asked “how would you handle being treated differently because you are female.” My answer was “why? is that a problem here?” (with some attitude in my tone.) I still got an offer. I declined.

“I finished writing the OCP 11 Practice Tests book with Scott, read some technical books, passed the AWS associate architect exam and served on the planning committee for the first ever JChampions conference.”

What is my honest answer

While my answer is factually true, none of that was what I did with my extra time for several reasons.

  • I would have done those things anyway.
  • I read less books in 2020 than in any of the past years I can remember. (I read tech books during my commute.) Trying to read at home, I get distracted. Most of the tech books I managed to read were when it was warm enough to sit outside.
  • I was unable to do my annual CodeRanch “JForum Day” feature for the first time in 11 years. I really wanted to do this. But I spent the finite amount of energy I had in the winter for coding/thinking on work. It wasn’t available for my extra time. So I objectively did and learned less in 2020 than in a normal year.
  • Studying for and taking the AWS exam was a mistake. I wasn’t able to retain information even in the short term. I cried numerous times trying to force myself to do so. I’ve already forgotten what I ‘learned’ and will have to re-learn it when things are better. I wish I had noticed what was going on earlier and stopped trying.
  • I spent most of my “extra time” trying to be physically and mentally ok.
  • All but one of the people I know who is comfortable physically getting together are two train rides (and over 90 minutes) away. This means it takes pretty much a whole weekend day to have any human interaction.
  • Having video/virtual contact is more tiring than real human contact. So the energy I put into trying to keep myself ok came out of my ability to do other things.

And none of this is bad. I believe expecting people to have learned and accomplished more during a pandemic is inconsiderate. Unless you believe we are going to be under stay at home orders for another year and learning during it is a requirement for your job, ask a different question!