Work-from-home advice from a work-from-home regular

My occupational routine of working from home is suddenly in fashion for the dreadful reason of a global pandemic. Employers ranging from Google to the federal government to the Washington Post have been telling people to get out of the office and stay out until some sort of all-clear is declared about the novel coronavirus.

This may be a new and unsettling development to many of you, but it’s been my everyday reality for the past nine years–longer, if you count all the time I’d work from home while at the Post to test one gadget or another.

The joking on Twitter that “the only ones to survive will be freelance writers” may overstate things a bit, but all of this Me Time has left me well versed at staying productive without such traditional work delineations as a commute to a geographically distinct workplace and frequent in-person professional interaction with other human beings.

Here are the best practices I’ve learned since 2011 or so:

  • Have a spot at home that serves as your logical office. Ideally it’s a physically separate room–if you’re self-employed, the home-office deduction is easier to claim that way–but it should be someplace you can associate with work. And can then leave when you’re not on the clock.
  • Get a comfortable chair (I should have followed this advice years ago instead of letting my current chair get even more worn out) and make sure it’s positioned so you can type comfortably for hours at a stretch
  • You don’t need a separate webcam–unless your laptop has one below the screen that treats video callers to an up-nostril perspective of you–but a desktop USB microphone would be a good idea. My client Wirecutter has some useful advice; you should be fine with the budget pick unless you do podcasts for a living.
  • Make sure that your webcam shows a tidy office to the rest of the world. You can still have piles of paper and dirty clothes around; just keep them out of the frame.
  • You will probably spend a lot more time on conference calls, and some con-call systems are more evil and stupid than others. Please try to lead your office away from the ones that date to 1980s telecom and and to apps like Zoom or Uberconference that indicate who’s speaking at any time. Note that the free version of Zoom limits meetings to 40 minutes, which is such a good reason not to pay that I must wonder if this company is trying to go out of business.
  • Does your WiFi offer reliable coverage in your home office? If it doesn’t, you will notice that intensely and often once you’re clocking eight hours a day on that questionable connectivity. And no matter what, you should have all of your important documents cached or copied for offline access.
  • You should know what kinds of backup bandwidth are available–for example, major cable operators say they will open their WiFi hotspot networks to the public, while Sprint and T-Mobile plan to offer their subscribers 20 GB of mobile-hotspot usage.
  • Yes, you still need to shower and get dressed. But you may find that you can use those daily habits as fake deadlines: No showering until I finish this task that I didn’t get done yesterday.
  • Find ways to shut out distractions. If you find yourself wandering down Wikipedia rabbit holes, clean part of your house instead. Or go outside and get in some gardening, if it’s warm enough. If nothing else, walk around pointlessly your home as you would in an office.
  • We all have coworkers who don’t reply to e-mails fast enough. Figure out what comms channel works to bug them when they inevitably leave your last message unanswered: Slack, a text, a call, a direct message on their most common social platform.
  • Don’t eat lunch at your desk. Ever. You’re at home, and you don’t have to do that anymore. While you’re at it, get in the habit of making yourself lunch; you can put the savings into patronizing the restaurants, coffee shops and bars closest to you.
  • It’s okay to run short errands during the day. It’s not like you were that productive over every hour of your in-office workdays anyway.
  • Get to know your neighbors, especially those who have been working from home all along and who may have useful neighborhood-specific advice. Human contact during the day is good.
  • You’ll also soon realize which of your neighbors insist on hiring people to tidy up their yard with noisy, polluting gas-powered leaf blowers.
  • Have some kind of back channel–a text or WhatsApp group, a Facebook Messenger group, a Slack channel, whatever–for personal banter with your favorite fellow cubicle-farm dwellers.
  • Take time to call friends about absolutely nothing.
  • You can swear at your computer as much as it deserves without freaking out co-workers, but please don’t get in that habit anyway. (This is literally me saying “do as I say, not as I do.”) Especially if you’ve got a kid stuck at home too.
  • On the other hand, go ahead and play your preferred productivity playlist through your computer’s speakers. If blasting Kool Moe Dee’s “I Go To Work” or R.E.M.’s “Finest Worksong” gets your day in gear, you don’t need to confine that to headphones. (This is totally me showing my age.)
  • If you’re tired, you’re allowed to nap. You’re at home! Nobody outside can tell you’re enjoying a postprandial snooze.

(My thanks to everybody who replied with further suggestions to the Twitter thread in which I first shared most of these tips.)

Updated 3/18/2020 with a few extra tips.

Three more erased events: SXSW, Google I/O, Collision

Yet another set of travel plans got sucked into a coronavirus-fueled jet engine this week. On Tuesday, Google announced that it would cancel its annual I/O developer conference, Friday morning saw Web Summit pull the plug on the Collision conference in Toronto, after which Friday afternoon brought the cancellation of SXSW

And now my business-travel schedule for the first quarter of the year looks as empty as it did back in Q1 of 2007.

I expected the I/O news. As an event that draws a global audience and is hosted by a large tech company with preexisting image problems, I/O seemed doomed the second Facebook said it would scrub the F8 developer conference that was set to happen a week before I/O. (Those of you still hoping to go to Apple’s WWDC developer conference would be well advised to book fully-refundable airfare and lodging.) 

I was also prepared for the axe to fall on SXSW, just because of the overriding attention to it as one large conference this month that had yet gotten coronavirus-canceled–and all of the tech companies that had already bailed. But it still took an order from Austin’s government banned events of more than 2,500 people to kill this year’s festival and deprive me of my annual overdose of tacos and BBQ.

Collision, however, surprised me. That conference was scheduled for June 22 through 25, which in a strictly medical sense would have left plenty of time to gauge the situation. But I suspect that the organizers were already considering how many speakers had or would pull out after their employers banned employee travel, and so made the decision early to run the conference online instead.

I told them I’m willing to moderate whatever panels they need, but count me as a skeptic of this approach. A “digital conference”–more accurately read as “webinar”–is no substitute for the unexpected in-person connections you make at a good conference.

I would like to see this event-losing streak end. One of the things I treasure as a self-employed professional is the freedom to go to interesting places for work. I also count on conferences to offset all the Me Time that working from home full-time affords me.

But as the past few weeks have made clear, that’s not up to me. The only travel I have booked that isn’t subject to getting scratched by risk-averse tech corporations is a trip in early April to see my in-laws over our kid’s spring break. Taking off from Dulles that morning will feel like a victory.

Home sick instead of homesick

Me at this time last week, after realizing the extent of the gap opened in my schedule by MWC’s cancelation: Oh, great, I can finally take a day off to visit a museum or a gallery!

Life: LOL, nope.

Saturday afternoon, I felt a touch of a cold coming on. By Sunday afternoon, that had arrived in force. I then spent Monday staggering around the house and sneezing in between naps, and then my coughing woke me throughout the night. Tuesday was scarcely better, although I did manage to drag myself to a grocery store–feeling an ache around my body as I walked slower than usual.

(At least I didn’t have a fever, something I verified at least twice a day.)

After a night of generic-Nyquil-aided sleep, I decided to own my home-sick status Wednesday by not bothering to shower or shave. Can’t lie: It felt therapeutically cozy to chill in sweatpants, a t-shirt and my bathrobe.

This slacker sick-day experience reminded me of being home with colds as a kid, when I literally had nothing to do and could curl up with a series of books. But with the Internet and social media having arrived over the subsequent 40 years (and my having to work for a living), this week saw me trying too hard to stay on top of occupational things. As in, tending my e-mail to stay in touch with editors and sources and taking part in the perpetual Twitter dialogue, which in practice led to my reading waaayyy too much Coronavirus Twitter and Democratic-Primary Twitter.

I woke up this morning feeling much better, and Friday should be a fully productive and cough-drop-free day. As recent headlines have reminded me, things could have been a whole lot worse. On that note, please wash your hands.

MWC malaise: why a canceled conference has me feeling crushed

For the first time since 2012, my winter won’t involve me spending a week soaking in the wireless industry at MWC. I wish I weren’t overstating things to say that I feel gutted about this.

GSMA, the organization behind the trade show earlier known as Mobile World Congress, canceled the conference that drew 109,000-plus people last year–a week and a half in advance, and because of fear instead of evidence. The novel coronavirus afflicting China is a real threat, but it’s also remained almost completely confined to that country. And two weeks ago, GSMA announced security measures that essentially blackballed everybody from mainland China who hadn’t already left the country.

FCB logo Camp NouBut then a sequence of companies with the resources to know better decided to pull out of the show anyway: Ericsson, LG, Sony, Cisco, Facebook, Nokia, Amazon, Intel, AT&T… and on and on. After enough bold-face names had self-ejected from MWC, the only suspense left was when GSMA would take the loss and the likely scorn of the Barcelona and Catalan governments that had rightly stated no health emergency existed.

I won’t eat too much of a financial loss. I got half of my Airbnb payment back, while my airfare will be good for a future United flight (spoiler alert: likely). Friends of mine who booked refund-proof flights and lodging are harder up (one’s out at least $2,000). Some of them have already said they’ll proceed with that week in Barcelona and get in meetings with industry types who also stuck with their travel arrangements.

I can’t justify that business proposition but do feel a little jealous of those people after my happy history in Barcelona. MWC 2013 was the first international business trip I self-financed, and that trip cemented BCN as one of my favorite airport codes to have on my calendar. The show provided a sweeping overview of phones, networks and apps around the world that I couldn’t get at CES. And its logistics–from the moving walkways connecting the halls of the Fira Gran Via to Barcelona’s extensive and efficient metro and commuter-rail network–made CES look even more inadequate in that department.

MWC opened my eyes to all the different ways the wireless industry works outside the U.S.–as in, I would have covered the market better at the Post if I’d made this trip sooner, except the paper was too cheap to spring for that. At first, I didn’t sell enough stories from MWC to recoup my own travel costs (granted, I was also getting paid a lot more then), but after a few years of practice I got a better grip on my MWC business model and started clearing a decent profit. Making this a successful business venture ranks as one of my prouder achievements as a full-time freelancer.

I also improved my travel-hacking skills from that first year, in which booking flights in January left me with a seven-hour layover in Brussels on the way there and a two-stop itinerary home with a tight connection in Zurich that shrank to 20 minutes when my flight left BCN late. MWC 2017, in which I was able to leverage a United upgrade certificate to ensconce myself in seat 2A on a Lufthansa A330 home to Dulles, may be my most comfortable business trip ever.

Barcelona sculptureThe time-zone gap between Spain and any possible editor in the States also allowed me to explore my new favorite Spanish city. I carved out hours to visit all of Antonio Gaudí’s landmarks–yes, you should visit Casa Milà and Sagrada Familia–and spent not enough time getting lost in streets that sometimes weren’t wide enough to allow my phone to get a solid GPS location.

Barcelona has its issues, like seemingly annual transit strikes and the elevated risk of pickpocketing. But getting to go there for work has been an immense privilege.

This year was supposed to extend this recent tradition, but instead it will represent an interruption–at best. As my friend and MWC co-conspirator Sascha Segan explains in this essay at PCMag, knifing this year’s installment could easily lead to MWC going to another city in Europe. Or not happening at all again.

That makes me sad. Seeing the world retreat in unreasoning fear makes me angry.

MWC 2020 brings a novel conference concern

I haven’t finished putting together my schedule for MWC Barcelona later this month, but my calendar for that trade show is already getting culled.

Three major tech firms–Ericsson, LG and Nvidia–have pulled out of the wireless industry’s global gathering, citing fears of the novel coronavirus. Nvidia is no key player in the industry, but LG remains significant to smartphones. And Ericsson not only has a major 5G-infrastructure business, its MWC exhibit has been a reliable source of a free lunch.

The rest of the show appears set to go on as usual, although with unusual precautions. ZTE announced last week that it will have senior executives attending the show quarantine themselves in Europe for two weeks beforehand and require all Barcelona-bound employees to have been symptom-free for 14 days prior. GSMA, the organization that runs MWC, said two weeks ago it will disinfect public areas frequently and advise everybody at the show to stick to a no-handshake rule and wash their hands frequently.

My calendar still has MWC on it, and that remains the case with other tech journalists I know–and whose judgment I trust. The show is still on and news and networking will still happen there, while the actual risk appears quite low in the context of MWC’s distance from China and the health screenings now imposed on the dwindling number of passengers from there.

But the risk is not zero, not with that many Chinese companies set to exhibit at MWC. I would like to think that they will all exercise the same care as ZTE. But I suppose prudence may require me to avoid an entire country’s exhibits… which, considering that China’s smartphone industry is already walled off from the West thanks to Google being a non-participant there, was already part of my MWC coverage plans.

And I will, of course, wash my hands frequently and not shake anybody else’s. I’m thinking that bowing slightly to strangers and exchanging fist-bumps with friends will be reasonable alternatives.

The boring art of testing hotspot bandwidth and battery life

I’m nearing the finish line (I hope) of an overdue update to the Wirecutter guide to WiFi hotspots. The research for that had me repeatedly subjecting an array of loaner hotspots from all four nationwide wireless carriers to tests of the two core metrics of bandwidth and battery life.

It hasn’t exactly been my most exciting work.

For bandwidth testing, I’ve continued to rely on Ookla’s Speedtest.net Web, Android and iOS apps to clock the download speeds, upload speeds and ping times each hotspot has served up. This is pretty much an industry-standard benchmark, and these apps are simple enough to run.

But getting data out of them is another thing:

  • The iOS app creates a .csv file you can open in any spreadsheet app that includes every relevant bit of data–date and time, GPS-derived location, WiFi network name, download/upload/ping measurements, shareable public link–and attaches it to an e-mail message.
  • The Android app also generates a .csv file–except that choosing to have it saved to your Google Drive leaves you with a .eml mail-attachment file. You have to e-mail it to yourself to get a usable .csv, at which point you discover that this export doesn’t include the name of the wireless network.
  • The Web app’s “Export” button yields a third type of .csv file, one without a record of the WiFi network name, your location, or a shareable link.
  • No, the option to create a Speedtest account won’t help–because you can’t log into that from the mobile apps.

Ookla is owned by PCMag publisher Ziff Davis, but that has yet to result in any corporate pressure to make exporting measurements less janky for the hardworking journalists at that and other Ziff tech media properties.

Testing hotspot battery life only requires recording the times you started and ended each trial. But because these things often run for 12 hours or more, it’s not realistic to tether a laptop to a hotspot and keep working nonstop until the hotspot battery expires and the connection drops.

To ensure my laptop would be keeping each hotspot working full time, I opened a page to NASA’s live YouTube channel. Beyond running up the social-media metrics for one of my favorite four-letter government agencies, keeping the browser on a single live channel avoids the risk of YouTube’s recommendations sending me off to some nutcase conspiracy hub.

Because I’m not always that smart, I didn’t think to check my laptop’s ability to log a wireless connection going offline until after I’d spent an hour and change watching one hotspot linger at 1% of a charge.

As a helpful StackExchange thread pointed out, that logged data awaits inside Windows. Type “Event Viewer” in the taskbar search, open that app, select “Applications and Services Logs” in the left-hand pane, double-click the center pane’s “Microsoft,” “Windows,” “UniversalTelemetryClient,” and “Operational” entries in succession, then select “Filter Current Log…” in the right-hand pane. Type “55” in the resulting dialog’s Event ID field, hit “OK” and you’ll see a series of entries.

Assuming you check this right after seeing that the laptop went offline, opening the most recent should reveal a properties field consisting of “Is the Internet available: false,” with the time corresponding to when the hotspot died.

Since I don’t have a Mac laptop, I’m not sure how you’d do this on one. A different StackExchange thread suggests a Terminal command, but that doesn’t work on my iMac–maybe because this aging desktop isn’t running the latest macOS edition. It would be ironic if you have to hit the command line on a Mac to perform a task that Windows lets you accomplish inside a graphical user interface–but the Windows Event Viewer app is mighty ugly itself, and neither operating system covers itself in glory in this aspect.

Google told me to put this blog on a diet

The screen real estate around these words should look a little neater now–not much thanks to my own editing instincts. Instead, I needed a scolding from Google.

That came from its PageSpeed Insights tool, a page you can use to check the performance of your own site or any other. It’s been around for years, but I didn’t think to use it until after I finally connected this site to Google’s Search Console webmaster tool last May (yes, even though I’ve been blogging here since 2011 and am supposed to be a professional tech journalist) and saw a prompt to try PageSpeed Insights in my results.

The results were not flattering: a mobile performance score of 47 out of 100, with desktop performance better but still subpar at 89. Scrolling down revealed a variety of flaws in this blog, some that I could correct with the limited tools of a free WordPress.com account and some that I could not.

I started with the first obviously fixable thing, image sizes. Google suggested that I convert such frequently-downloaded elements as the background image to “next-gen formats” like WebP or JPEG 2000. But instead of switching to files that Apple’s Safari browser can’t display, I opened the original photo for the background (a view of the Blue Ridge from a bike century ride in 2006) in my Mac’s GraphicConverter app and exported it with a lower image-quality setting that cut its size by a third at no visible cost.

That did not impress PageSpeed–my mobile score actually dropped to 44–so I moved on to the third-party code that Google reported had been getting in the way of my own content. It listed Facebook as a major offender, accounting for 207 milliseconds of delay. Removing the Facebook widget that you formerly saw in the right-hand sidebar boosted my mobile score to 53, with the desktop score essentially unchanged at 87.

(PageSpeed Insights scores fluctuate up and down with each test, so don’t get bent out of shape if yours drops by five for no apparent reason, at least not until you run the test again.)

Then I removed the Facebook and Twitter share buttons and elected to toss all of the share buttons except the tool to e-mail a link to the page. That edged the mobile score up to 58 and pushed the desktop score up to 96.

This pruning got me to look again at all the ads you see around here–and think about how low-rent so many of them are. I turned off the three “additional ad placement” options that had been salting each post with extra banners. That may cut into my ad revenue, but it’s already so thin I’d rather that my professional presence online not look quite so janky.

Having spun myself up fully into Marie Kondo mode, I returned to the sidebar and removed the Twitter widget (PageSpeed Insights had blamed Twitter code for 119 ms of delay) and some non-interactive links that only cluttered that part of the page.

The results of all this effort as calculated by PageSpeed Insights just now: scores of 76 on mobile and 99 on desktop. I hope you notice this blog loading a little quicker–and I trust you appreciate how this exercise has also rid my blog of Facebook’s tracking.