It's not working from home

I’ve worked from home since November 2011, when I started working for Canonical. I’ve had enough though, and have chosen to go back to working in an office on a regular basis.

No, I don’t have investments in city-centre office spaces, and I’m not a Zoom paid shill. I just think it’s better for me, and here’s why.

Commuter hell

Before 2011, all my roles were all on-site, commuting between six and sixty miles a day, each way. I live in the South-East of the UK, so the M3 and M25 featured heavily in my “sitting in a car, going nowhere” experience point collection.

Sometimes roles had me flying to other parts of the country, or into Europe to teach at corporate training centres. I’d get up early and arrive home late, days later.

Even longer ago I was an on-the-road engineer, going to different sites around the UK every day. When I was young, and didn’t have kids, that was fair enough and even enjoyable. We didn’t have podcasts in those days, so I’d mostly listen to BBC Radio 4 in my company Ford Mondeo. I think that’s where my love of Radio 4 comedy comes from. It kept me company while crawling home on some godforsaken B-road.

Home sweet home

By 2011 though, I found it appealing to be working at home as it meant I could be around for the family in the morning and evening. I could help get the kids up, be there when they got home, and be home in time for a sit-down meal with the family. I felt that was important at the time.

Canonical had an office, but I rarely went there. Sometimes we’d have a sprint in the London office, or pop in for a few meetings, but that wasn’t often. It was certainly great to sit next to people and build relationships, brainstorm ideas and then socialise in the evening. I miss post-work pub visits with friends.

Work/life balance

While at Canonical I fell into the trap of working long hours at home. Before I worked there, I was engaged with the Ubuntu community in my “free” time (i.e. when at home in the evening) and that continued when I started working there.

I wasn’t very disciplined with separating work and home, which wasn’t healthy. I (incorrectly) felt bad working for a global organisation with a widely dispersed community, then “clocking off” and walking away from the PC. I’ve got somewhat better at that since.

I left Canonical in 2021 and started with InfluxData, a global organisation with a San Franciso leaning. There were often meetings in the evening, which could be quite late in my time. That’s the way it is for modern, global software companies these days I guess ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Most modern companies are flexible though, meaning you can take an hour out in the middle of your day to compensate for being online in the evening.

Some people don’t like this, I get that. I don’t mind as it means I don’t have to worry if I need to pop out to post a parcel or some other regular human administration.

Leaving on a jet plane

Between 2011 and 2020 there were also tons of international events to attend. Multiple times a year the UDS (Ubuntu Developer Summit) and internal company sprints would take me away from home. These were week-long events in large hotels and conference centres which typically alternated between Europe and North America. 2019 was especially busy with eight weeks away from home.

Subsequent roles after Canonical had considerably lower travel requirements. Plus there was The Event in 2020-2022 which curtailed most travel. As a result, I spent a lot more time in the home office getting a little stir crazy.

The Office (UK)

The home office is just the smallest bedroom in our house. It contains desks for working, a printer, shelves of computer stuff, and other junk. It’s a bit of a dumping ground. It hasn’t been a bedroom for a long while now. It could certainly be improved though. Nerd-hoarded ThinkPads and old game consoles should probably be consigned to the bin.

The Office (USA)

At InfluxData, one company benefit was the budget to pay for a co-working space so people could get out of their homes. It was recognised that people didn’t do well when they ate, relaxed, slept and worked all in one place. Especially those who lived in cramped and expensive, highly populated cities like San Francisco. It also helped out where people shared apartments, and people needed their own space for Zoom calls.

While I don’t live in SFO and don’t have a cramped single-occupancy apartment, I still felt a lack of separation between “home” and “work”. So with that budget, I rented a local office space, that was only a five-minute drive, or a thirty-minute walk from home. I left my work laptop in that locked office, and when I went home I mostly didn’t work in the evening.

Yet another office

I left InfluxData in 2022 and joined Axiom. Axiom is another modern, globally spread, software organisation with employees working from home in timezones from GMT-8 to GMT+11. When I left InfluxData I lost the office benefit and went back to working in the home office.

The UK contingent of Axiom is mostly based around London. We regularly rent a small conference room in the city centre, and all go in to work from there. I find this incredibly valuable. Being sat at a desk around very smart people from different departments triggers conversations and ideas I wouldn’t have with scheduled Zoom calls or Slack threads. It’s only thirty-five miles by car or an hour by train from home directly to central London.

Things at home have changed a little since the Canonical days. The kids are grown up (16 and 19) so I’m not required to be around in the morning and evening as they’re mostly self-sufficient. I do still like to enjoy a meal with them when I can drag them out of their rooms when we can.

I still needed to re-add that home/work separation back in. So I started renting an office within my budget. It’s not in my home town, but a twenty-five minute drive away. Thankfully it’s a commute away from the prevailing direction of traffic. So I haven’t so far been stuck in long queues. That might also be affected by the schools being on holiday in the UK now. I expect traffic to get worse in September.

As there’s a mainline railway station at each end of my journey, I might let the train take the strain sometimes, which also gives me the benefit of a twenty-minute walk at each end. Always looking for the silver lining!

Commuter benefits

Going back to having a short commute has helped in a few ways for me. I can catch up on podcasts in the car in each direction. In the past I’d typically listen to shows while cooking a meal in the evening, or when relaxing before sleep. Indeed if I do switch to the train, I’ll have even more time for podcast consumption.

The other thing I don’t do enough of is stare out the window and think. I know that probably sounds stupid to some, but I don’t have enough “unstimulated time”, and either driving with the radio off or catching the train with a nice view, will help that. I have some of my best ideas when I stare out a window!

I’m actually renting space in the same place as my good friend, Linux Matters co-host, Martin Wimpress. So while the space is full of different companies doing wildly differing things, there’s some familiarity here.

(New) New normal

Don’t get me wrong, I love a pyjama workday on the sofa with the laptop webcam turned off. We all do, I’m sure. But I need to haul myself out of the house and swipe a keycard into an office to get that mental click from home to work state.

I feel more productive since I’m in an office, making the mental switch, being more focused and taking regular breaks.

There are side benefits for others too. If the kids are home, they’re not getting bugged to empty the dishwasher or clean their room when I grab a coffee. I mean, I can do that in the family group chat from anywhere. Amusingly, Martin mentioned that he’s been feeling more productive since I’ve been working in the same office as him. We both work on a system of work & reward. Do some work, reward with a coffee and chat in the kitchen. That works well and means we also rest our eyes from too much screen time.

I have an enclosed office space, but can optionally sit out in the communal area if I want to have some human contact (which I rarely do, but it happens). So I’m not looking at the same four walls all day. Sure, I’m looking at a different four walls, but they’re keeping my head in “work mode”.

I’m also blessed that I can afford to pay to commute and afford an office space.

This is just my thoughts on it, how I feel at work and home. Everyone is different. You may prefer the home office life.

I’m finding the separation - and the commute - to be helping me tremendously. I don’t want to go back to permanently home working just now.