How engineers can work from home successfully

engineer working from home with a laptop

Many of us engineers are now working from home for the first time. It’s important to keep our productivity up in the transition. Here are ways we can do that…

Working from home is not an alien concept for many professions, but it can be for us engineers working in the nuclear power industry. We are normally tied to the plant. Or to the office, where the printers and plotters and conference rooms are.

At least, we thought we were. But the status quo has changed rapidly with the rise of the coronavirus pandemic.

The question in the minds of managers is likely something along the lines of: “How are we going to keep our productivity up with everyone out of the office?”

The rapid response of businesses and government agencies to implement social distancing have forced us to accept working from home as a new-normal, at least in the short-term. One professional engineer writes:

Due to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, many engineering companies across the United States and beyond are implementing travel restrictions and work from home directives.

I have had the opportunity to work from home, on and off, over the last ten years, and as nice as it sounds, one of the biggest challenges with doing it effectively is staying focused and productive.

Can engineers work from home?

This professional engineer thinks they can.

He gives 5 tips for how engineers can keep up their productivity at home. They are big picture. They are not specific to nuclear electrical engineers, or even electrical engineers in general.

These 5 tips lay a foundation for success for any work-from-home strategy. They are:

  1. Maintain your morning routine
  2. Get dressed for work
  3. Designate one area as your work space
  4. Take scheduled breaks
  5. Always follow the Pareto Principle (Aka the 80/20 Rule)

He makes a point to emphasize that setting a morning routine is important for keeping up your productivity:

The worst thing you can do is start to sleep late just because you are working from home.  This may cause you to get lazy and lose a lot of working time.  Now, if you had a 30 to 45-minute commute previously, and you want to sleep an extra 30 to 45 minutes, that’s fine, but if you usually wake at 7 am and decide to start waking at 9:30 am, your productivity may be compromised and bad habits will formulate.

He speaks of the importance of also dressing for work. I have seen this meme online:

Keep that in mind as you read this next advice (I added the bold text):

Another challenge, I see with work from home professionals is that they think they can wear their pajamas all day. The reality of it is that they can, however, there is huge psychological benefit to getting up each morning and getting dressed for work. Again, you might dress more casually than you would have if you were going to the office, however, you are still maintaining the routine of getting dressed to partake in work activities. Of course, if you plan to be on video calls, dress accordingly.

You don’t want to appear on a video call with morning hair.

Especially at 1 pm.

How do I adjust to work from home?

Transitioning from the office environment to the home so rapidly is jarring. An older Forbes article explains some of the difficulty:

“It is often a challenge in the beginning because of the sudden lack of buzz that typifies a traditional office environment,” says Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant. But once you’re on the phone, engaged in your business, attending meetings, using videoconferencing and making a proactive effort to create your own business community, that isolation is typically overcome, she says.

Hanna [the founder and publisher of The Work at Home Woman] believes some of the biggest challenges that home-based workers face are learning how to avoid distractions, dealing with social isolation, and others not taking your work at home status seriously. “Luckily, with a few minor adjustments to your mindset and some honest communication with those around you, these can easily be solved,” she says.

Communication is key to adjustment. The work-from-home transition is likely to be makeshift at first, but you should move rapidly to reassert a routine and boundaries to keep your productivity up. The Forbes article offers advice for communicating your schedule to your family:

Communicate your work schedule to friends and family. Spence suggests you communicate with your loved ones that you’re working and ask them not to call you unless it is urgent. Make your office hours known and clear to the family, and make sure they respect your working hours, Foss says. “Don’t be afraid to defend your work time, McCausey says. “Being my own boss I can decide on the fly to flex my time and run off to have lunch with a friend – but that isn’t possible for everyone. Some will think that since you work at home, you can do whatever you like.”

During a pandemic, you are less likely to be tempted to go meet a friend in the middle of the day. But the pandemic won’t last forever. It’s good to remember that you should stick to your routine when possible and separate business from personal during your working hours.

The article offers over 20 other tips for success in the home office. All are worth reviewing. One is to make sure you have good equipment. Besides a good computer and Internet connection, this article provides a short list of the best tech gear for working from home. One of those is a conferencing speaker for joining conference calls.

Benefits for businesses that adjust

I believe the rapid transition forced on businesses is breeding creativity and resiliency. It is going to help companies who adapt become more flexible in the future. I believe they will be setup for long-term success.

The sudden emergence of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is not a true Black Swan event. Coined by author, Professor of Risk Engineering, and former options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb, he describes the Black Swan as “large-scale unpredictable and irregular events of massive consequence.” But scientists have been predicting this kind of event for a long time. Taleb himself predicted the scenario in his 2007 book, The Black Swan. So the sudden coronavirus shock to the global system, as large-scale and massively consequential as it is, doesn’t qualify as “unpredictable.” But it’s clear now how unprepared we have been.

Taleb published another book in 2012 called Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. In the Prologue, he writes: “Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.” He says antifragility is the antidote to the Black Swan.

Companies should strive to become antifragile. This means they have innovative, robust systems that handle variability better, and their success doesn’t depend on predictability. Being dependent on predictability means you are setup for failure when the unpredictable occurs. Being antifragile means being less dependent on accurate forecasting, Taleb teaches.

In the second chapter of Antifragile, Taleb describes the source of innovation: “I hold–it is beyond speculation, rather a conviction–that innovation and sophistication spark from initial situations of necessity, in ways that go far beyond the satisfaction of such necessity (from the unintended side effects of, say, an initial invention or attempt at invention).”

More shocks to come

It’s a miracle of modern science that we have not seen a killer flu pandemic since the 1918 Spanish Flu. But it has also created an illusion that we have eliminated this threat. In fact, we’ve just been one small step ahead of the germs this whole time. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought us back to reality.

The reality is that there will be more pandemics in the future. They are unavoidable. There will be other shocks as well, some predictable, some which aren’t.

But businesses whose employees are adept at working remotely are going to become more resilient to those shocks. They’ll become more efficient. Overhead costs will decline. They’ll be able to operate leaner operations. They will be positioned to capitalize on opportunities that appear during these shocks for which their competitors were not prepared.

There is a long list of benefits to companies who adopt work-from-home policies. This present shock is breeding innovation out of necessity. This will have a long-term positive effect for businesses who adapt.

One thought on “How engineers can work from home successfully

What do you think?