Remote Productivity Challenges

Remember when I wrote about recommendations for remote work? Well, I think it’s time for an update for that, on at least three counts.

Time Management

Three times this week, I’ve had bookings for meetings at 7AM, which is ordinarily when my alarm clock goes off.

These were the result of a combination of factors (cultural and timezone differences, lack of otherwise free time on everyone’s calendars, and a fair amount of haste from the schedulers), but I find them significant of how fluid time has become–to the extent where work overflows onto otherwise free/family time (or, in my case, bedtime).

And, no matter how much people go on about work-life balance, there will always be people with unrealistic expectations trying to stake out time on your agenda.

Overall, during the past few months, meetings have become shorter (which is good, because they tend to be more focused–except when they aren’t…), and more frequent (which is lousy, because you have to context switch more often).

The general effect is that I spend at least 4 hours a day context switching in 30 minute slots, which turns my schedule (and my brain) into Swiss cheese. Because, ironically, even though we do ship the most popular productivity suite in the world, I seem to be the only person using the option to “end meetings early” and allow for breaks at all… but I digress.

Even when breaks occur, they tend to be (you guessed it) about 30 minutes in length, and what can you do with 10-30 minute breaks other than figure out what is going to happen in the next call?1

Flattening The Entropy Curve

All this context switching has been getting to us to the point where a colleague of mine quipped that even as everyone we deal with (internally and externally) has gone remote, we (who have been doing this for ages) have actually been losing productivity due to the “newbies”.

In order to actually accomplish anything of consequence, I’ve been scheduling at least two hours a day of contiguous “focus time” to do “proper” work, but the sheer number of meeting requests I get invariably means chipping away at those, often preempting work scheduled for those slots.

And if you’re experiencing the same, keep this in mind: It isn’t about loss of productivity due to remote work, it’s loss of productivity due to disorganised work, and the only way to deal with it is prioritizing and saying no. Politely, but no.

So yes, the best thing you can do is to block out portions of the agenda, either for independent work or (in the current situation) to ensure you can keep having an actual life.

Over the past three months I have gradually escalated from having a single daily blocker for lunchtime (I can have lunch in 15 minutes, sure, but cooking, setting the table and cleaning up for a family of four takes at least an hour) to three recurring daily blockers (morning, lunch, and close of business).

I’m still working during most of that time (except the early morning blocker, which safeguards my morning routine), but at least people are aware I’m not available for meetings.2

Environment

Typical Portuguese Summer weather has presented some challenges, to say the least.

When I started this draft, it was early in the morning and already quite warm outside (25oC). It is now 31oC out, and my office has been at a near-constant 27.5oC for days:

A section of my Node-RED dashboard, fed by Zigbee sensors

Before the pandemic, this would not be a big issue (I’d just not use my desktop at all and take my laptop into the living room, which has air conditioning). With the kids attending school remotely, that became impossible.

And even now that they are on “vacation”, doing calls constantly in the living room is still totally unfeasible, especially when someone pings me out of the blue (switching machines, getting them to turn down the TV and finding enough quiet to actually take the call can easily take 10-15 minutes).

So I have to sit in my office and endure constant heat and fan noise as my machines try to cope.3

Hammer Time

But there’s more. The plight of the remote worker never ceases in these troubled times, and there is a lot more to the environment than heat and humidity. Take noise, for instance–and as it happens, a construction company has been renovating one of the flats above us for the past couple of weeks.

And last Wednesday they used a jackhammer inside a building built out of armoured concrete, which has two consequences:

  • The vibrations loosen the bond between the steel meshes and the concrete, creating a brittle powdered layer around the steel that significantly reduces overall tensile (and shearing) strength.
  • The entire building resonates, making an incredible racket.

It was the first time that I actually used the Noise application on my Apple Watch (I have noise monitoring disabled to save battery), but it was extremely useful to capture the gist of the moment:

This is unhealthy in multiple ways, believe me...

Anyway, since this is effectively an illegal activity, after sending out a video of the above (with great audio, I should point out) and a couple of formal complaints they are now using regular hammers.

Constantly.

Which still makes it impossible to have decent calls in most circumstances, regardless of where I move to inside the house.

And in between construction work and constant calls I can’t listen to any music, so focusing has been extremely hard.4

This Is Fine

To add a little more excitement to the mix, next week temperatures are going to boil past 40oC, so… I have no clue how I’m going to be able to get anything done, really, and have preemptively blocked out an entire day in hope that I can get someone to come in and install a new AC unit in the office (and give it a thorough disinfection afterwards).

Networking

Another challenge we faced was having good enough connectivity for four people to do near-constant video calls across the house.

Last mile stuff was easy: We bumped our fibre connection to 1Gbps/200Mbps. It hasn’t been so much about sustained bandwidth as it is about latency, so there were only marginal improvements, but this also enabled some new entertainment and cut down on the occasional stuttering video.

Last meter stuff was trickier. We have Cat 5 cable runs to multiple parts of the house (all short enough to do gigabit), but not everywhere, and iPads and modern laptops don’t have Ethernet ports built-in (the only permanently wired machines are in a server cabinet and my office).

Thanks to the laws of mediocrity market economics, there are literally dozens of crappy ISP-supplied access points crowding the 2.4GHz spectrum in the flats around us (I stopped counting after 20).

Those have been our single biggest networking challenge, since there is so much interference in the 2.4GHz band that even Bluetooth controllers have trouble on occasion.

After a little consideration, I took the nuclear option: even though Apple is likely to eventually discontinue AirPort support altogether, I scoured eBay for extra AirPort Extreme base stations and now have three more (i.e., five total) identical devices providing 5GHz coverage across the house–effectively one for each of us plus a backup.

And before you point out that mesh networking or Ubiquity are all the rage these days, let me explain why this is better:

  • Mesh networking relies on bouncing your traffic across nodes, which is borderline feasible if you live in plaster and wood buildings but useless inside armoured concrete ones.
  • The MIMO antennae on the 802.11ac AirPorts are top grade engineering, and all of them have a physical Gigabit Ethernet connection, meaning I can literally max out the Wi-Fi connections (provided I’m in the same room with the equipment).
  • I don’t need to run any sort of network controller box, send any sort of telemetry outside my network, or use a dodgy third-party app to control my equipment.

Of course, this is only good while Apple keeps shipping AirPort Utility (which I don’t even know is still included in Big Sur)5, and I know I’m taking a risk here, but I’m sure to have older iOS devices around with the ability to manage these base stations for a couple of years at the very least.

Plus having to sort through a gaggle of over-engineered 802.11ax boxes that do more than what I need and often aren’t in stock is not my cup of tea right now–I’ll sort that out next year or so (probably in line with full-on network-based ad blocking and other things I’ve been adding to my to-do list).

There are much more important things to deal with right now, believe me.


  1. Sometimes I just give up and do some house chores to clear my head, like dealing with the dishes, helping out with meals or putting out the garbage, because those things need to get done and are, by and large, more important to our immediate well-being. ↩︎

  2. Well, those who actually check for availability, of course. Calendar battleships is becoming a habit in my organisation, and I, for one, am tired of playing it as a competitive sport. ↩︎

  3. My Surface Pro 4 is (fittingly) called RADIATOR, so that should give you an idea of how warm it gets. I am extremely glad we have Remote Desktop environments to work in, although that doesn’t make it any easier to do calls. ↩︎

  4. Noise cancelling headphones are not an option (except for those occasional hours where I can actually get some real work done, typically in the early evenings). ↩︎

  5. Turns out it actually is still in there, at least for now. ↩︎

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