Tim’s Takeaways: Working From Home—5 Tips for Newbies

As we all know, the recent COVID-19 outbreak has resulted in some extraordinary changes all over the world. One of these changes is that many people who have worked in an office environment for their entire career have suddenly found themselves shifted to working remotely. At first, this may seem like it isn’t that big of a change. After all, you’ll save commuting time and expenses, and you already pay your bills and do many other office type activities at home, so what’s the big deal?

However, it may be a bigger deal than you realize. There are some surprises on this path that could cause you some unexpected problems, and for some people, working remotely is more difficult than they imagined. At the same time, though, there really are some great benefits with this arrangement that are just waiting to be discovered.

I’ve worked from home for over 17 years, and I’ve learned a few things along the way that have helped me to successfully keep plugging away. Here are five tips for making the most of this situation and working successfully from home.

1. Set an Alarm

One of the biggest traps that derails a successful attempt to work at home is failing to keep to a regular schedule. It’s very easy to say, “Oh, I’m at home, so I can sleep in a little later.” The problem is that it keeps getting later and later, so you compensate by working later and later. Soon, your 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. day has turned into 12 p.m. to 8 p.m., and it feels like you are spending more time at work than you used to when at the office.

Set an alarm, get up, and follow your normal morning routine of exercising, reading the news, getting dressed, and then starting work. The more you can keep your work schedule on schedule, the more productive you will be.

2. Build a Nest

Another great detractor to working successfully from home is not having a work-station setup. You start out in the living room, but someone is talking loudly on the phone there, so you go into the den, but little Johnny has an episode of “PJ Masks” turned up as loud as it can go. Before you realize it, you’ve wasted a lot of time going from place to place in your own house, trying to find a quiet corner in which to hunker down.

The best thing you can do is to set up a spot in your home that you can designate as an office area. It will signal to everyone else that you are “at work,” and you can walk in, sit down, and jump right into the day’s task load. I know that this will be tough for many who live in smaller houses or apartments, but if you can designate a spot in a basement, attic, garage, or anywhere where you can focus on work, it will be extremely helpful.

3. Manage Interruptions

This one, as you can guess, is tough. How do you tell your family and loved ones to go away? The answer is that you don’t. You gently manage everyone’s expectations instead. With a designated office area at home, it is a lot easier to establish some boundaries that say, “When I’m in here, I am not to be interrupted.” On the other hand, these are unique times, and more than likely, you have other people in the home with you who normally would be at their jobs, schools, or daycares. You may be in a very tough spot.

If so, perhaps these recommendations may help:

  • Don’t get frustrated when you are interrupted. Remember that the others who are cooped up with you aren’t having much fun either. They may be experiencing heightened feelings of boredom, isolation, detachment, and even fear. Be patient with everyone.
  • With smaller children, find ways to engage them with what you are doing. Try something simple, like asking them to get you a cup of coffee, and then reward them with praise when they do that—for example, “Thanks, Suzi. You helped mommy with her work by bringing coffee to her.” By involving them in ways like this, you will help them to feel like they are part of your team instead of being on the outside, looking in.
  • Manage your time with everyone in your family. Schedule lunch breaks with your spouse or significant other and set times for a reading break or other special activities with children. This way, everyone can plan on when you will be available instead of interrupting you. And since you have been setting your alarm and getting up and working at a regular time, try starting even earlier and scheduling more time during the day with other people.
  • Make sure to manage online meetings the same as you would regular meetings in the office. It can become very easy to start thinking that virtual time is free time, but it is not. You still need time to get your regular work done.

4. Smile: You’re on Candid Camera

I’m betting that most every laptop in use today has a camera on it, so make sure that you use it. We humans need to see each other. When you can see the person that you are talking to, you can see their reactions, which helps you to connect better and builds trust. Using your camera isn’t necessarily for you; instead, it is for your co-workers.

Imagine if you went into a conference room at your office for a meeting, and everyone hid behind an opaque mask. It sounds ridiculous, yet why do we do that in online meetings? If your hair is out of place, put on a hat or whatever you need to do to feel presentable. The important thing is to turn on the camera. In fact, you can do fun things on camera in your online meetings, just as you would do in the office.

Last September, I met with my boss online before going to PCB West, and I decided to dress accordingly for the “road trip,” as you can see (Figure 1). Her laughter was well worth the extra effort to clean the cobwebs out of my (very) old motorcycle helmet.

 Haag_Figure_1.jpg

Figure 1: Tim Haag in motorcycle garb for an online meeting before road-tripping to PCB West.

5. Reach Out

Never before have we seen the forced isolation of people like we are now, and for extroverts, it is extremely difficult to function without regular social interaction. There may be members of your own team having a difficult time working from home, and the best thing that you can do is to seek them out and check in with them.

The other day, a friend of mine posted on social media that she was struggling with the isolation of working from home, and a bunch of us jumped in with greetings and other forms of silliness to pump her up. This morning, one of my co-workers sent out a company-wide message, asking how everyone was doing in general and checking up on us. Anything that you can do to help your co-workers through this time will pay extra dividends in productivity.

Here are some additional recommendations to keep in mind:

  • Make sure to schedule the appropriate team, department, and corporate meetings. You don’t want to overload everyone’s calendar with meetings, of course, but you need to stay connected to each other.
  • Schedule virtual “happy hours” with your co-workers. My company has been doing this for a while now with great success. On designated days after the normal end of the business day, we grab a beverage and meet together online, just for fun.
  • Don’t forget to stay connected with extended family, friends, and neighbors. Yesterday, I had a great time talking with my next-door neighbor. We were appropriately socially distanced from each other across the fence and chatted like normal.

Conclusion

These are difficult and unique times, and if you are transitioning to working from home for the first time, you also have this new mountain to conquer. But it can be done! Several of us have been working from home now for a long time with great success, and I am confident that you can too. And if you need someone to chat with, drop me a line.

Tim Haag writes technical, thought-leadership content for First Page Sage on his longtime career as a PCB designer and EDA technologist.

 

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2020

Tim’s Takeaways: Working From Home—5 Tips for Newbies

03-24-2020

Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, many people who have worked in an office environment for their entire career have suddenly found themselves shifted to working remotely. At first, this may seem like it isn’t that big of a change, but it may be a bigger deal than you realize. Tim Haag, who has worked from home for over 17 years, shares five tips for making the most of this situation and working successfully from home.

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2019

Tim's Takeaways: Realizing a Higher Standard for PCB Design

10-09-2019

To the untrained eye, one circuit board may look pretty much like any other, but as we know, there are major differences between them. Not only are they different in purpose and design but also in how they are manufactured for specific industries. If you are designing medical equipment, for instance, you will have to meet many different regulatory requirements from organizations, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), World Health Organization (WHO), and International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), among others.

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Tim's Takeaways: Clear Communication Takes the Cake

07-10-2019

Whether baking a cake or building a circuit board, it’s all about clear communication. If the person writing the recipe had not made the choice to clearly communicate what their intentions were for baking that cake, I would have been lost. A missing ingredient here or an incorrect oven temperature there and my birthday surprise would have ended up in the garbage in the same way a successfully built circuit board starts with clear communication from the designer. Circuit board manufacturers want to create a perfect PCB for you, but they can only do so to the extent of the instructions that you give them.

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Tim's Takeaways: Rules Keep You from Crossing the Line

06-20-2019

Driving rules are designed to keep drivers between the lines of traffic instead of crossing over those lines into dangerous situations. Similarly, design rules are also intended to keep PCB trace routing between the lines instead of crossing over them as well. But you might be surprised how many people refuse to use the full potential of their DRCs to protect themselves, and in some cases, refuse to use them at all.

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Tim's Takeaways: I Think I’ll Go for a Walk

04-08-2019

Many years ago, my boss at a PCB design service bureau had his own unique way of encouraging us to take a break. He would come through the design bay and call out in his deep baritone voice, “DARTS!” and we would all follow him into the break area for a quick game. In addition to the benefits of taking a break, forcing our eyes to focus in and out as we threw a dart was a great way to relieve us all from the eye strain of older CRT monitors.

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Tim's Takeaways: A Job Worth Doing

02-28-2019

I get it. We PCB designers are made of the kind of tough stuff where we will work ourselves to death if given the chance. But in our all of our efforts, are we really doing it right, or could we somehow be doing it better? Let’s take a moment to consider some other ways that we might help ourselves to improve.

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2018

Tim's Takeaways: Contract Positions—Go the Extra Mile

10-10-2018

For newbies just entering the industry or experienced designers who have always worked for a corporation, the transition to contractor can be a real culture shock. The allure of working from home and setting your own hours can quickly be replaced by the realities of chasing jobs and wondering where your next payday will come from. However, there are some wonderful aspects of working as a contractor that can make it very worthwhile.

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Tim's Takeaways: Where Have All the Designers Gone (and Who Will be Taking Their Place)?

08-17-2018

We have a lot to pass on to the new designers. We must stress the importance of understanding of the roots of our industry and why this design knowledge is important. I have worked with many designers who don’t understand anything about the output of their design files. They go through a procedure, hit a series of commands, and presto: The design files are all wrapped up in a neat little zip file ready to go out to the manufacturer. That’s all well and good, until something breaks or a manufacturer has a specific question. It would be a great thing to make sure that the designers of tomorrow understand what a Gerber file and an aperture list really is.

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Tim's Takeaways: Hiring the Right PCB Designer

06-04-2018

Like the rest of you, I’ve had times of unemployment, when your daily job is looking for work. You find yourself writing and then rewriting your resume, searching online forums and job search sites, and applying to every job that you can find. I’ve also hired people, and I know what hiring managers face. But hiring managers may be hurting their companies by drawing up a list of expectations so tight that highly qualified people may be slipping between the cracks.

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Will Cool Technology Attract the Next Generation of PCB Designers?

04-17-2018

If I had the opportunity to design some boards that went into medical detection equipment like my new blood pressure cuff, I would be extremely motivated to do that. Maybe what we should be focusing on is not just playing with the new toys, but showing the younger generation different ways to think about how they can improve upon these new toys.

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Customer Support: What do PCB Designers Really Want?

03-19-2018

First, let’s throw a leash around the elephant in the room. That’s my way of saying, “Here are some things that designers want, but we in the support business just can’t give it to them.” The first one that comes to mind: Customers have asked, manipulated, and even tricked me in their attempts to get free software.

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Tim's Takeaways: Good Support Isn’t Just for Customers

03-06-2018

I have been working in PCB CAD tools customer support for years and years, and it isn’t that often that the tables are turned and I have someone who is supporting me. I’ve got to say, it was a pleasure being the recipient of some quality support.

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2017

True Design Efficiency: Think Before You Click

10-09-2017

At the captive shops that I’ve worked with, where the designers were more involved in the entire design cycle and had better access to the corporate libraries, staff engineers, etc., the story was often the same. Some designers would jump into the deep end of the pool of design without any thought to drowning while others would be so busy lacing up their life preservers of preparation that they would take too long getting out of the shallows and into the depth of their design. So, what’s the best approach here?

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Tim's Takeaways: It Really Wasn’t My Fault

09-07-2017

I once received verbal instructions from an engineer who directed me to make a certain change. I didn’t think anything of it. Many months later, this same engineer told me that there were troubles with the board and all its successive versions because of the change that I had made. He ended up making it right in the end. But in hindsight, what could I have done to save myself a couple of months of suspense and worry?

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Tim's Takeaways: Stepping into the Great Unknown

08-16-2017

Many years ago, I was given the opportunity to switch my career path from senior circuit board designer to CAD systems administrator. I wasn’t certain that I wanted to give up the comfort of being a designer; after all, I had been one for a long time. But I knew that this transition would help my overall knowledge base of everything CAD-related, as well as better position me in my quest for a management position. So, I pulled the trigger and accepted the new job even though the idea of stepping into the great unknown like that was very intimidating.

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Tim's Takeaways: Design Tools of Tomorrow--A Real 'Marvel'

04-05-2017

Imagine if you could interact with your design as a hologram floating in front of you the way Tony Stark did in the movie "Iron Man." Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could pick a section on your holographic design with your hands and expand it to the point where you could peer into it, spin it around, and manipulate it as you desired? Want to push a trace down to a different layer? Just give it a nudge in the right direction and the holographic display changes it to the next layer. Don’t like the way a certain area fill looks? Then just grab it with your fingers and pull it out and throw it into the virtual garbage can.

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Tim's Takeaways: 'Sparks' to the Rescue in RF Design

01-03-2017

Just like the early days of radio where Sparks the radio specialist was in demand to get the job done, we now need RF specialists to work together with electrical engineers to create the intricate designs required for RF circuits. You are now Sparks, the go-to specialist who will take care of RF design business.

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2016

The Basics of Hybrid Design, Part 3

06-16-2016

The world of hybrid design is growing, and we have lots of hybrid-specific functionality built into our software that helps designers meet and conquer the unique hybrid design requirements that they are faced with. And yet many designers out there (and I used to be one of them) have no idea what is meant when people start talking about hybrid design.

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The Basics of Hybrid Design, Part 2

05-16-2016

In the first part of this series, we discussed the basics of hybrid design from the PCB designer’s perspective, and here we will continue that discussion.

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The Principles of Hybrid Design, Part 1

04-25-2016

What exactly is a hybrid design? We are seeing more and more of our customers exploring the world of hybrid design, and we are getting new customers for whom hybrid design is their sole focus. The world of hybrid design is growing and we have lots of hybrid-specific functionality built into our software that helps designers conquer the unique hybrid design requirements.

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2015

Tim's Takeaways: The Utility Belt

05-12-2015

The utility belt is a great thing to have. Batman would be long dead without his, and Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor would be useless without his. But for a circuit board designer, a utility belt is equally important. All of us at one time or another will have questions about the CAD system we use, and one essential tool to have in your utility belt is a list of people you can go to for help. At the top of this list should be your CAD system’s friendly customer support staff (like me).

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DFM: The PCB Designer as Arbitrator

04-08-2015

Design engineering is usually a combination of electrical and mechanical engineers. Although these two groups can have their own dramatic conflicts between each other, they will usually end up working together because they ultimately serve each other’s needs. But the manufacturing engineering requirements usually come from a completely different department or from an outside manufacturing vendor.

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2014

Like it or Not, You're a Role Model

12-24-2014

"During the years that I built my skills as a circuit board designer, many people helped shape my character. Some were impulsively brilliant at laying out a board, while others were steady and consistent in their approach to work, dotting every 'i' and crossing every 't.' But they were all patient with me, answering my questions, showing me the ropes, and setting good examples for me to follow," says Columnist Tim Haag.

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Blink and You Will Miss It

11-05-2014

Tim Haag writes, "Friedrich Nietzsche said, 'That which does not kill us makes us stronger.' Well, that adage certainly proved to be true in my situation. If I hadn't been ripped from my secure position and forced to contract for a short season, who knows how my future would have eventually unfolded. And if it hadn't been for that brief season of hardship, would I have had the strength and flexibility to succeed later on?"

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Tim's Takeaways: Blink and You Will Miss It

11-05-2014

Tim Haag writes, "Friedrich Nietzsche said, 'That which does not kill us makes us stronger.' Well, that adage certainly proved to be true in my situation. If I hadn't been ripped from my secure position and forced to contract for a short season, who knows how my future would have eventually unfolded. And if it hadn't been for that brief season of hardship, would I have had the strength and flexibility to succeed later on?"

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There Are No Stupid Questions

09-10-2014

Many of us who have been designing boards for years have had to deal with annoying questions from "the kids." You know who I mean: The rookies, newbies, greenhorns, or puppies just starting out in their design careers. We've all had to answer questions like, "Why is library development so important?" or "Why is solder mask green?"

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Tim's Takeaways: There Are No Stupid Questions

09-10-2014

Many of us who have been designing boards for years have had to deal with annoying questions from "the kids." You know who I mean: The rookies, newbies, greenhorns, or puppies just starting out in their design careers. We've all had to answer questions like, "Why is library development so important?" or "Why is solder mask green?"

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Design Rule Checks - For Your Protection

07-09-2014

Columnist Tim Haag writes, "I have designed multitudes of PCBs over the years, but I have a confession to make: It can be hard for me to run that final design rule check. I know that it is important, but at the end of a long design cycle, I just want to be done. I don't want to redo anything, and I sure don't want to look at my own errors. Do any of you feel that way?"

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Tim's Takeaways: Design Rule Checks - For Your Protection

07-09-2014

Columnist Tim Haag writes, "I have designed multitudes of PCBs over the years, but I have a confession to make: It can be hard for me to run that final design rule check. I know that it is important, but at the end of a long design cycle, I just want to be done. I don't want to redo anything, and I sure don't want to look at my own errors. Do any of you feel that way?"

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Customer Support: Not Just for Customers Anymore

06-04-2014

Columnist Tim Haag writes, "In my role as the customer support manager, I have seen plenty of examples of customer support. But my point here is not to focus on customer support as a function of a support technician. Instead, I want to explore the concept of how we should all strive to provide the best level of customer support in our jobs, no matter what we do."

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