CoronaWork: How four pros WFH and try to stay productive

Telework from home has been used for years by engineers, including designers of chips and devices, but coronavirus and quarantines are forcing an uptick in the numbers of techies using telecommuter technology.

FierceElectronics interviewed four engineers working from home (WFH) and found that the biggest challenges from the virus quarantines are sometimes less about having the right hardware, software and fast broadband for telecommuting and more about dealing with social upheaval. One engineer wondered: What should I do about the screaming kids running through the house who are forced home from school?

Some tech workers are pretty much on their own at home, running a small business and making decisions about the software and hardware tools they use. Others work for large companies and are required to keep in touch, sometimes with video and makeshift whiteboards, making it apparent they are on the job and fully responsible for their part of the workload. The message, broadly put, is to remain productive, even when working at home.

NXP engineers get online access to board farms and labs

At NXP Semiconductors, a large semi maker with 11,000 engineers in more than 30 countries, a process began recently to move R&D software engineers to at-home work in six countries, including China and India, according to Rob Oshana, vice president for the edge processing business line at NXP.

These embedded software engineers need access to hardware development boards located in board farms and labs located just about anywhere, which are networked and controlled via CI/CD (continuous integration and delivery) infrastructure, Oshana explained.

“Access is relatively easy [but] you need to make sure company IT has enough bandwidth to support a larger population accessing the network,” he said. A workaround for engineers experiencing network problems is to bring physical evaluation boards home with them, as long as the board is not a critical resource shared by multiple workers or is proprietary tech of a customer. A difficulty could arise if an engineer needs to carry a board across a country border that is closed due to quarantine.

Even with the right tools, coronavirus quarantines can add wrinkles to a well-pressed work pattern like dealing with various distractions including adoring/annoying pets and loud neighbors.

Screaming kids, barking dogs

Matt Liberty, the creator of Joulescope, a precision DC analyzer device, works as a consultant mostly in an office and lab set up in his home. “Working from home can definitely be challenging. I need to establish the mindset of going to work,” he said.

He urged engineers working at home to create a space for themselves that is a dedicated workspace and minimizes distractions. “I have kids who are going to be off school, which will be like summer,” Liberty said. “We have set up a quiet zone near my office, which means no running or screaming. We also set boundaries and expectations about quiet time activities for when I need to make or receive calls.”

Frank Hunleth, an embedded software developer and vice president of hardware engineering at SmartRent, has worked at home for 10 years. “One of the more important parts of staying productive at home is finding a distraction-free area,” he said. “I work from a windowless office in my basement and love it.”

Another embedded software consultant advised neophyte teleworkers to remain patient during the transition away from the office. “It takes time to adjust to things,” said J. Costillo who requested her place of work not be named. “You will need to flex your communication skills differently.” 

For some reason, a lot of workers coming online lately have new pets, including Costillo, that she aptly described as “feline and canine coworkers.” Costillo added, “One of mine likes to knock over things when I am trying to deliver a serious technical presentation or will lay down on my hardware. We will see what happens today.”

Hardware and the whiteboard dilemma

While it is almost second nature for many home office workers to log on and work most of the time at home, it can be, arguably, more challenging for semiconductor designers who look at complex diagrams of circuits or circuit boards. They may share spreadsheets constantly as well.

Chip designers might not require as much screen space as stock market investors who often use multiple displays to track hundreds of stocks, but big high-definition displays and comfortable workstations—sometimes with makeshift standup desks—can make a difference, according to the engineers.

“After weeks of dealing with an old monitor with a flakey on-off switch, I ordered a new one just in time for the work from home policy for everyone,” Costillo said. “It’s helping a lot. It’s huge! Most of my coworkers are missing their standing desks and chairs already, but my setup is comfortable.”

Liberty said his setup includes two 3840 x 2160 displays connected to a main desktop computer and a 1080p display connected to a number of other computers that vary over time, including a laptop and two Intel NUCs. The majority of his consulting work involves developing embedded software in C, mostly Arm Cortex-M microcontrollers. He doesn’t use a standup desk, but confessed, “I did splurge on a nice chair.”

Costillo said there’s difficulty in collaboration with drawing on a whiteboard on an idea when you are not in the same room. “This is key for hardware and designing quickly,” Costillo said. On the other hand, meetings and reviews with everybody not in the same room become different, and better, when compared to in-person meetings. “People are thinking about how to engage others now instead of who is in front of them. It’s interesting and improved,” Costillo said.

Video shyness and taping over the lens

As for adapting to video cameras, Costillo added, “I’m camera shy, and I learned to keep tape over your camera just in case it turns on before you are ready. I don’t turn on my camera unless I need to. Keep your background in mind in meetings. I keep my morning routine to avoid getting too comfortable and I dress as I usually would. I have heard some have moved to a dress shirt and sweatpants, but that seems weird.”

Oshana, the NXP executive, advised telework newbies: “Dress appropriately, especially for customer meetings, since these will still happen. Also, the barking puppy or the crying baby in the background on a Skype call will be cute and funny for about 30 seconds, but then it gets annoying to everybody else on the call. Find a quiet place and be online and reachable via Skype and email and ensure you are reachable on your mobile phone.”

One subtle message, he added, is that working from home means workers can be on mute often and not pay attention to what is happening in meetings. “If you don’t want this to happen [as a manager], ask attendees to use video, not just audio,” Oshana said.

Collaboration tools and more

Software tools for computer aided design (CAD) and collaboration come into play. Often the decision about which tools are used depends on the company and whether there is an enterprise software service and tech support with the tool costs spread across a larger group. Tools for group chats and video presentations like WebEx seem almost ubiquitous in the engineering field and are usually administered with help from IT.

Cisco, the maker of WebEx, said recently there has been an “unprecedented increase in remote working” with an increase of 22 times the traffic on the WebEx backbone connected to WebEx users in China since the outbreak began in late December. As of early March, the company reported four to five times as many users in Japan, South Korea and Singapore with double the average time spent on WebEx video meetings.

The company has also expanded its free WebEx offer to all countries where it is available, not only those impacted by the virus. It provides unlimited usage and support for 100 participants with toll dial-in as well as VoIP.

Liberty said he has used Slack, Teams, Skype and Basecamp, but prefers to coordinate using GitHub for engineering and email. “Proactive communication is key, not the tools, and it’s best to adapt to the communication preferences of the managers and team you are with,” he said.

“Technical discussions that require thought are great for email but making decisions and determining plans are best for live conversation,” Liberty said. “Be efficient and don’t write 10 emails or texts when a two-minute phone call would be better.”

Hunleth said he uses Zoom, Slack and regular phone calls but has found that Zoom meetings are good for management tasks and for software development “since it is easier to integrate code and debug problems live.”    

Budgets for home office equipment?

As telework grows in importance, Hunleth said it will be essential for companies to provide a budget for home offices “at least to cover equipment for a healthy work environment with proper chairs, desks, keyboards and monitor stands.” Some companies offer workers self-service options for picking items they need. “I don’t have a deluxe hardware setup or anything fancy,” he said.

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, said many engineering companies already have had teams dispersed across the globe for years and know how to make telework productive. “The biggest effect of the virus quarantines will be lack of teams getting together to discuss matters in real time, as many engineers do,” he said.

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“There are tools like Slack and Google Hangouts, but it’s not quite the same as being in the same room and whiteboarding ideas and reviews. There will be some impact on productivity, but it’s hard to say how much,” Gold said.

Aside from staying productive while working on detailed engineering projects from home, Hunleth said there’s one more telework practice that’s critical: “Brush your teeth. I find that it’s easy to forget when you are not leaving the house in the morning.”