15 steps to prepare for (another) lockdown

What steps can we be taking to prepare for what seems likely now – a new lockdown?

The kids are back in school, there are people in shops and restaurants, and traffic is even beginning to get back to something like normal levels. I’m being deployed as a CFR (community first responder) to more incidents, as the ambulance service gets better at assessing the risks to me and patients. And the colds and sneezes are back.

Of course they are: it’s that time of year. And where are they spreading from? Where do they usually spread from? School pupils. Both of mine have picked up minor cold symptoms, but, luckily nothing suggesting Covid-19. The school they attend is following government advice by strongly recommending that pupils wear masks in communal areas, encouraging social distancing and providing hand sanitiser outside each classroom, to be used on entry. Great! That should limit Covid-19. And it should… but the sore throats, coughing and sneezing started within days of their return to school. I’m no expert but it seems likely (and many experts agree) that schools will be act as transmission vectors, and that the rates of infection of Covid-19 will start rising again. And yes, the UK already has an R figure well above 1.

Apart from ranting about how this was always likely to happen, and that the relevant authorities should have taken more steps to reduce the impact) both true), what steps can we be taking to prepare for what seems likely now – a new lockdown?

Physical steps

There are a number of things that I’ve done or plan to do to prepare. Some of them aren’t because I necessarily expect a full lockdown, but some because, if I feel ill and unable to leave the house, it’s best to be ready.

  • get provisions – what do we need in for food and drink? We should obviously not go overboard on alcohol, but if you like a glass of wine from time to time, get a few bottles in, maybe a nice one for a special occasion. Get dried food in, cooking oil, and the rest stock the freezer. Oh, and chocolate. Always chocolate.
  • household supplies – remember that run on random items at the beginning of the first lockdown? Let’s avoid that this time: get toilet paper, kitchen roll, cleaning materials and tissues (for when we feel really poorly).
  • work supplies – most of us are used to working at home now, but if you’ve got a dodgy monitor, a printer in need of paper, or a webcam that’s on its last legs, now is a good time to sort them out there’s a good chance that these might become difficult to get hold of (again).
  • fitness preparations – if the gyms close again, what will you do? Even if we’re allowed outside more for exercise this time round, those warm jogging shorts that you wore in the spring and summer are not what you want to be wearing in the sleet and snow, so buy whatever gear you need for indoor or outdoor use now.
  • get a haircut – or get hold of some hairdressing supplies. Many of us discovered that we or our family members had some skills in this department, but better to get a cut in preparation, right?
  • books – yes, there are alternatives to physical books: you can read on your phone or another device these days. But I like a physical book, and I wish I’d stocked up last time. Go to your friendly neighbourhood book store – they need your business right now – and buy a few books.
  • wood – we live in an old house, and have wood-burning stoves to supplement our heating. Get wood in now to avoid getting cold in the winter!
  • pay the bills – you may want or need some extra luxuries later, as the weather sets in and lockdown takes hold. Get the bills paid up front, so there are no nasty surprises and you can budget a few treats for yourself later.

Psychological steps

Just as important as the physical – more, probably – is psychological preparation. That doesn’t mean that the steps above aren’t important: in fact, they’re vital to allow you to have space to consider the psychological preparation, which is difficult if you’re concerned or unsure about your physical safety and environment.

Prioritise – if you can, work out now what you’re going to prioritise, and when. Sometimes work may come first (barring an emergency), sometimes family, sometimes you. Thinking about this now is a good plan, so that you can set some rules for yourself and for those around you.

Prepare your family – this isn’t just about the priorities you’ve already worked on in the previous point, but also more generally. Many of us struggled with lockdown, and although we might think that it’ll be easier second time round, the very fact that it’s happened again is likely to cause us more stress in some ways.

Sleep – sleep now: bank it while you can! Sleep when lockdown happens, too. This was something which was a surprise to me: how tired I got. Not going out is, it turns out, tiring. This is because stress – which was a clear outcome from the first lockdown, and stress can make you very tired. So sleep when you can, and don’t just try to “power through”.

List what you can control and what you can’t – a classic stressor is feeling overwhelmed with things that we can’t control. And there will definitely be things that we really can’t – how long it takes, which of my friends get sick, issues such as that. But equally, there are things that we can control: when I stop for a cup of tea (or coffee, I suppose), who I call to catch up with on the phone, what I have for supper. In order to reduce stress, list things that you can control, and which you can’t, and try to accept the latter. Doing so won’t remove all stress, but it should help you manage your response to that stress, which can help you reduce it.

Be ready to feel weak – you will feel sad and depressed and ill and fed up from time to time. This is normal, and human, and it does not make you a failure or a bad employee, family member, friend or person. Accept it, and be ready to move on when you can.

Think of others – other people will be struggling, too: your family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. Spare them a thought, and think how you can help, even if it’s just with a quick text, a family videochat or a kind word from time to time. Being nice to people can make you feel good, too – and if you’re lucky, they’ll reciprocate, so everyone wins twice!

Be ready to put yourself first – sometimes, you need to step back and say “enough”. This isn’t always easy, but it’s sometimes necessary. If you begin to realise that things are coming unstuck, and that you’re going to have to disengage, let others around you know if you can. Don’t say “I hope it’s OK if…” or “I was thinking about, would it be OK for me to…”. Instead, let them know your intentions: “I’m going to need 5 minutes to myself”, or “I need to drop from this meeting for a while”. This won’t always be easy, but if you can prepare them, and yourself, for taking a little time, it’s going to be better for everyone in the end: you, because you will recover (if only for a while), and them, because they’ll get a healthier, more efficient and less stressed you.

Bringing your emotions to work

An opportunity to see our colleagues as more “human”.

We’ve all seen the viral videos of respected experts, working from home, who are being interviewed for a news programme, only to be interrupted by a small child who then proceeds to embarrass them, whilst making the rest of us laugh. Since the increase in working from home brought on by Covid-19, it has become quite common to see similar dramas acted out on our own computer screens as colleagues struggle with children – and sometimes adults – turning up unexpectedly in front of the camera. We tend to laugh these occurrences off – quite rightly – and to be aware that they are often much more embarrassing for the affected party than for the rest of the participants. In all of the situations that I have witnessed where this has happened, the other members of the video conference have been shown understanding both of the fact that the incident occurred at all, but also of the frustration and embarrassment of the affected party.

This is all as it should be, but I think that we have a larger lesson to learn here. The emotions evidenced by this sort of incident are obvious and, what is more, it is usually entirely clear what has caused them: we have, after all, just seen the drama unfold in front of us. What I think I am also seeing, partly due to the broadly shared experiences of lock-down, is a better understanding that there are frustrations and emotions that occur due to events which occur off-camera, and that people need to be given space to manage those as much as any other, more obvious issue. Taking time at the beginning of a call to ask a colleague – or even someone from a different organisation – how things are going, how they’re coping, and what’s on their mind – has become much more commonplace than it was when most of us spent most of our time in offices. An acknowledgement of the impact of these trials and tribulations that everybody is facing has become much more acceptable in a work context, because the separation between the work context and the home context is become, for many, so blurred that that are almost indistinguishable.

What is astonishing about this is that we all know, and have always known, if we are honest with ourselves, that these trials and tribulations have always been there. What we seem to have believed is that because there are two separate spaces for most people who are not remote workers – the work environment and the home environment – then everybody should somehow magically be able to compartmentalise their feelings and emotions into corresponding separate boxes.

This was always a fiction, and, more, a self-evident one, which only ever worked in one direction. All families and partners know that there are occasions when a frustrating day at work will leave someone annoyed and upset on their return home. Equally, we expect to celebrate work successes when we arrive back with our families. But while telling work colleagues about the birth of niece, or the arrival of a new puppy, has been seen as just about acceptable, “burdening” them with news about a sick child or the impact of a major flood in the bathroom, both of which may be a major stressor in our lives, has often been seen as “unprofessional”.

Yesterday, my wife and I had to take our dog for emergency surgery[1]. Not only did this have an impact on my ability to attend a meeting, but I was also aware that my ability to function fully at work was impaired. I’m very fortunate to work at a company (Red Hat) where the culture is strongly supportive in dealing with such emergencies, and so it was: colleagues were ready to go out of their way to help, and this morning, one in particular was very forgiving of a rather confused technical question that I asked yesterday evening. I’m pretty sure that the same would have been the case outside the Covid-19 lockdown, but I was cheered (and helped) by their reactions. My emotions and ability to function in this case were due to an obvious and acute event, rather than a set of less visible or underlying conditions or events. Instances of the latter, however, are no less real, nor any less debilitating than instances of the former, but we are generally expected to hide them, at least in work context.

My plea – which is not new, and not original – is that as we fashion a “new normal” for our working lives, we create an environment where expressing and being honest about all parts of our lives – home, work and beyond – is welcomed and encouraged. I am not asking that we should expect colleagues to act as unpaid councillors, or that explosions of anger in meetings should suddenly become acceptable, but, instead, that we get better at not pretending that we are emotionless automata at work, able (and required) to compartmentalise our home lives from our work lives.

There are benefits to such an approach, not the least of which are the positive mental health effects of not “bottling up” our emotions[2]. But an opportunity to see our colleagues as more “human” can lead to better, more honest and empathetic relationships, as well as an increased resilience for businesses and organisations which are able to flex and bend to accommodate tensions and issues in people’s lives as the norm becomes to “chip in” and support colleagues who are struggling, as well as celebrating with them when they are joyful.

There are tensions here, limits of behaviour, and support structures which need to be put in place, but a honest and more rounded person, I believe, is a better and more understanding colleague, and leads to better, more diverse and higher-functioning workplaces.


1 – to fix a slipped disk. Initial signs are that the operation went well.

2 – I want to acknowledge and note that mental health issues are complex and need special management and treatment: something I have neither the expertise nor space to address in this article. I am, however, strongly in favour of more openness and less stigmatising of mental health issues, by which the vast majority of us will be affected – first or second hand – at some point in our lives. I know that I have.

7 tips for managers of new home workers

You will make mistakes. You are subject to the same stresses and strains.

Many organisations and companies are coming to terms with the changes forced on them by Covid-19 (“the coronavirus”), and working out what it means to them, their employees and their work patterns. For many people who were previously in offices, it means working from home.  I wrote an article a few weeks ago called 9 tips for new home workers, and then realised that it wouldn’t just be new home workers who might be struggling, but also their managers.  If you’re reading this, then you’re probably a manager, working with people who don’t normally work from home – which may include you – so here are some tips for you, too.

1 – Communicate

Does that meeting need to be at 9am?  Do you need to have the meeting today – could it be tomorrow?  As managers, we’re used to being (or at pretending to be) the most important person in our team’s lives during the working day.  For many, that will have changed, and we become a distant second, third or fourth. Family and friends may need help and support, kids may need setting up with schoolwork, or a million other issues may come up which mean that expecting attention at the times that we expect it is just not plausible.  Investigate the best medium (or media) for communicating with each separate member of your team, whether that’s synchronous or asynchronous IM, email, phone, or a daily open video conference call, where anybody can turn up and just be present.  Be aware of your team’s needs – which you just can’t do without communicating with them – and also be aware that those needs may change over the coming weeks.

2 – Flex deadlines

Whether we like it or not, there are things more important than work deadlines at the moment, and although you may find that some people produce work as normal, others will be managing at best only “bursty” periods of work, at abnormal times (for some, the weekend may work best, for others the evenings after the kids have gone to bed).  Be flexible about deadlines, and ask your team what they think they can manage.  This may go up and down over time, and may even increase as people get used to new styles of working.  But adhering to hard deadlines isn’t going to help anybody in the long run – and we need to be ready for the long run.

3 – Gossip

This may seem like an odd one, but gossip is good for human relationships.  When you start a call, set aside some time to chat about what’s going on where the other participants are, in their homes and beyond.  This will help your team feel that you care, but also allow you to become aware of some issues before they arise. A word of caution, however: there may be times when it becomes clear in your discussions that a team-member is struggling.  In this case, you have two options. If the issue seems to be urgent, you may well choose to abandon the call (be sensitive about how you do this if it’s a multi-person call) and to spend time working with the person who is struggling, or signposting them directly to some other help.  If the issue doesn’t seem to be urgent, but threatens to take over the call, then ask the person whether they would be happy to follow up later. In the latter case, you must absolutely do that: once you have recognised an issue, you have a responsibility to help, whether that help comes directly from you or with support from somebody else.  

4 -Accommodate

Frankly, this builds on our other points: you need to be able to accommodate your team’s needs, and to recognise that they may change over time, but will also almost certainly be different from yours.  Whether it’s the setting for meetings, pets and children[1], poor bandwidth, strange work patterns, sudden unavailability or other changes, accommodating your team’s needs will make them more likely to commit to the work they are expected to do, not to mention make them feel valued, and consider you as more of a support than a hindrance to their (often drastically altered) new working lives.

5 – Forgive

Sometimes, your team may do things which feel that they’ve crossed the line – the line in “normal” times.  They may fail to deliver to a previously agreed deadline, turn up for an important meeting appearing dishevelled, or speak out of turn, maybe.  This probably isn’t their normal behaviour (if it is, then you have different challenges), and it’s almost certainly caused by their abnormal circumstances.  You may find that you are more stressed, and more likely to react negatively to failings (or perceived failings). Take a step back. Breathe. Finish the call early, if you have to, but try to understand why the behaviour that upset you did upset you, and then forgive it.  That doesn’t mean that there won’t need to be some quiet discussion later on to address it, but if you go into interactions with the expectation of openness, kindness and forgiveness, then that is likely to be reciprocated: and we all need that. 

6 – Forgive yourself

You will make mistakes.  You are subject to the same stresses and strains as your team, with the added burden of supporting them.  You need to find space for yourself, and to forgive yourself when you do make a mistake. That doesn’t mean abrogating responsibility for things you have done wrong, and neither is it an excuse not to apologise for inappropriate behaviour, but constantly berating yourself will add to your stresses and strains, and is likely to exacerbate the problem, rather than relieve it.  You have a responsibility to look after yourself so that you can look after your team: not beating yourself up about every little thing needs to be part of that.

7 – Prepare

Nobody knows how long we’ll be doing this, but what are you going to do when things start going back to normal?  One thing that will come up is the ability of at least some of your team to continue working from home or remotely.  If they have managed to do so given all the complications and stresses of lockdown, kids and family members under their feet, they will start asking “well, how about doing this the rest of the time?” – and you should be asking exactly the same question.  Some people will want to return to the office, and some will need to – at least for some of the time. But increased flexibility will become a hallmark of the organisations that don’t just survive this crisis, but actually thrive after it. You, as a leader, need to consider what comes next, and how your team can benefit from the lessons that you – collectively – have learned. 

1 – or partners/spouses: I caused something of a stir on a video conference that my wife was on today when I came into her office to light her wood-burning stove!

Avoid: a) contact; b) phishing.

It is impossible to ascertain at first look whether a phishing email is genuine or not.

I was thinking about not posting this week, as many, many of us have rather a lot on our minds at the moment. Like the rest of the UK, our household is in lock-down, and I’m trying to juggle work with the (actually very limited) demands of my two children, alongside my wife. So far, our broadband is holding out, and I’ve worked from home long enough that I’ve managed to get the rest of the family’s remote access issues sorted so far.

But I decided that I wanted to post, because I wanted to issue a warning, in case you’ve missed it elsewhere: watch out for phishing emails.

I try to keep these articles relevant to people who aren’t IT professionals: “technically credible, but something you could show to your parents or your manager”. Given how many parents (not to mention grandparents and, scarily, managers) seem to be going online for pretty much the first time, here’s my first definition of phishing emails[1].

“A phishing email is one which pretends to be from a person or company you trust, trying to get personal details such as logins or bank information, or to install malicious software on your device.”

Here’s my second definition, particularly relevant now.

“A phishing email is one sent by low-lives who are attempting to scam vulnerable, scared people for their own personal gain.”

Many phishing emails look exactly the same as a normal email from the relevant party. To be clear, it is impossible for anyone, even an expert, to ascertain at first look whether a polished and sophisticated phishing email is genuine or not. There are ways to tell, if you’re an expert, by looking in more detail at the actual details of the email, but most people will not be able to tell. I have nearly been caught over the past week, as have one of my kids and my wife. Two that have come round recently were particularly impressive: one from Netflix, and one for the TV licensing authority in the UK. Luckily, I’ve trained my family well, and they knew what to do, which is this:

NEVER CLICK ON ANY LINKS IN AN EMAIL.

There. That’s all you need to do. If you get an email which is asking you to click on a link, a graphic or a picture, don’t do it. Instead, go to the website of the actual company or organisation, or contact the individual who allegedly sent it to you. You should easily be able to work out whether your credit card has been declined, your email account has been suspended, you need to pay extra tax within the next 24 hours (hint: you don’t), your friend is stuck in Tenerife or you have used up all of your phone data. If in doubt, stay calm, don’t panic, and contact a more expert friend[2], and get them to help.

To be clear, it’s easy to get it wrong. I work in IT security, and I’ve been caught in the past: see my article I got phished this week: what did I do? This will also tell you (or your designated expert) what to do in the event that you do click on the link.

And, of course, keep safe.


1 – the word “phishing” is derived from “fishing”, as the emails are “fishing” for your details. The “ph” is a standard geek affectation.

2 – often, but not always, son or daughter, grandson or granddaughter[3].

3 – or one of the people whose manager you are, of course.

9 tips for new home workers

Many workers are finding that they are working from home for the first time.

I wrote an article a few months ago which turned out to be my most popular ever, called My 7 rules for remote work sanity (it’s also available in Japanese). It was designed for people who are planning to work remotely – typically from home, but not necessarily – as a matter of course. With the spread of coronavirus (Covid-19), many workers are finding that they are working from home for the first time, as companies – and in some cases, governments – close offices and require different practices from workers. Alternatively, it may be that you suddenly find that schools are closed or a relative becomes ill, and you need to stay at home to be with them or care for them. If you are one of those people – or work with any of them – then this post is aimed at you. In it, you’ll find some basic tips for how to work from home if it’s not something you’re used to doing.

1 Gather

In order to work from home, you may need to gather some infrastructure pieces to take home with you. For many of us, that’s going to be a laptop, but if there are other pieces of hardware, then make sure you’re ready to bring them home. If you don’t have a laptop normally, then find out what the rules are for using your own devices, and whether they have been changed to account for the period when you’ll be working from home. Download and install what you need to do – remember that there are open source alternatives to many of the apps that you may typically be using in the office, and which may provide you with a sufficient (or better!) user experience if you don’t have access to all of your standard software.

2 Prepare

What else do you need to do to make sure everything will work, and you will have as little stress as possible? Making sure that you can connect to work email and VPN may be important, but what about phones? If you have a work-issued phone, and it’s the standard way for colleagues or customers to contact you, then you may be OK, as long as you have sufficient coverage, but you may want to look at VoIP (Voice over IP) alternatives with your employer. If you have to use your own phone – mobile or landline – then work out how you will expense this and with whom you will share this information.

3 Agree

If you have been told that you may (or must) work from home by your employer, then it is likely that they will be providing guidance as to what your availability should be, how to contact colleagues, etc.: make sure that any guidelines are plausible for you, and ask for clarity wherever possible. If you are having to work from home because of family commitments, then it’s even more important to work out the details with your employer. Rules to support this sort of situation vary from country to country, and your employer will hopefully be aware that their best chance of maintaining good output and commitment from you is to work with you, but if you don’t come to an agreement up front, you may be in for a shock, so preparatory work is a must.

4 Educate

Just because your employer has agreed that you should work from home, and has agreed what your work-time should look like, it doesn’t mean that your boss and colleagues will necessarily understand how this change in your working life will impact on how they relate to you, contact you or otherwise interact with you. Let them know that you are still around, but that there may be differences in how best to reach you, when you are available, and what tasks you are able to perform. This is a courtesy for them, and protection for you!

5 Video-conference

If you can, use video-conferences for meetings with colleagues, customers, partners and the rest. Yes, it means that you need to change out of your pyjamas, brush your hair, get at least partly dressed (see some of the tips from my semi-jokey seasonal post The Twelve Days of Work-life Balance) and be generally presentable, but the impact of being able to see your colleagues, and their being able to see you, should not be underestimated. It can help them and you to feel that you are still connected, and make a significant positive impact on teamwork.

6 Protect

During the time that you are working from home, you need, if at all possible, to protect the workspace you will be using, and the time when you will be working, from encroachments by other tasks and other people. This can be very difficult when you are living in a small space with other people, and may be close to impossible when you are having to look after small children, but even if it is just room for your laptop and phone, or an agreement that the children will only come to you between television programmes, any steps that you can take to protect your time and space are worth enforcing. If you need to make exceptions, be clear to yourself and others that these are exceptions, and try to manage them as that, rather than allowing a slow spiral to un-managed chaos[1].

7 Slow down

One of the classic problems with working from home for the first time is that everything becomes a blur, and you find yourself working crazily hard to try to prove to yourself and others that you aren’t slacking. Remember that in the office, you probably stop for tea or coffee, wander over to see colleagues for a chat – not just work-related – and sit down for a quiet lunch. Take time to do something similar when you’re working from home, and if you’re having video-conferences with colleagues, try to set some of the time on the call aside for non-work related conversations: if you are used to these sorts of conversations normally, and are missing them due to working at home, you need to consider whether there may be an impact on your emotional or mental health.

8 Exercise

Get up from where you are working, and go outside if you can. Walk around the room, get a drink of water – whatever it is you do, don’t stay sat down in front of a computer all day. It’s not just the exercise that you need – though it will be beneficial – but a slight change of scene to guard against the feeling that you are chained to your work, even when at home.

9 Stop

Another common pitfall for people who work from home is that they never stop. Once you allow your work into your home, the compartmentalisation of the two environments that most of us manage (most of the time, hopefully) can fall away, and it’s very easy just to “pop back to the computer for a couple of emails” after supper, only to find yourself working away at a complex spreadsheet some two and a half hours later. Compartmentalising is a key skill when working from home, and one to put into your daily routine as much as possible.

Finally…

It’s likely that you won’t manage to keep to all of the above, at least not all of the time. That’s fine: don’t beat yourself up about it, and try to start each day afresh, with plans to abide by as many of the behaviours above as you can manage. When things don’t work, accept that, plan to improve or mitigate them next time, and move on. Remember: it is in your employer’s best interests that you work as sensibly and sustainably as possible, so looking after yourself and setting up routines and repeatable practices that keep you well and productive is good for everybody.


1 – I know this sounds impossible with small kids – believe me, I’ve been there on occasion. Do your best, and, again ensure that your colleagues (and manager!) understand any constraints you have.

My 7 rules for remote-work sanity

If I need to get out of my office, I’ll take the dog for a walk

リモートワークをするときの7つのマイルール

I work remotely, and have done, on and off, for a good percentage of the past 10-15 years.  I’m lucky that I’m in a role where this suits my responsibilities, and in a company – Red Hat – that is set up for it.  Not all roles – those with many customer onsite meetings, or those with a major service component – are suited to remote working, of course, but it’s clear that an increasing number of organisations are considering having at least some of their workers doing so remotely.

I’ve carefully avoided using the phrase either “working from home” or “working at home” above.  I’ve seen discussion that the latter gives a better “vibe” for some reason, but it’s not accurate for many remote workers.  In fact, it doesn’t describe my role perfectly, either.  My role is remote, in that I have no company-provided “base” – with chair, desk, meeting rooms, phone, Internet access, etc. – but I don’t spend all of my time at home.  I spend maybe one and a half weeks a month, on average, travelling – to attend or speak at conferences, to have face-to-face (“F2F”) meetings, etc..  During these times, I’m generally expected to be contactable and to keep at least vaguely up-to-date on email – though the exact nature of the activities in which I’m engaged, and the urgency of the contacts and email, may increase or reduce my engagement.

Open source

One of the reasons that I can work remotely is that I work for a company that works with open source software.  I’m currently involved in a very exciting project called Enarx (which I first announced on this blog).  We have contributors in Europe and the US – and interest from further abroad.  Our stand-ups are all virtual, and we default to turning on video.  At least two of our regulars will participate from a treadmill, I will typically actually stand at my desk.  We use github for all of our code (it’s all open source, of course), and there’s basically no reason for us to meet in person very often.  We try to celebrate together – agreeing to get cake, wherever we are, to mark special occasions, for instance – and have laptop stickers to brand ourselves and help team unity. We have a shared chat, and IRC channel and spend a lot of time communicating via different channels.  We’re still quite a small team, but it works for now.  If you’re looking for more tips about how to manage, coordinate and work in remote teams, particularly around open source projects, you’ll find lots of information at the brilliant Opensource.com.

The environment

When I’m not travelling around the place, I’m based at home.  There, I have a commute – depending on weather conditions – of around 30-45 seconds, which is generally pretty bearable.  My office is separate from the rest of the house (set in the garden), and outfitted with an office chair, desk, laptop dock, monitor, webcam, phone, keyboard and printer: these are the obvious work-related items in the room.

Equally important, however, are the other accoutrements that make for a good working environment.  These will vary from person to person, but I also have:

  • a Sonos, attached to an amplifier and good speakers
  • a sofa, often occupied by my dog, and sometimes one of the cats
  • a bookshelf, where the books which aren’t littering the floor reside
  • tea-making facilities (I’m British – this is important)
  • a fridge, filled with milk (for the tea), beer and wine (don’t worry: I don’t drink these during work hours, and it’s more that the fridge is good for “overflow” from our main kitchen one)
  • wide-opening windows and blinds for the summer (we have no air-conditioning: I’m British, remember?)
  • underfloor heating and a wood-burning stove for the winter (the former to keep the room above freezing until I get the latter warmed up)
  • a “NUC” computer and monitor for activities that aren’t specifically work-related
  • a few spiders.

What you have will depend on your work style, but these “non-work-related” items are important (bar the spiders, possibly) to my comfort and work practice.  For instance, I often like to listen to music to help me concentrate; I often sit on the sofa with the dog/cats to read long documents; and without the fridge and tea-making facilities, I might as well be American[1].

My rules

How does it work, then?  Well, first of all, most of us like human contact from time to time.  Some remote workers will rent space in a shared work environment, and work there most of the time: they prefer an office environment, or don’t have a dedicated space for working a home.  Others will mainly work in coffee shops, or on their boat[2], or may spend half of the year in the office, and the other half working from a second home.  Whatever you do, finding something that works for you is important.  Here’s what I tend to do, and why:

  1. I try to have fairly rigid work hours – officially (and as advertised on our intranet for the information of colleagues), I work 10am-6pm UK time.  This gives me a good overlap with the US (where many of my colleagues are based), and time in the morning to go for a run or a cycle and/or to walk the dog (see below).  I don’t always manage these times, but when I flex in one direction, I attempt to pull some time back the other way, as otherwise I know that I’ll just work ridiculous hours.
  2. I ensure that I get up and have a cup of tea – in an office environment, I would typically be interrupted from time to time by conversations, invitations to get tea, phyiscal meetings in meeting rooms, lunch trips, etc..  This doesn’t happen at home, so it’s important to keep moving, or you’ll be stuck at your desk for 3-4 hours at a time, frequently.  This isn’t good for your health, and often, for your productivity (and I enjoy drinking tea).
  3. I have an app which tells me when I’ve been inactive – this is new for me, but I like it.  If I’ve basically not moved for an hour, my watch (could be phone or laptop) tells me to do some exercise.  It even suggests something, but I’ll often ignore that, and get up for some tea, for instance[3].
  4. I use my standing desk’s up/down capability – I try to vary my position through the day from standing to sitting and back again.  It’s good for posture, and keeps me more alert.
  5. I walk the dog – if I just need to get out of my office and do some deep thinking (or just escape a particularly painful email thread!), I’ll take the dog for a walk.  Even if I’m not thinking about work for all of the time, I know that it’ll make me more productive, and if it’s a longish walk, I’ll make sure that I compensate with extra time spent working (which is always easy).
  6. I have family rules – the family knows that when I’m in my office, I’m at work.  They can message me on my phone (which I may ignore), or may come to the window to see if I’m available, but if I’m not, I’m not.  Emergencies (lack of milk for tea, for example) can be negotiated on a case-by-case basis.
  7. I go for tea (and usually cake) at a cafe – sometimes, I need to get into a different environment, and have a chat with actual people.  For me, popping into the car for 10 minutes and going to a cafe is the way to do this.  I’ve found one which makes good cakes (and tea).

These rules don’t describe my complete practice, but they are an important summary of what I try to do, and what keeps me (relatively) sane.  Your rules will be different, but I think it’s really important to have rules, and to make it clear to yourself, your colleagues, your friends and your family, what they are.  Remote working is not always easy, and requires discipline – but that discipline is, more often than not, in giving yourself some slack, rather than making yourself sit down for eight hours a day.


1 – I realise that many people, including many of my readers, are American.  That’s fine: you be you.  I actively like tea, however (and know how to make it properly, which seems to be an issue when I visit).

2 – I know a couple of these: lucky, lucky people!

3 – can you spot a pattern?

Merry “sorting out relatives’ IT problems” Day

Today’s the day – or the season – when your mother-in-law asks you to fix her five year old laptop, unclog the wifi (it’s usually her husband, “stealing it all”) or explain why her mouse mat is actually easily large enough – she just needs to lift the mouse up and place it back in the middle if she can’t get the cursor to go any further right.

Lucky me: I didn’t even have to wait till Christmas Day this year: my m-in-law called us at home a couple of days ago to complain that “the email thingy isn’t working on my tablet and the Chrome has gone”. After establishing that her Chrome Book (upstairs) was fine, and she just couldn’t be bothered to ascend the stairs to use it for the two days before we came to visit and I could debug her tablet problem in person, I proceeded to debug the problem over the crackly wireless DECT phone they keep attached to their land line, instead[1].

Despite the difficulty in making out approximately 25% of the words down the line, I became more and more convinced that even if her tablet was having problems, then a reboot of her router was probably due.

Me: so you know which one the router is?

Her: umm…

Me: it’s the little box where the Internet comes in.

Her: is it in the hall?

Me, to the wife, who’s smirking, since she managed to offload this call to me: could it be in the hall?

Wife: yes, it’s in the hall.

Me: yes, it’s in the hall.

Mother-in-law: OK.

Me: there should be a power button on the front or the back, or you can just pull the power lead out if that’s easiest.

Her, clearly bending over to look at it: shall I just turn it off at the wall? That might be simplest?

Me: well, OK.

Her: Right, I’m doing that n… BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP.

It turns out that her DECT phone hub is plugged into the same socket. Of course. This is my life. This is OUR life.

Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year to you all.


1 – this, folks, is how to stay married for 23 and a half years[2].

2 – and counting.

The Twelve Days of Work-Life Balance

12 tips for working at home over the holidays

Disclaimer: the author refuses to take any blame for any resulting disciplinary or legal action taken against readers who follow any of the suggestions in this article.

There’s a good chance that things slow down for the holiday season at your organisation or company[1], and as they do, there’s a corresponding[2] chance that you may end up not going into the office for some of the upcoming days.  Some workplaces expect you to turn up to work in the office unless you’re officially on holiday, while others allow or encourage workers to be based at home and perform their duties there for all or some of the period.  It’s those people who will be spending time at home who are targeted by this article.

Working from home is an opportunity to bunk off and is a complete wheeze a privilege and responsibility to be taken seriously.  There are, however, some important techniques that you should take on board to ensure not only that you continue to be productive but, even more important, that you continue to be seen to be productive.  I’ve split my tips up into helpful headings for your ease of use.

Video calls

Tip 1 (for those who shave): you don’t need to.  Yes, the resolution on webcams has increased significantly, but who’s going to care if it looks like you’ve just rolled out of bed?  The fact that you’ve even bothered shows your commitment to the meeting you’re attending.

Tip 2 (for those who wear make-up): far be it from me to dictate whether you wear make-up or not to meetings.  But if you choose to, there’s no need to refresh last night’s make-up in the morning.  If you’ve staggered home late, you may not have got round to removing your party lipstick and mascara, and it may even have smudged or run a bit: don’t worry.  It’ll look “festive” in the morning, and will encourage a relaxed atmosphere at the meeting.

Tip 3 (for coffee drinkers): you may need an extra cup of coffee in the afternoon, to get you through the day.  Who’s going to know if you add a shot to it?  It’ll keep you warm, and possibly upright.  My wife swears by Baileys.  Or Irish Whiskey.  Or gin.  Pretty much anything, in fact.

Tip 4 (for non-coffee drinkers): cocktails are a no-no for video conferences, unless approved by management (sorry).  However, there are a number of other options to explore.  A Long Island Iced Tea looks like, well, an iced tea.  Whisky (or whiskey) can look like normal tea, and my personal favourite, cherry brandy, looks like a child’s fruit cordial that you didn’t dilute sufficiently.  And tastes fairly similar.

Tip 5 (for clothes wearers): few organisations (of which I’m aware, anyway) have adopted a non-clothing policy for video-calls.  Clothes are required.  My favourite option is to wear a festive jumper, but this is only fun if it has woven-in flashing lights which can distract your fellow participants[3].  Coordinating the periodicity of the flashing with colleagues gets you bonus points.

Tip 6 (also for clothes wearers): wear something on your bottom half.  I know you think you may not be getting up during the call, but when a small child vomits in the background, the postal worker arrives at the door, or you just need another cup of coffee or “beverage” (see tips 3 & 4) to get you through the next two hours, you’ll be grateful for this advice.

Teleconferences (non-video)

Tip 7: use a chat channel to have a side conversation with your peers. You can have hilarious discussions about the intellectual capacity and likely parentage of your management, or even better, play a game of meeting bingo.

Tip 8: the mute button is for cowards.  Yes, wind can be a problem after an over-indulgence at the pub, club or party the night before, and microphones can be quite sensitive these days, but who’s to know it’s you[4]?

Emails

Tip 9: the best time to respond to an email is when you receive it, right?  This will show everybody how devoted you are to your job.  So if it arrives after you’ve already partaken of a brew or two down the pub, or sampled the herbal opportunities recently decriminalised in your state in your bedroom, then replying immediately will almost certainly be considered responsible and professional.  And auto-correct will almost certainly act in your favour: after all, your boss really is a complete duck, yes?

Tip 10: pepper your emails with poor festive puns[5].  It’s just what you do.

Family

Tip 11: you may have agreed to “work” over this period as an excuse to avoid spending too much time with the family[6], but there’s always the chance that they will barge into your office, throw up in the hall (see tip 6), or just fall asleep on your keyboard[7].  Invest in a lock on your office door, or work somewhere out of range[8].  Your work is important, and you must guard against unwanted interruptions, such as being awoken from an important doze.

Productivity

Tip 12: it’s your responsibility, when working from home, to ensure that you maintain your productivity.  But breaks are important.  There’s a tricky balance here between protecting your time from the family (you don’t want them to notice that you’re not online 100% of the time) and taking sensible amounts of breaks.  Assuming that you’ve taken my advice about locking your office door, then placing an XBox or similar gaming console on your desk next to your work computer is a great way of allowing yourself some downtime without risking the wrath of your family (assuming careful monitor placement and controller handling).

Tip 12a (extra tip!): if you’re not careful, too much time hidden away from the family will get you in trouble.  My piece of advice here is to offer to help.  But on your own terms.  Rushing out of your office[9], looking harried and then announcing “I’ve got ten minutes until my next call, and I’m feeling guilty: is there anything I can do?” can gain you useful credit without the risk of your having to do anything too taxing.

Summary[10]

You can maintain a productive and professional workplace at home if called to do so by your organisation.  It is your responsibility to balance the needs of work with your needs and, of course, the needs of your family.

Have a Merry Christmas (or other festival) and a Happy New Year (whenever it falls for you)!


1 – this is generally a Judaeo-Christian set of holidays, but I hope that this article is relevant to most holidays: religious, national, regional or secular.

2 – and possibly correlateable, though check out one of my favourite XKCD comics: https://xkcd.com/552/.

3 – owners of luxuriant beards or heads of hair may prefer to weave flashing fairy lights into their hair for a similar effect.

4 – except for the small matter of the little indicator against each participant’s name which shows who’s “talking”.

5 – “Your presents is requested.”  “But wait—there’s myrrh.” You get the idea.

6 – “Sorry, darling, I know your parents are here, but a really critical bug came in, and I’m the only one who can look at it in time…”

7 – mainly a problem for owners of cats or teenagers.

8 – try searching for “Where’s a pub near me that’s open now?”.

9 – don’t forget to lock it again, in case a child notices and purloins that gaming console.

10 – in the Southern Hemisphere, at least.  Sorry: see [5].

 

The 3 things you need to know about disk encryption

Use software encryption, preferably an open-source and audited solution.

It turns out that somebody – well, lots of people, in fact – failed to implement a cryptographic standard very well.  This isn’t a surprise, I’m afraid, but it’s bad news.  I’ve written before about how important it is to be using disk encryption, but it turns out that the advice I gave wasn’t sufficient, or detailed enough.

Here’s a bit of background.  There are two ways to do disk encryption:

  1. let the disk hardware (and firmware) manage it: HDD (hard disk drive), SSD (solid state drive) and hybrid (a mix of HDD and SDD technologies) manufacturers create drives which have encryption built in.
  2. allow your Operating System (e.g. Linux[0], OSX[1], Windows[2]) to do the job: the O/S will have a little bit of itself on the disk unencrypted, which will allow it to decrypt the rest of the disk (which is encrypted) when provided with a password or key.

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that option 1 would be the safest?  It should be quick, as it’s done in hardware, and well, the companies who manufacture these disks will know that they’re doing, right?

No.

A paper (link opens a PDF file) written by some researchers in the Netherlands reveals some work that they did on several SSD drives to try to work out how good a job had been done on the encryption security.  They are all supposed to have implemented a fairly complex standard from the TCG[4] called Opal, but it seems that none of them did it right.  It turns out that someone with physical access to your hardware can, fairly trivially, decrypt what’s on your drive.  And they can do this without the password that you use to lock it or any associated key(s).  The simple lesson from this is that you shouldn’t trust hardware disk encryption.

So, software disk encryption is OK, then?

Also no.

Well, actually yes, as long as you’re not using Microsoft’s BitLocker in its default mode.  It turns out that BitLocker will just use hardware encryption if the drive its using supports it.  In other words, using BitLocker just uses hardware encryption unless you tell it not to do so.

What about other options?  Well, you can tell BitLocker not to use hardware encryption, but only for a new installation: it won’t change on an existing disk.  The best option[5] is to use a software encryption solution which is open source and audited by the wider community.  LUKS is the default for most Linux distributions.  One suggested by the papers’ authors for Windows is Veracrypt.  Can we be certain that there are no holes or mistakes in the implementation of these solutions?  No, we can’t, but the chances of security issues being found and fixed are much, much higher than for proprietary software[6].

What, then are my recommendations?

  1. Don’t use hardware disk encryption.  It’s been shown to be flawed in many implementations.
  2. Don’t use proprietary software.  For anything, honestly, particularly anything security-related, but specifically not for disk encryption.
  3. If you have to use Windows, and are using BitLocker, run with VeraCrypt on top.

 


1 – GNU Linux.

2 – I’m not even sure if this is the OS that Macs run anymore, to be honest.

3 – not my thing either, but I’m pretty sure this is what it’s call.  Couldn’t be certain of the version, though.

4 – Trusted Computing Group.

5 – as noted by the paper’s authors, and heartily endorsed by me.

6 – I’m not aware of any problems with Macintosh-based implementations, but open source is just better – read the article linked from earlier in the sentence.

Change, refuse, report

I’m busy over the next couple of days, and wasn’t going to post, but the issue is important, so I’m taking a few minutes to post.

There are some nasty extortion/blackmail emails out there at the moment.  People are being emailed, with a the subject line including a real password, and told to send fairly large amounts of bitcoin in order to stop incriminating or embarrassing material being spread to friends, family and the public.  Here’s what you should do.

Change

Change your passwords.  Particularly if the one that was quoted in the title or email body is current. Use a password manager, follow the advice here: The gift that keeps on giving: passwords.

Refuse

Refuse to pay.  Don’t even contact the sender.  Even if you’re worried that the material may exist or the threat is real.

Report

Report it to your local law enforcement agency: particularly if you’re concerned that this may be a real threat to you.  There are steps that law enforcement can take, and they can help you.

 

That’s it: be safe, and let’s shut down these criminals by not playing their game.