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Tips From 25 Years of Working At Home

by alexis
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Given the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic that’s sweeping the globe, I thought I’d share some tips, from long experience, about working at home. I’ve seen many similar posts about this subject, and all are valid, but I have a few additional thoughts you may find valuable.

I fully realize that not every job is capable of being remotely done. However, for the sake of those very people who must risk being in public on a daily basis, we who can work at home have an obligation to do what we can to self isolate to avoid illness in order to limit our exposure, and avoid overflowing soon-to-be-taxed medical systems in order to accommodate the rest of us who can’t work at home.

This article is directed at those who can work at home but have not, and for those who are doing things that actually could be done at home, but who are dealing with clients or managers who are not yet convinced to let this happen.

First, a little personal history to show that working at home in post-production (or writing) isn’t some incredible new thing that’s only possible using the latest technology, and to illustrate what I think has made each of my experiences successful. Then, the tips.

Work-At-Home Editing and Grading, As An Artist

Back in 1995-2000, when my primary gig was editing documentaries, corporate communication videos, and video art pieces in the San Francisco Bay Area, I primarily worked at home. At that time, my biggest client would have a courier deliver me a duplicated stack of raided bare hard drives that I would slide into a raid enclosure that matched his, and that’s how we’d project share. I’d FTP him an edited project file (back then it was Premiere 3 point whatever) and since he had the same media he could reconnect it and then give me notes over the phone or via email. By sheer coincidence I lived in an old-school shared live/work space (it was actually a converted warehouse, complete with palette racks and crane in our “living room”) with two SUN microsystems developers that had a T1 line I helped pay for (it was totally cyberpunk) so I had better internet than most back then. This worked great, and I made a living editing at home back when big expensive post houses with dedicated edit suites were still the thing.

Fast forward to 2020, my biggest color grading client is in New York, and I’m in Minneapolis/Saint Paul, and I’ve graded several series for him in pretty much the same way. He’s running Resolve, and while he’s editing in Premiere Pro because of client requirements, I’ve taught him how to export his timelines from Premiere Pro to Resolve on his end to do his own conforms, and he simply uploads each episode’s .DRP project to me, while shipping me a drive with the media for all episodes. I do the grading, send him back project files, he does the render/review on his end (he also has a calibrated display), and gives me notes. I do revisions and send him new project files, and that’s that. He renders his own masters. Easy.

Granted, this client is a producer/editor type with technical savvy, but if he wasn’t then I would simply render and upload review videos via Frame.io (can’t recommend it highly enough, and no they’re not paying me to say this), get his comments, and then upload a finished render via one of numerous file sharing services I have set up to accommodate different client preferences.

In fact, this is exactly what I do with the few standalone documentary and narrative movie clients I take on these days. They send me a hard drive, and we handle all feedback and revisions via online mechanisms (for color work I prefer to have clients review videos on an iOS device so I can somewhat predict their viewing experience), with me delivering the final product in digital form online most of the time.

My point is that, if you’re suitably equipped at home (and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper now than it was back then), then clients have no credible excuse to not let you work at home unless they have really high security needs, but those are high-end clients. The rest of us working on smaller projects ought to have more flexibility, so in my view there’s really no excuse. Hell, you’re saving them gas and time spent in traffic.

Work-At-Home Editing, As A Client

I also speak from experience as a client. My current movie on the festival circuit, “Carry My Heart to the Yellow River,” was edited by Chia Chi Hsu in New Zealand, while I alternated between the USA and China. I sent her media and a prepped project file, she cut in DaVinci Resolve, and uploaded either project files or movie files to review (again, in Frame.io). I reviewed and gave notes using Frame.io’s online mechanisms, we exchanged example edits via .DRP files, and we’d have chats via Skype, and the whole process was perfectly seamless. Even better, because she could cut while I was sleeping, and I’d review while she was sleeping, we managed a round-the-clock workflow by simply being in different time zones.

When she was done, since the project was already in Resolve, I immediately jumped into cooperative polish edit/finishing edit mode, and graded from there, also in my home grading/finishing suite. The edit, finish, and grade of the entire 21-minute movie (with 8K R3D source, dual source audio, and 8K Nuke VFX from Minneapolis Splice) was accomplished in home suites, with the surround audio mix being accomplished in New Zealand at Department of Post.

Work-At-Home Broadcast Design and VFX, As An Artist

From 1998 to 2003 I did quite a bit of broadcast design and simple VFX work, also entirely from home. I tended to subcontract through different post houses in town (San Francisco at the time), so I’d show up to take a meeting with the client, go home, do all the After Effects work I needed to do, go back into the office to show the results and take notes, rinse, wash, and repeat. At that time, the companies I worked through were happy to not have to give me a suite or buy me a computer, and the important thing was that I hit my deadlines, ALWAYS, and did good work, so I got rehired.

Nobody ever cared that I was working at home, because nobody wants to sit there watching someone animating flow charts or little talking paper bag characters for the Apricot/Plum association.

Work-At-Home Technical Writing

The beginning of my technical writing career was actually well before my first big book, as I developed numerous teaching materials for an educational institution I used to freelance for (the Bay Area Video Coalition), as well as for various silicon valley consulting clients I had in the ’90’s (including SGI and Alias Wavefront). However, the book that put me on the map was the Final Cut Pro 2 User Manual, written during my time on staff at Apple Computer in 2000. I bring up that ancient bit of history because, while Apple didn’t have an official work-at-home policy at the time, I told my management that if I was to make the deadline they gave me and do what was necessary, I wouldn’t have time to commute from/to San Francisco (this was years before anyone ran company shuttles), so they allowed me to basically spend the next four months solid working from home to get the manual done.

The whole time I was in constant contact with the principles of the team, with the main product designer at the time visiting me at home to drop off previously reviewed notes and pick up new chapters for review (he lived in SF too). Between email and phone, I was able to get all the information I needed to finish the 1200 page tome that project was to become.

The point I’m trying to make is, we didn’t have Slack, Skype, Zoom, or any of that, and I still wrote one of the biggest books of my career. I’m not saying those things wouldn’t have been helpful (I use the hell out of them now), I’m saying you don’t need to worry about technology being a gating factor, and you don’t need to subscribe to a bunch a services to create a useful work-at-home situation for yourself. My ability to foster good communication remotely and to manage my schedule allowed me to succeed.

From that point forward, I’ve done all of my writing work from home, from freelance work for Apple once I quit my staff position, to authoring my own books and articles for various publishers, to my current gig freelancing on the side for the DaVinci Resolve team in Singapore. Nobody has ever complained, and in fact everyone’s probably glad I’m not around to hector the team for continual feature requests.

None of this is new, and working at home has simply been the easiest thing for everyone concerned. I’ve proven my ability to foster ongoing communication with all relevant team members, and to manage and hit deadlines as they come without creating any drama for the teams I support.

By now, you’re probably starting to see some themes at work here…

Four Tips For Working At Home

First, foster good communication. Be proactive. Don’t wait for people to contact you to find out what’s happening, develop an informal schedule with which to reach out to the people you work with, that you know won’t bug them. I ping the two people I communicate with at DaVinci the most once a week, whether there’s something pressing or not. There’s always something that comes up, and the call usually jogs the memory. That, and a bit of chit chat keeps everyone friendly and lets them know they don’t have to worry about me disappearing. Don’t ever underestimate the value of real-time human contact, in any form. You’ll need it spending stretches of time at home. To make this easier, learn how different people want to be contacted. I like talking on the phone, others like Slack, others insist on texts, and some prefer Skype, or WhatsApp, or FaceTime, or a particular social media platform. I have accounts on them all, so I can accommodate whomever, however, because I want to make communication easy, and not something to be dreaded.

Second, have a place where you work. Not everyone is able to have a separate home office with a door (although it’s fantastic if you can arrange it), but even if you just have a desk against the wall in the living room or dining room, it really helps to have a consistent place where (a) nobody touches your stuff, (b) you have other places where you live where you don’t feel like you’re at work (this is vital), and (b) if you’re sitting in your work place, everyone knows you’re trying to be productive. When Kaylynn and I lived in a small one-bedroom New York apartment, I had a small desk next to the TV in the living room where I worked, and she had a similar desk literally around the corner where she worked, next to the kitchen. It was really just all one room, but in our minds we had clear partitions, and it kept us sane. Funnily enough, if I was sitting on the couch, which was only four feet away from my desk, I managed to not feel like I was at work, which was a feat of mental gymnastics, but you do what you must. Which brings me to…

Third, arrange a specific cue with people you live with for when you’re working. When you’re home all the time and your significant other, kids, or flat-mates aren’t used to it, it’s natural for people to just come up to you and start talking, because you’re there so why not? And you are going to LOSE YOUR MIND as your train of thought is constantly derailed by people who don’t realize you’re trying to focus on something. Let people know what their cue should be for not approaching you. Sitting at your desk? An hourglass placed on a shelf? Your home office door or curtain is closed? Your headphones are on? You’re wearing your sacred purple robes? Whatever it is, make sure those around you know what your deal is. It’ll save you a lot of heartache, I guarantee it.

Fourth, work on weekdays, and take the weekends off. This one’s more flexible, I really mean take two days consistently off. Early in my career I decided that if I didn’t take the weekdays seriously, like everyone else, then I’d become unemployed, go broke, and end up homeless. So I fostered that habit. And as part of that habit, I decided that I would treat Saturdays and Sundays as consistent days off (when not in crunch mode), so as to keep the habit consistent out of the fear of financial doom. Yes, it’s perfectly reasonable to rotate your two days off to the week and work over the weekend if you like, but for me, the habit has taken so well, that it keeps me on task even when I’m working on something I hate. Oh, and TAKE TWO FUCKING DAYS OFF. Don’t waffle on this, because you’ll just make yourself sad, and there’s no reason to be sad when you’re able to work at home. Yes, crunch times will happen and I work weekends when I have to, but I counterbalance that by not killing myself when it’s not crunch time. And this goes back to my first tip, because I have good communication with the people I work with, so they know when I’m temporarily killing myself, and when I’m giving myself a bit of space because nothing is happening, and they also know that I consistently deliver the goods, so I have flexibility.

Hey, Managers

If you’re a manager reading this, keep all these things in mind. There should be no need to micromanage your people if they’ve proven themselves able to maintain schedules and deliver on time, and the insidious truth about working at home is that it’s easy to fall into the trap of always being at work, and you shouldn’t let the people you work with do this.

  • Don’t ask people to check in and check out like they’re punching a clock.
  • Don’t waste people’s time on status reports unless there’s a specific reason certain info is necessary.
  • Don’t expect anyone to respond to your message or mail after hours.
  • Don’t micromanage your employees day.

If you have the right people and you’re managing the project correctly, ongoing communication on a mutually agreed upon basis should eliminate the need for all of this, and if people are hitting their deadlines and doing quality work, that’s what’s important. Depending on the person, writing and fussing over a status report will waste time that could otherwise have been spent doing the thing they’re supposed to be doing. If you really want to know what’s happening, reach out, via text or chat. In 15 minutes you’ll know more than you want to know.

In Conclusion

I’ve worked at home over my entire career, but I’ve also worked for stints in cubes, in offices with windows, without windows, had my own office, worked in suites, and worked on the road. Ultimately, it’s all the same to me in terms of wherever I am, I’m completing a particular project on a particular schedule using whatever resources I have available to me. In that sense, I’ve structured my entire life to be one ongoing work-at-wherever-I-am situation capable of accommodating the numerous facets of my bizarre career.

However, because of this, Kaylynn and I see each other way more than most couples who are as busy as we are, and that’s been an incredibly wonderful thing (happily we enjoy one another’s company). Even when I’m in a round-the-clock marathon of getting a movie done, or hitting a deadline on a writing project, we always have lunch, and we always have dinner, and I can always check in with her when I’m taking a break (and you should take breaks). It’s pretty amazing, and even our pets are happy to have us around (Kaylynn works from home much of the time, too).

Be responsible, communicate, deliver, and prove that you don’t have to be micromanaged, and working at home can be incredibly effective.

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