Software Freedom Conservancy

Some Work-At-Home Tips for FOSS Contributors

by Bradley M. Kuhn on June 23, 2020

The global COVID-19 pandemic has changed everyone's lives, and taken the lives of so many of our family members and friends. For those of us that have been spared, our lives must continue, and this is particularly true for those who work in Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), since so many of us already worked from home. Doing so when our world faces so many simultaneous crises is undoubtedly difficult. I share below a few ideas that I've had that might be able to help my fellow FOSS contributors.

We have a weekly meetup of FOSS contributors where I live, which once upon a time met at a restaurant for late breakfast, but now meets weekly on a Jitsi instance installed by one of the members. During a recent session, one contributor complained about a real problem she faced, as she put it: All my non-FOSS friends keep asking me ‘Teach me how you work from home; I'm doing it for the first time and failing’. The answer she gave them was that what is happening now is not the “working from home” that she had trained herself for all this time.

Specifically, she meant that most of us who already work from home have built quite easy routines of having the home to ourselves. Roommates, children, life partners, and family who live in the house often have at least some of their day when they're away. Now, everyone is staying at home, so the personal procedures and systems that those of us who stay while the others go have simply evaporated.

My colleague's observation was quite salient. I've seen plenty of articles talking about how to work from home, but few have tips for how to handle the unique situation where everyone in the house and must all work from home together. I have a few ideas that I thought might help in this regard. Admittedly, some of these tips are likely FOSS-specific, but if you've found this article and don't work in FOSS, there might still be a hint or two that helps. Here's a list of changes that I've made that have really worked for me:

  • Hour-shift if you can. If you're able to, attempt to try new times of day. For me, I've been attempting to wake up earlier than everyone else in the house and get a few hours of work before others in the home start their day. Our Executive Director, Karen Sandler, has been working late in the evening after her children are in bed. Of course, shifting to inconvenient times is difficult and annoying, but we've found it can help to fit in a few hours of focused work during these difficult times.

  • Reorganize rote tasks for right time of day. When lots of people are around the house, some times of the day are inherently going to be louder and more chaotic than others. Keeping that in mind, I often try to plan out a day so that tasks that require serious concentration are scheduled for the most quiet moments and rote tasks are saved for those moments when it feels like nothing else can be done. For example, if I have to write complex correspondence with FOSS project leaders, I try to do that early in the morning, and save the Git repository reorganization project — which is mostly waiting for long rebases to finish and cherry-picking changes from other branches — for those times when my quarantined neighbor is power-washing his driveway.

  • Mix housework with conference calls. My colleagues at Conservancy already know this, but for those of you who have been on the phone with me now may be in for a shock: if you've had a conference call with me recently, I was probably loading or unloading my dishwasher, cleaning the kitchen, or doing laundry while I spoke with you. The amount of housework for all of us has gone up now that we're all going nowhere else, and it's tough for all of us to fit it in. Most of our work in FOSS is at a keyboard, but for those moments when I don't need the keyboard and screen in front of me, I look for tasks that need attention that I can easily do while wearing a headset. Of course, I recommend the double-mute button solution to really ensure that your colleagues don't hear the kitchen sink spigot on the line!

  • Not everything needs a video chat. Video chat is now mainstream and everyone seems to want to use it. Of course, I (and all of us at Conservancy) encourage use of FOSS solutions, such as Jitsi and Big Blue Button. However, not every meeting needs a video chat, and, fitting with the previous point, being tied to your desk for a long video chat at a time when you're in a crowded house can be difficult. Encourage your colleagues to use a simple phone call when it will do for a meeting. Use a mobile or cordless phone so you can take a walk while talking, even if it's just wandering around the house. Furthermore, being cognizant to the increased noise levels in all our homes — be it from children playing, or that power washer next door that I mentioned — consider meetings on IRC, XMPP or other forms of FOSS online chat. This also allows folks the flexibility to step away for an emergency and come back to catch up.

  • Keep working on context switching skills. I admit that I envy people who can truly multitask and keep clear attention on two complicated things at once. It's a skill that I've never been able to develop, but there's another skill that can be equally valuable: the ability to switch between two tasks quickly. Those of us that program know that speeding up context switches on a computer speeds just about everything up on the computer. It's also (at least a bit) true with a person. If you can handle a surprise issue that someone in your house is asking you about, and quickly return to work without losing too much time to re-acclimate yourself, it really helps to keep work efficient during these tough times. Like any skill, it requires practice to develop. I find the best way to practice is be very mindful about what I'm working on at any moment and why, and when a distraction comes along, I evaluate it carefully by sub-vocalizing, and then note down something about where I was with the task I'm on before switching. I find that even the briefest of notes (3-5 words) makes a huge difference when I attempt to swap the task back into my mind.

Finally, keep in mind that one good fact in the sea of bad things in our world is that all of humanity is facing COVID-19 together. Those of us who are fortunate enough to do our jobs from relative safety in our home owe it to do our best to work efficiently and keep going, while the essential workers who are caring for the sick, searching for a vaccine and shelving our grocery stores take risks on our behalf to help our society survive the pandemic. I try to have empathy for all the others facing challenges that are greater than mine during the pandemic, and do the best I can in my own work to honor their sacrifices.

Tags: conservancy, FOSS Sustainability, resources

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