Remote Work

Implementing a busy light for my office desk

I work full time in the office. Whilst more and more people are coming back to the office, there are still people choosing to work remotely so we still conduct our meetings via Google Meet – even though I am in the office I don’t use meeting rooms: I still dial in from my desk.

Since I use simple Apple earpods on calls it’s not always obvious I am on a call (or just listening to music) and I noticed people would come to discuss something with me whilst I’m on a call which is disruptive so I decided to come up with something that indicates to people I’m busy on a call (at my desk).

Iteration One

My first iteration I wanted a solution that was cheap and didn’t take long to set up – as I wanted to see whether this would reduce my interruptions whilst on calls without a huge investment of time or money.

Solution: a simple battery powered light box above my monitor which indicates I’m on a call with a manual switch on the side to turn it on.

Cost: I found one at a thrift store for 50 cents and wrote “ON AIR” on it with a marker – it took me less than 10 mins total to set up and install. Low cost.

My first “busy” light

Benefits: Low cost, stands out, does its job

Downsides: Have to remember to switch it on/off, not multi-directional, need to replace battery

Iteration Two

Whilst the light in iteration one served its purpose in that it was quick and cheap to implement – and showed it could be effective in reducing interruptions, I found having to remember to turn it on and off meant sometimes it wouldn’t be on when I was in a meeting, or off when I’d finished one.

I started to think of how I could connect this to my meeting schedule to automatically update.

I would firstly need a new light – the 50 cent lightbox had no way of controlling it remotely. Secondly, I would need a datasource to control it – either Google Calendar or Google Meet.

Smart Light

I found a smart light at Kmart for AUD$25 (~$20USD) which seemed like it would be suitable.

The key features were:

  1. USB powered so I could use the USB ports on my desk to power it (no batteries)
  2. Wifi controlled so I could send signals to it to control it
  3. Coloured so I could change the colour displayed to signal I’m busy
  4. Circular so it can be seen in any direction from my desk in the office


I was thinking of using Google Meet or Google Calendar to set the busy light. The benefits of Google Meet would be if I was on an ad-hoc call, or finished a call early, the light would reflect that. The downsides to Google Meet was I couldn’t find a way to easily access the Google Meet status.

Google Calendar is an easier approach in that IFTTT supports Google Calendar events which I can wire up to my smart light.


I set up my smart light using the TUYA app that it came with. This app allows you to control the light using Google Home, Alexa and/or Samsung SmartThings.

I investigated how to connect my Google Calendar to a smart light and came across IFTTT which currently only supports SmartThings out of the list of home automation services my smart light supports – so I added my light to SmartThings, set it to be coloured red, and then set up two “applets” in IFTTT to control my light.

One to turn it on:

And another to turn it off:

IFTTT only provides and ON/OFF switch for SmartThings – which means I set my light to be permanently red and it shows as busy when lit, and not busy it turns off.

I found a way to get it to turn Green by setting up “simulated switches” and “home automation” in SmartThings but the complexity of this outweighed the benefits of having a green light IMO.

My new “smart” busy light

Benefits: Smart, don’t need to remember to switch on/off, multi-directional, don’t need to replace batteries

Downsides: More expensive than previous light, more complicated set up

It took me about 1 hour to get it all working which is much longer than previous iteration but I’m hoping that because it automatically updates this will mean the light is more useful than previously.

How do you manage interruptions in an office environment?

Remote Work

Corner Office?

I read and enjoyed this article by Jim Grey: Too soon to declare victory on distributed work

“A group of voices in our industry has said for years that we would all be more productive and have a superior work-life balance if we all worked from home. Now that we’re all working from home and it’s basically working, they are crowing victory.”

Jim Grey

The article linked is to is a NY Times article, ironically printed on paper, of an interview with the CEO of the digital publishing company where I worked remotely for over three years.

“This column is called Corner Office, and most people who choose to have offices are usually the bosses. And I’ve been to the offices of billionaire C.E.O.s that have their own private bathroom, beautiful art and couches. But these are all things that you can have in your house. What I love about distributed organizations is every single employee can have a corner office.”

Matt Mullenweg via the NY Times # (emphasis added)

What Mullenweg doesn’t state is that this is a rich person’s view of distributed work. What isn’t mentioned is the cost of having a dedicated “corner” office in your home, a private bathroom, the cost of beautiful art and couches (and no Automattic wouldn’t reimburse art, nor couches, nor home renovations, only a monitor/desk/chair, at least during my time there).

I wrote about this aspect of remote work in my essay:

“Housing costs are very high in Australia and we’re moving to smaller and more expensive houses so it’s increasingly harder to justify having a dedicated office at home. If you were building a house to live in here in Australia adding a 15-20 square meter dedicated home office for remote work could easily add $30,000-$40,000 to your build costs.”

The future of work? An essay.

As a single-income family-of-five our rented home is much smaller, more humble and basic than the office our company leases. Even as an individual contributor at work I can sit and eat my lunch, or wander around with views like these:

Our office view – accessible to all employees

Another interesting angle on having an office space available to all staff is that it makes a safe, comfortable and productive work environment available to everyone regardless of personal circumstance.

I wrote about this in my essay also:

“If you don’t have a suitable place to work from home, and co-working expenses are too expensive, or not available or too far from home, this means that there’s a whole group of people who can’t consider remote work which reduces the diversity of the workforce.”

The future of work? An essay.

This concept was recently mentioned in an article in Australia about a tragic domestic violence case:

“Ms Foster says for many people experiencing violence their workplace has been a sanctuary — somewhere they can escape “the horrors they’re experiencing at home”.

She says women working from home have been sharing with her how they are being constantly harassed, threatened, and assaulted, only to have to then join a video conference and act professional.”

Sam’s mum was killed while working from home. He hopes his workers compensation win will help others facing family violence #


I still think it’s naive, borderline dangerous, to crow victory on working from home as a one-size-fits-all solution to the world’s problems – and pretend that every person in the world can afford to have their own “corner office” in their home, when for a lot of people, a working environment for work can be a better or only option to work safely and productively.

Remote Work

Back in the office

I’ve been back in the office for a few weeks now. Only about 10% of our company can work in the office and even then only about that percentage are keen to return (at present).

I find myself enjoying work again and regaining the ability to mentally separate work from home has been energizing me for when I am at work. Also having people around motivates and recharges me at work.

I read an interesting article written by Justin Qin, a year 8 high school student, who reflects on returning to school after many weeks of home-based learning:

“Lockdown and home schooling had been a lonely environment for me — even with two energetic brothers for company, and Instagram on repeat.

And after days at a time like this my friends and I chatted constantly when we saw each other, flushing out the loneliness of isolation and reviving the joy of face-to-face chat even though we had to maintain that all-important distance.

Being in the classroom, and the ease of talking to my teacher and other students, makes school a place where I can actually learn and be engaged.

My school day was spent stuck at a desk at home, with tiny breaks and no time to chat to friends as we transitioned between lessons. I often felt as if I had not stood up for hours at a time.

The result was that learning from home was seriously affecting my physical and mental health.

Mentally, I wrestled with finding the meaning of my life when so much of it was spent alone at a desk.

Physically, I ate significantly less food than normal.

With these struggles I cannot see a strong future for online classes replacing school.”

Justin Qin on returning to Year 8 at School #

When I look at my LinkedIn feed it’s full of articles, comments and observations that many people can’t see themselves returning to the office in the near, or far, future.

I put this down to one of two possible things:

  1. People are still in the “honeymoon” period of full time working from home; and/or
  2. People are confusing working from home with having flexible working conditions

“The first six months were a dreamlike period, where everything you’d ever hated about office life – underlings, overlords, sharing bathrooms with people who you’re thankful aren’t your family – morphed into amusing memories.”

“It’s all fun and games at first, a novelty, the home work thing, and being close to your own fridge is great, but the slow evaporation of the mental distance between your home life and your work one is an insidious one.”

Stephen Corby : You might love working from home now, but give it a year

As I’ve stated previously, I personally don’t find myself healthy, happy or productive working from where I live. I prefer to separate work and home, and to have people I’m working with around in real life.

But I’ve also said we need more flexibility in the way we work, working from home doesn’t have to be the only way we can have flexible working conditions.

I’ve also seen a somewhat disturbing trend to encourage everyone to act like they’re working remotely even if they’re in the office:

“If everyone sits at their desk on an individual video call screen, the playing field is equal. Everyone’s faces are easily distinguishable, it’s easy to know whose turn it is to talk, and it simply puts everyone’s input on equal footing.”

6 Rules To Live By When You Work In An Office But Have Remote Team Members

I’ve tried doing that and the audio feedback from having someone sitting near you talking on the call and also near you is terrible, it’s loud and distracting for other’s in an open plan office, and it feels weird to pretend we’re not in the office when we are.


I still think it’s too early to declare that ever working from an office again is not going to happen. As I have previously stated – it’s been good to show employers that employees can still be productive when given workplace flexibility – however I think there will be recognition that working 100% in physical isolation from colleagues isn’t necessarily a good thing.

“A world in which people who want to can do a bit of both, working home alone some of the week and sharing an office with other humans the rest of the time, might just be the perfect balance, for those lucky enough to swing it”

Stephen Corby : You might love working from home now, but give it a year

Remote Work

The future of work? An essay.

“The most exciting breakthroughs of the 21st century will not occur because of technology but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human”

John Naisbitt – Megatrends
New Yorker Cartoon


There is a lot of reading available about distributed and remote ways of working but a lot of this is written from the perspective of an employer (Basecamp, Automattic etc) and the benefits it can provide to those employers. Things like gaining access to a global talent pool, more productive employees, workforce diversity, lower office costs, more dedicated staff, and broader timezone coverage.

Remote was an early manifesto for distributed work from the perspective of founders, and highlighted the value the practice provides to open-minded employers”

Working Smaller, Slower, and Smarter

I haven’t been able to find much material that’s written purely from the perspective of an employee that provides a balanced view of distributed and remote ways of working. This essay aims to provide an employee’s perspective of how remote and distributed ways of working compares to traditional office based roles.

Remote Work

Three Years of Working From Home (Tips & Tricks)

Update March 2020: I no longer work remotely but I consider these tips are still relevant, particularly since COVID-19 has meant that many employees around the globe are now required to work from home. I also wrote a higher level essay on reflection of working from home from an employee’s perspective.

September 2018 marks my three year anniversary (Matticversary) at Automattic, which  means I have been solely working from home for three years now.

Working from home every day can at times feel like either, or both, the best thing in the world, or the worse thing ever invented. I personally don’t believe that full-time working from home is suitable for everyone as I’ve found it orders of magnitude more difficult than working in an office environment.