How The Saltsmans Work From Home (WFH) while raising kids and running Finji: A Memoir
Hey y’all! As we watched our friends in the industry move to remote-based work, we realized that our experience as a Work From Home studio might be helpful to others experiencing this for the first time. But first things first- Who are we? My name is Rebekah Saltsman and I run the small independent development studio and publisher Finji. I run this with my co-founder and husband, Adam Saltsman. We are currently an internal full-time staff of 9 based in 6 different North American regions. We also work with more than 25 other developers and contractors on multiple game projects who live in far-flung areas around the world. And we have been WFH for a pretty long time- Adam started freelancing and working as an independent game developer 14 years ago. I’ve been home working alongside him for 12 years. We are also parents and have had kids in the house for the last 9 years.
This post is designed to go over a lot of the more general stuff for your WFH setup first. All parenting stuff will be in future posts. This will not be hyper technical either. I will not give you a list of furniture I can recommend or apps to download. What I want to do is engage with the underlying principles that we have learned which can help you ask and answer the right questions without getting bogged down in possibilities that might be impossible, expensive, or inefficient. The problems are as follows:
- We are in unprecedented times.
- And somehow we need to be in our homes and doing a job that is usually done in-person, with a team, and in a place that was built for that work.
Take a look around you right now. Welcome to your new office. It’s okay to sigh. It’s okay. It is likely that your house is not an ideal workplace at this time. I very much feel this to the depths of my soul right now as I write and edit this article while running both the 1st and 3rd graders math lessons from the dining room. So trust me right now when I say don’t get lost in your imaginary perfect space. This is a future problem for a future you. What you need to do is look at your living situation right now. What constraints do you see? What opportunities can you identify? How can you make the best of a sub-optimal situation? First, we need to map out basic WFH needs.
Do you have a chair? You might be surprised but a large number of things count as a chair. On any given day I use my proper Steelcase desk chair, the dining room table chairs, the couch, and the adjustable height stools at the breakfast table (my personal favorite).
Do you have a table? This table doesn’t have to be an official desk- It can be any surface that can accommodate your equipment needs. You’re going to want at least a cozy 24”x48” (60cm x 120cm) space and could require up to a 30”x60” (75cm x 150cm) space.
Do you have a window? Over the years we have found that one of the best ways to work from home is to work near a window. It isn’t necessary for everyone, but it seems to help a lot of people. Both Adam and I work near windows everyday. This has helped us stay on a daytime schedule for sleep and activities.
Do you have a setup that can accommodate “good posture”? We work hard to avoid common injuries in our work because they can tank productivity and just make us feel terrible. Anyone who has suffered from Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI) or carpal tunnel in their limbs can attest to this. Controlling your work environment for good posture using a combination of table, chair and screen heights is worth attending to, but will vary dramatically from person to person.
Can you control the sound in your new workplace? It is possible that you are not alone in your new workplace and the traffic outside, your roommates, your pets, your neighbor’s noise-rock band, the house appliances, your human children, and/or your non-human children are creating a messy audio space. There are ways to mitigate the effects of frustrating sound interruptions with isolating or at least semi-isolating headphones, a door, cheap sound-proofing foam with adhesive backing, etc, but first you need to know what challenges you face in your space.
Don’t forget that your needs may differ! The above questions are very good starting anchors for many people but individual needs will vary. Now look around you again. What do you already have in your space that can meet these needs?
Do you have a dedicated tabletop? If you don’t have a dedicated tabletop, do you have a place to set up cables for work time and a place to store equipment off the table when the day is over? Where are the windows? Can you move your table to be near the windows? Is your posture compromised at your table setup? Maybe you need to make a DIY monitor riser out of some old textbooks! (We have totally done this for years. It isn’t pretty, but it works). Does your house have enough separate rooms to accommodate differing audio needs, like two calls at the same time, or calls happening during programming time, etc? Laundry rooms, bedrooms, closets, bathrooms all count as separate rooms!
We haven’t talked about technology needs, but what new tech needs do you foresee? Will you need access to a webcam and comfortable semi-isolating headphones, etc? Do you have any old equipment, like an old digital camera, that can double as a webcam? How good is your internet? Can it sustain one video call? What about two?
It is okay to take these pretty basic WFH space needs seriously. It is also okay to put off finding the perfect shelf or perfect plant for a bit too. Focus on short term results and comfort and work toward a more long term solution as the opportunities arise in the coming weeks and/or months.
Welcome to the wondrous land of “flex-time” and unconventional schedules! Great! Feel the freedom! But… after a few days, like now-ish, you may be starting to realize that the loose schedule you thought you would be able to pull off is… not working. Turns out, a loose schedule can be very hard for most people to pull off. Yes, even free-spirited artists just vibing the flow. But the whole thing of WFH is that you get flexibility you could never have in an office space. You may not have to do 9-to-5. Especially with kids in the house. And that’s great. But wait… flexible is good… but loose is bad? What how?
For us at least the trick is to go ahead and have an unconventional schedule if that helps, but to be rigorous and pretty strict about it. Treat it like a schedule, even if it doesn’t look like your old schedule. What is something reliable that you can stick to even though it is “weird”? For example, maybe your new schedule is that you work 5 hours a day, 7 days a week. Maybe you always take Wednesday afternoon off but you now work Saturday mornings. Maybe you work every weekday morning for 4 hours and every night for 4 hours, but take the middle of the day off. The options are endless but you have to find something that meets both personal, family and teams needs. It can be a lot to juggle. And you cannot decide any of this in a vacuum.
Once you have identified the work hours that you think will work best for your own situation, you must get buy-in from the people around you. This means you need to talk about your schedule with your family or housemates and they need to be able to provide feedback and rejection or acceptance of the new schedule. You absolutely need to have this conversation with your remote team. You need to talk to those who you report to and those who report to you. And you need to understand that the needs of those around you may change your optimum plan. And you must be flexible on this point. If something about your schedule does not work with someone whose opinion must matter, then you need to work through a compromise.
There are a few things we have learned over the years about how our own work habits changed when we brought our work home. It is possible that you may find that you can get more done in a focused 30-hour week than you used to be able to with a slightly less focused or more inconvenient 40-hour week. It may feel like you should fill that extra time with more tasks, and it might not actually be appropriate for both mental health and burnout reasons. Your baseline goal should probably be to come close to what you used to do at work, and not how to max out your productivity. Especially while you’re learning this new setup.
It can also be a struggle to switch from a high-focus work environment directly into another task. This is sometimes called “context-switching” and it can be a challenge for a lot of us. It is likely that you did not realize your former commute to and from work took care of this, sort of automatically. A little built-in solution. We recommend at least considering building some time for this into your new WFH schedule too - it could take the shape of a walk around the block, or some hammock time, or a couple rounds of Tetris, whatever gives you some transition time.
With possible public space restrictions, gym closings, kids being home- there are a lot of things getting in the way of getting exercise. But we can’t stress enough the importance of finding time to move. Even with cities instituting shelter in place restrictions, you can learn yoga on youtube, play dance or fitness games, learn how to do resistance training with household goods, rearrange the furniture like all the time, bench press the dog, just all sorts of good activities.
So, sure, take advantage of this new freedom and flexibility to create a schedule that works for you, those around you, and your now-remote team. But don’t forget that your 9-to-5 workday had some strengths too, and you might want to hang on to those good bits after all.
One of the challenges we have noticed many teams are currently trying to solve is how do you replicate in-office communication when you can no longer be in the office? And this is a huge challenge because it does require a lot of thought on HOW you communicate effectively as a team. We put together a Collaborative Communication and Planning presentation in 2017 that we posted up on Gamasutra for future reference: Collaborative Planning at Finji)
In it we talk about how we teach our team an approach to communicating that can increase the likelihood that juniors will feel comfortable and encouraged to offer solutions to problems and we can work together as a team to come up with the best plan in spite of hierarchy and ego. This is also the way we work as a team based in multiple time zones and places around the world. It might be a useful resource as a starting point. But how does this actually play out in a remote setting using existing tech?
First, we have a single chat server that is dedicated to primarily “Work Stuff.” Our team is small, so we only need one. It is possible that your team is huge and may need one per department. Or one per team. We manage this server with our fellow collaborators and set up separate channels (sometimes even separate servers) for goofs and socializing.
The idea behind using the work server for work (surprise??) is to improve the signal-to-noise ratio for our team. Work servers don’t have to be sacred places but it sure is nice if they are useful spaces. If your task comms are filled with dank memes and conversations about great or not-so-great movies, you might not be able to find actual work-related information now that you aren’t sitting in desks next to each other. Even though that dog video was very, very funny.
There are things we do at Finji that help us emulate an office-like setting but from far away. We encourage and support the use of user statuses like “busy” or “offline” or “don’t you dare interrupt me I only need 10 more minutes”. Please treat the headphone emoji like real headphones! It helps a lot to take advantage of simple, existing options like this, and encourage everyone to acknowledge and respect them. We also have an end of day channel to surface what people were working on each day. Each afternoon the last thing people do before leaving for the day is post a list or a few sentences on what they did that day. It’s simple and nonintrusive, and while it won’t magically make remote work feel just like an office, it’s one example of one simple thing that can help close these gaps.
Finally, it is important that you acknowledge posts on your chat server. Check-ins from teammates and especially those who report to you require a quick nod that you saw their post and took note of it. The simplest way to do this is emoji responses. We use a lot of these as a way to quickly express emotions from a distance on posts that do not require a written response. Don’t leave your people hanging or wondering if you saw their posts. Quick click an appropriate emoji response and move on. One thumbs up can save someone twenty minutes of anxiety! Yes, it’s dumb how much of your job depends on emoji now. It’s ok, it probably already did, you just couldn’t tell. Or could, and none of this is a surprise. Anyways.
A lot of people new to working from home are a little squeamish about video chats. We focus so much on our appearance that we are missing the benefits of seeing the people we work with regularly. If the hair looks bad, put on a hat. It’s okay if you have under eye circles or the lighting makes you look like a zombie. It’s really okay.
At Finji we do at least one cross-disciplinary check-in video call each week, even if it’s just basic summaries. This is a call we rarely miss and we strongly recommend at least one of them. Again we are trying to emulate the dynamics that happen semi-automatically in a physical space. When you are all together, you have a constant sense of what is happening around you. It is so important when you are far away to get some of that feeling. This call probably should not allow for deep-dives into the specifics of different subdisciplines. Always remember that you need to be courteous of everyone’s time.
When you do need to dig into those specific disciplines, that’s how you know it’s time to schedule a new call. We run separate dev calls and marketing calls. We run separate publishing project design calls. We build agendas for these calls and show up with questions. We check our past week todo lists. And we ask for help if we are buried in tasks. This is where we check the health of our team and see if we need to reach outside our team for backup.
But all of these calls can surface pretty miserable Internet based issues. How is your bandwidth, really? Our home studio connection cannot reliably handle 2 video calls at once, nor more than one local active connection to the call. Calls can stress shared connections and might change the available call schedule between everyone on your connection. Is your space too loud? The easy way to fix this is to self-mute when you are not talking.This is also a useful tool for the meeting director to use to identify who has a question or needs to say something - unmuting is a bit like a remote hand-raise. Does your love for mechanical keyboards, a barking dog, too much bass from your speakers, make it impossible for anyone else to have a call in your area?
Last but not least, homes are intimate spaces, and you are probably going to be hosting video calls in them suddenly. Load up your webcam and check the background for awkward props or mischievous mirror placement. If you need to screen-share later today, move your “Antler Porn” and “Other Porn” folders into something that at least is not the Desktop. And finally, be a good timezone-aware friend. It’s not everyone else’s responsibility to memorize your schedule, and when you are remote, it is often harder to see who is in what timezone. Ask your team members what time zone they live in if you don’t know, and work to schedule meetings during daytime operating hours for you both. This is hard when you are exactly 12 hours off from each other but it is possible to work this into waking hours. 9pm calls to overlap a 9am call on the other side of the world is something all parties can survive.
Hopefully this is a good starting point as you fall into your own WFH groove. There will be challenges but you will be okay. Question your assumptions, try to identify the possible issues you are having, and think up some solutions that might work. It is okay to fail a little as you try something new and it is also okay to be honest with yourself about your ideal working environment. A lot of people are not good at working from home because it is a bad fit for both their personality and work style and this is okay! But that isn’t an excuse to not prepare as best you can to both succeed and to stay healthy.
You will notice there is a glaring hole in this article because I didn’t talk about having children and working from home at all. This is something we have done for the last 9 years and this is all set for a future post later this week. When your kids’ school is cancelled for a minimum of 4 weeks, you spend your weekend building a homeschool curriculum set inside your WFH schedule that you share with your founding partner and husband instead of writing an article about… working from home with kids. Stay tuned. That one is coming.
Thanks everyone and stay safe!
~Bekah and Adam