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On Remote Work

There has been a lot of press around remote work both during and since the pandemic, with what might be a trend lately of companies pushing their staff back to the office because they think employees are more productive/effective there.  Are they right?  I think the answer is “it depends” – I think remote work can be as or more productive as being in an office, but there are a few key elements that have to be in place, and I think certain types of work are more efficient in person.

For starters, to be an effective remote worker, you have to have a suitable environment, including:

  • A decent workspace.  Working from your kitchen table might be fine for a few hours, but if you’re going to do it all day (and day after day) you need:
    • A proper desk (bonus points if it is adjustable/stand up)
    • External monitor(s), keyboard, and mouse
    • An office chair designed to be sat in all day
    • A dedicated space (physically separate from, say, your kids playroom, bonus points for having a door that closes)
    • An acceptable set of headphones with a microphone for video calls (I like Airpods).  I find using my computer speakers is subject to more interference/background noise
    • Some kind of natural light (nearby window etc)
  • Reliable, fast internet, with a backup plan.  We have Xfinity, which is mostly both of those things, but I can supplement with my TMobile phone in hotspot mode in a pinch
  • Respectful cohabitants.  By this I mean your family or whomever you live with – they need to be willing to let you work without too many interruptions or background disruptions (luckily my dog is VERY calm)
  • A routine – established hours that you normally work, including a “quitting time,” just as if you walked in the door from a commute
  • Ability to get away from your desk.  Working at home can be very… quiet.  I find that to stay focused for an entire workday I need to take a break and spend some time outside and/or exercising in the middle of the day, and sometimes I need to get out of the house entirely in the late afternoon (usually to a coffee shop to work for 30-60 minutes)

Additionally, you have to be more deliberate/thoughtful about how to interact with your remote co-workers:  

  • Slack (or similar tech) is fine for information broadcasts, short discussions, or quick questions, but is hugely inefficient when trying to convey complex ideas or make decisions as a group – move those items to impromptu or scheduled meeting agendas
  • Turn on your video on video calls – it still isn’t the same as being in person, but it acts as a forcing function for being at least somewhat more engaged in what is going on, instead of working on something else during the meeting
  • Have some regular scheduled (video call) interaction with coworkers and your supervisor to reduce feelings of isolation and stay current with topics you might not hear about otherwise

Finally, there is the nature of the work you are doing itself.  In my case I find that remote work can be hugely productive for certain kinds of tasks, mainly

  • Investigations.  As a software developer this usually means working on bugs, or trying to get some new (to me) piece of tech to do what I want.
  • Well defined work products – in the software development case, building new components using existing tech where the requirements are reasonably well understood and I basically just need to knock it out

Tasks that I think are a bit harder or less effective remote include:

  • Challenging design problems.  When attempting some development where the approach isn’t obvious, not being able to wander over to another developer’s desk and bounce some ideas off them is definitely a hindrance.  I can (and do) attempt the same via impromptu video calls, but it feels like more of an imposition
  • Hashing out software requirements.  In my experience this is really only even remotely efficient via discussion, and I think this is a case where the nonverbal communication losses and lack of a physical white board make video calls a weak substitute

Obviously those are industry specific, but I imagine there are analogs in other fields.

Above opinions are at least somewhat informed.  Prior to the pandemic, I worked from home part time for several years – sometimes whole days, sometimes I split my days between home and my office (which probably sounds insane, but my office was only a couple miles away).  During the height of the pandemic, I (like many IT workers) was home 100% – the office wasn’t even an option.  Later, the office reopened, and I went back, first a few days a week, and then eventually almost every day.  That lasted until last summer when I joined a startup that has no office, putting me back into a 100% remote mode.  Short story long, I’ve worked both in an office and remotely a lot in the last decade.  I think my favorite was splitting days between home and the office.  At home early in the morning I had my “focus time” where I worked on well defined development tasks or in depth investigations, then later in the day I would get a change of scenery plus a chance to spontaneously interact with coworkers.  With that said, 100% remote has its upsides as well, including easy access to lunch bike rides, no commute time (with associated reduction in wear and tear on your vehicle), access to a full kitchen and stocked pantry for snacks and lunch, and some additional flexibility.

I’d encourage companies to be flexible around letting people work from home, but I’d also encourage workers to not dismiss being in an office out of hand – there are benefits to working face to face, at least for certain types of tasks.