Uncharted Waters

May 25 2017   1:05PM GMT

The Dynamics of Remote Work

Justin Rohrman Justin Rohrman Profile: Justin Rohrman

Tags:
Collaboration
IBM
remote work
Remote workers

Working from anywhere that isn’t an office, or remote work, has been a popular topic lately. IBM recently decided to end its remote work program. More than 2,600 people will have a choice between relocating to a city with an IBM office, or finding work elsewhere. IBM is citing effectiveness and efficiency as the reason for this decision.

I have been working remotely for pretty close to half of my professional life. I was at home from 2011 to 2013 and then again starting in 2015. I have worked with teams that are all remote, and with teams where some people are in the office and some do their own thing. Here are a few opinions I have developed over that time.

Remote VS In Office

My experience is that being in the office has potential to be more effective, but only potential. It’s like agile. Agile has potential to make peoples lives easier, and help companies deliver better software faster. But, what a lot of people end up with is just garbage software and unhappy programmers.

The last company I worked for was an everyone in the office, and every developer in the same room kind of situation. The room was designed to enable collaboration. By my calculations we got about 25% collaboration, 25% independent work, and 50% goofing off waiting for the next thing to do. Some days we got work done, other days we talked about lunch and flew remote control helicopters.

We should have got more done, everything about the space and the people there was supposed to foster productivity, but the magic wasn’t there. Our productivity was a boulder sitting at the top of a hill.

remote work

My experience with remote work on the other hand is that the base line of productivity is higher than in an office, but the cap is also lower. I have a dedicate office space in my house. Well, it is also my music space, but during the day it my work space. I come in early in the morning, read email, look at log files, figure out where to start, and get to work. Distractions are pretty limited before everyone else is up, and then again after my son leaves for the day. It is just me and the work.

My current gig is all remote. There are people on the east coast, west coast, South America, and India. When we need to talk, it happens over email, Skype or GoToMeeting. And that is where the productivity cap hits. There is no instant access to coworkers since they aren’t sitting next to me, and even pretty decent collaboration tools suck. Skype cuts in and out sometimes during calls and sharing a screen is not the same thing as sitting with someone pairing on the same computer. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and the collaboration grow weaker.

This is worse when there is a company office, and a handful of people that work from home. Productive conversations are unpredictable. Collaborative tools try to restrict how people work. They say you should talk to each other over slack, give project updates through JIRA, and look at code through github. People just talk to each other in an office, they don’t need help. Getting lunch, or talking to someone while refilling your coffee cup can turn into solving software problems. This happens even during conference calls. Years ago I was working with a remote team in Bolivia. They were helping us build a UI automation framework. We had daily status meetings to coordinate who was working on which task for the day. Usually at some point they would mute their phone to have a side conversation. And of course we did the same thing. We were on a conference call to work together, and were actively restricting what each group could hear.

I’m not sure there are real benefits to remote work over being in an office, or being in an office over remote work. This is entirely dependent on the people there and how they work together.

5  Comments on this Post

 
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  • Remoter
    I work remotely, but for a office-based company.  I have been working remotely for years, and have always had a good work ethic (not distracted by "home" stuff). I have the good fortune to be able to spend a week or so every month in the office, so can see the benefits of both.  I get a whole lot more done from my remote office, in terms of pure "production".  I look forward ti the time in the office, too, though, for the relationship-building (which makes Slack, or in our case, Hipchat interaction more comfortable when I'm remote).  You're right.  There's no clear answer,
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  • SteveFurbacher
    Definitely a popular topic since many companies who have had a WFH program are now in the process of rescinding it. While I think that it could be a move to force a reduction in their workforce for those who may have moved further away and can't do the commute, or possibly a need to assert more authority and control in a world with many more security holes than Swiss cheese, there are definitely different dynamics for office vs remote workers. However, I think remote workers can cultivate the same types of dynamics -- possibly over a longer period of time or on intense projects where collaboration is high. But if work operations are siloed, I think that those dynamics will be harder to achieve for remote workers. I will say that people can goof off anywhere, and I think it definitely depends on the individual. I know of one person who used to WFH, and he'd be mowing his lawn in the middle of the day. Now, if you're on call 24x7, that's probably not such a big issue, but if you're doing 40 hours a week, that's definitely a problem. I've heard of companies who are measuring VPN transactions and coming up empty for some employees.  Can you do work without crossing over to the corporate network?  As a developer it's certainly possible once in a while. Ultimately, I've been productive at home or in the office. Working remote allows me to skip the traffic and add extra time to work without impacting me, and I have access to whatever amenities and comforts I need.  I vote for WFH because it can benefit both the employer and the individual when those individuals have an A+ work ethic and have decent communications skills.
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  • Justin Rohrman
    @SteveFurbacher

    "I will say that people can goof off anywhere, and I think it definitely depends on the individual." Well said. I have good days and mixed days for productivity just like everyone else. Also, I like skipping the commute not because I could give extra time to an employer, but because I'd rather not spend hours every day in the car.
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  • Remoter
    I worked at a company (still as a remote worker) that gave everyone WFH Fridays.  I have to say, it seemed I was the only one working on Fridays....no  meetings, dramatically reduced email volume.  That makes remote work look very bad.

    Maybe some of the "corporate concern" stems from envy.  I know that there are people at the office who who spend hours commuting every day.  I'm fortunate not to have to do that; commute fatigue has to affect performance in addition to stealing hours from your day.  I live 800 miles from HQ, and was offered the job with full understanding that I would work from home and come to the office monthly--and be paid a little bit less as well to cover those expenses.  Still think it's a win-win.
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  • Kevin Beaver
    Great piece, Justin. Definitely lots of variables - not entirely black and white. I think a lot of it depends on the drive, motivation, and self-discipline of each individual...and the quality of management and leadership to pull it all together.

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