Thoughts on Two Years of Working from Home
I've spent the past two years working from home as a network engineer for two different companies. At first, I wasn't sure how well the remote lifestyle would suit me, but after a short time I settled into a very comfortable routine. And to my surprise, I discovered that I was much more productive working from the serenity of my home office than I ever was in a cubicle. I'd like to share my observations with the hope of convincing others to try ditching the office as well.
This is the most obvious benefit to working remote. No more sitting in rush hour traffic twice a day. Even if you take public transit and are able to play on your laptop for most of the trip, commuting is a major time sink. Most people will instantly gain back at least an hour of time by foregoing the daily drive to and from the office. What could you do with an extra hour each day?
And beyond time, there are ample corollary benefits. You (or your company) are no longer paying for as much fuel or fare. You're greatly reducing your risk of being injured in a traffic accident, simply by reducing exposure. You're reducing your carbon footprint. And you're one less car on the road or occupied seat on the train, which reduces the burden on public infrastructure that's already strained to the breaking point in many cities.
Working alone in my home office, there's very little to distract me from my work. No coworkers carrying on a conversation in the next cube. No impromptu chats on the way to grab a coffee. No waiting for a stall to free up in the mens' room. No one swinging by to share his weekend plans. It's just me and my work, the way I like it. That probably sounds antisocial (and admittedly, maybe it is a bit), but I'm of the mindset that if you're being paid for your time you should be getting stuff done.
Granted, I can't claim that my home is completely free of distraction. My wife stays at home to care for our daughter, and occasionally I'll take a few minutes to bring in groceries or help with lunch. But these are all things that I control, rather than persistent interruptions I have to put up with. Naturally, it's nice to get up and move around once in a while, so long as it's when I want to and not because I can't stand listening for one more minute to the conference call going on next to me.
This follows from the prior point, but having an office also provides a measure of freedom. This is especially beneficial at a time where open floor plans are inexplicably all the rage. ("You know what would increase productivity? If everyone can see and hear everyone else, all the time!") In my own office, I can play music if I want. I can put my phone on speaker without worrying about disturbing my neighbors. None of my belongings ever walk away. All of my conversations are private.
By the way, this applies to in-person employees with private offices as well. Stack Overflow has an excellent article on the benefits of private offices for developers:
The result is that today Stack Exchange is decidedly lonely if not quite alone in offering private offices to our developers (at least the half who work in the office; the other half work remotely). Suddenly we’re the ones who look a bit old-fashioned: isn’t that the old-school Microsoft approach? Doesn’t it make us less creative? How can we stay fast and agile if people keep disappearing into offices to do work?
This will seem like a paradox, but I have found that it's actually easier to collaborate with people remotely than it is when everyone is in the same room. Why? Consider what typically happens when you schedule a meeting. First, you find that the conference room you booked is still occupied because the meeting scheduled prior to yours is running long. You kill five minutes waiting for them to wrap up. One guy who's there for your meeting goes to grab coffee and gets pulled into a conversation down the hall. Meanwhile, Steve is wasting another few minutes trying to get the projector to work with his new laptop. And did anyone dial Gary in on the conference bridge? He should be here for this. Wait, where did Mike go? We're ten minutes into the meeting now and we haven't even gotten started.
Now compare that to an all-remote meeting. A notification pops up, alerting you that it's time for a meeting. Everyone clicks a link on their calendar to join a Google Hangout without leaving their desk. You paste a link to the meeting agenda in the group chat and share your screen to show your presentation. And when you're done, you can get right back to whatever you were working on. In my meetings, the last attendees to join are almost always those connecting from a company conference room.
And it's not just group meetings: I've found that one-on-one collaboration flows better, too. Instead of calling or walking over to a colleague to chat about something, just shoot them a message on Slack. They can respond as their time allows rather feeling obligated to drop what they're working on to get you answer right away. Or, raise an issue in a team's channel and see who's available to help, without unnecessarily disturbing others.
Aside from optimized collaboration, chat provides another great benefit: Everything is written down and archived. I'm a very detail-oriented person, but my memory isn't the greatest. I couldn't tell you how many times I've had to go back through a chat log from a few days earlier to pick out one or two discussion points that had escaped me. This save my colleagues from an interruption while I get to save face. Sure, you could make the same case for email, but chat tends to capture far more conversations by virtue of its more casual nature.
Office space, particularly in large cities, is not cheap. By allowing half of its employees work from home, a company can easily realize a 30-40% reduction in leasing and utility costs. This can be an especially appealing approach for startups where every single dollar must be put to work in order for the business to survive.
This doesn't apply to everyone, but as a new dad, being able to see my daughter throughout the day has been invaluable. I was thinking just the other day, if I was still working in an office, how often would I get to see her? Maybe for 15 minutes in the morning at breakfast, then I'd have maybe a couple hours at night before her bedtime. Working from home I get to check in on her several times a day, even if it's just for as long as it takes to make a coffee, and I'm always home in time for dinner.
Aside from interaction with colleagues, how much of your actual job requires you to be physically present at a particular place? For network and system administrators, this might be the case: someone has to run cables and swap out hard disks. But most of us in IT can really work from anywhere with a sufficient Internet connection. For example, my employer operates facilities in New York, San Francisco, Toronto, London, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, and Singapore. Despite having performed much work at all of these sites, I have never even seen most of them.
And even if you are required to be physically present, is it every day? Even working remotely just one or two days a week could yield significant gains in productivity and reclaim several commuting hours per week.
Also consider whether your company maintains multiple physical offices. You and a coworker might both be in an office, but if it's not the same office what does it even matter?
All this said, working remote isn't for everyone. Here are some of the biggest impediments. (I have no doubt that readers will point out many more in the comments below.)
As I mentioned, I live in a house with a bedroom that's been re-purposed as a dedicated home office. Not everyone is so fortunate. Unless you live alone, a dedicated office space is a must for permanent remote working, and even if you live by yourself it's still highly recommended to aid in maintaining a distinction between work and life. Disruptive roommates or family can also be disqualifiers.
Some people in the government and military sectors are required to maintain an active security clearance and are permitted to work only from within a secure facility. There's not much you can do about this until the DoD starts offering home office SCIF certifications.
Enabling employees to work from home means investing in remote access VPNs, group chat services, and some form of video teleconferencing. Years ago, this stuff would have been a major pain to orchestrate, but today we have a healthy selection of services like Slack and Google Hangouts which are both low-cost and child's play to deploy.
Still, some organizations just can't handle new technology. The people who still use email for file sharing and faxes for trouble tickets. Sadly, you'll need to conquer in-office tech long before you start using the word "remote."
Although my job carries no formal travel requirement, I do fly up to company headquarters in New York City a few times each year. It's not the travel that bugs me as much as being separated from my home and family for a week. (And it doesn't help that I'm decidedly not a city person.) Some people understandably prefer a daily commute to a local office over periodic travel cross-country.
This last point is usually where most people find themselves stuck. It's been ingrained in the collective American psyche that showing up to an office at 9 AM and leaving at 5 PM equates to working. Some managers, particularly those who started their career before this whole Internet thing, simply don't trust their employees to be productive outside of an office setting. But ask any manager how he or she measures employee performance: "By comparing the employee's accomplishments against the goals that were set for them, of course." Does it matter, then, where the employee was sitting when those goals were met?
Fellow rank and file employees can present a challenge as well. Some people simply don't care to learn new tools, even if they're more efficient. Others might harbor a grudge born out of envy for not being allowed or able to work remotely themselves. The political challenges to enabling remote working generally far outweigh the technical ones.
But as energy and commercial real estate costs continue to rise, and remote collaboration tools grow cheaper and easier to use, I believe that remote working will become much more common in many industries over the next few years.
Jeremy Stretch is a network engineer living in the Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina area. He is known for his blog and cheat sheets here at Packet Life. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter.