Working from home

I’ve been saying for some weeks now that it’s going to be really fascinating to see how work culture will change over the coming months.

I think it’s clear that there will be some companies that embrace the changes we’ve all made and decide to keep them – or at least some of them. And there will be others that are either unable to shift their approach permanently for a multitude of reasons, or that will be unwilling to change their culture and mindset and will continue to see working from home as a liability, as a drag on productivity, or as stifling management’s (perceived) need for oversight.

Twitter BirdToday I saw on BuzzFeed via LinkedIn that Twitter will allow [some] employees to work at home forever. I think that’s pretty great, though not very surprising given the DNA of the company and the nature of tech work. I hope more companies consider doing this, especially non-tech companies for whom all this remote stuff is super new.

Working from home isn’t new for me.

I started working from home occasionally while I was a QA engineer at Sonic Solutions in Marin County, back in the previous century. The company was gracious enough to let us take some equipment home for our own use – recording and editing music digitally in my case. The thinking was that by allowing employees use the system for their own projects outside of work, they would find more issues and help get them fixed. It worked to some extent, but I think it was mostly of marginal value, at least from what I could see in my role as a tester. I sure did love being able to use the high-end gear for my side projects though. 🙂

My real in-depth experience with remote work came a few years later as a developer at UserLand Software starting in 2000. The company was basically entirely virtual with three of us spread across the greater San Francisco Bay Area, one in Seattle, one in Vancouver BC, and one in Bonn, Germany.

Because all but one of us were in the same time-zone, communication over whatever channel was relatively easy. When we needed real-time discussion we talked on the phone, but mostly we interacted online.

We mostly worked independently and we coordinated our work and reported our progress via a “threaded” discussion board that was visible to everyone internally. The discussion board was a part of the software we made together, and was also a primary way we communicated with our users. For the time, it was pretty great. (Later on we used an outline sharing tool that was also our own thing.)

The company actually had an office when I was hired, and I had my own space with a desk and a door, a desktop computer, etc. There were only two of us in the office though, and it quickly became clear to me that the value of driving 35-40 minutes each way from my apartment to the office and back just wasn’t worth it. So a few weeks in, I drove there one Saturday, packed up the computer and took it home, and never went back. From that point my productivity and focus increased. By a lot.

So much has changed since those heady days of the early web. And for many the huge shift in the form of remote work forced by COVID-19 are totally new.

If you’re one of the people fortunate enough to still have a job, and you now suddenly find yourself trying to adjust to working at home, I encourage you to embrace this time. Experiment. Find what works best for you, in your home, with your family or roommates or partners.

You might find that working at different times of the day than you used to works better for you. Or you could discover that working with the TV on in the background (not on 24-hour news, please) helps you stay focused. Perhaps working outdoors on your porch or in your yard on a lawn chair inspires new creativity.

Remember to communicate. Stay connected with your team, your manager, and your colleagues. Try to be open about what’s working for you and what’s not, and help your colleagues to discover what works best for them.

Don’t forget to stop working at the end of the day. (This was a hard one for me.)

And if you’re in a leadership position, especially at a non-tech company, try to imagine a world in which anyone who can work remotely should be allowed to do so even after this pandemic is under control. Consider all of the benefits that being flexible will bring to your workforce.

Critically examine your legacy policies and consider whether they may be worth changing, or dumping entirely. Think also about the benefits to the environment, the operational expense you can reduce, and the positive effect that flexibility will have on your company’s image.

It’s not just lip-service – remote work actually works.

For me, this is a bit of a return.

The “it’s like riding a bike – you never forget” metaphor works, at least kind of. What’s different now is that there are much better tools available now, and so many more people are in the same situation. We’re all trying to figure this out at the same time.

In 2001 when I would tell someone I’d just met that I work from home 100% of the time, most were surprised, some doubted it could work well, and a few were even incredulous. Today nobody is.

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