Thoughts on Working Remotely

There’s been a lot of hubbub recently with regard to the recent decision of Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer to mandate that all employees, including those currently working remotely, either commute to a corporate office or face termination. This has spurred a lot of speculation in regards to her reasoning behind the decision, from being a less conspicuous form of layoffs to shed expense while saving face with investors to stemming from a more traditional camp of management thought for which productivity requires physical presence in an office. It’s even spurred some accusations of hypocrisy being that Mayer recently paid to have a nursery installed in her office. Be that as it may, I thought I’d take a blog post to share some highlights from my own thoughts on remote working that I’ve gained over the course of doing it for over four years.

Remote working is not for everyone

As much of a public proponent as I may be for remote working, I’ll readily agree that it’s not an ideal arrangement for everyone. Some people need the atmosphere of an office and the presence of managers and coworkers to be productive. These things can have a very real and substantial psychological effect on the motivation and productivity of an individual.

Think about how much time you spend either at work, sleeping, or performing necessary day-to-day tasks like grocery shopping or paying bills. If work doesn’t necessitate that you leave home, you spend a lot more time there and less out in the Real World™. This can be extremely isolating and difficult to tolerate if your employer doesn’t maintain channels of communication that enable you to feel connected to your peers. It also takes a lot of self-discipline to be committed to getting your work done despite there being no one physically looking over your shoulder to ensure that you’re getting the job done.

Remote working has mutual benefits

My commute is the distance from my bed room to my living room. I have time to feed my kids a hot breakfast and put them on the school bus in the morning, then brew a pot of coffee and check my personal e-mail before starting my work day. If I need to, I can step away from my work laptop for a bit in the afternoon to get my kids off the school bus and get them started on their homework or take a short lunch and knock off a bit early to run errands before I pick my kids up from after-school care. Telecommuting and flexible hours enable me to do all these things and thereby significantly reduce my stress level.

I use my own home and internet connection for my work, so I don’t contribute to any needs for equivalent office space or bandwidth in an office. I’m one less car on the roads during the morning and evening rush hours that might be delayed by traffic jams or weather conditions. I’m just a phone call away in an emergency situation. If I’m within reach of my work laptop and an internet connection, that’s as far as I have to walk to provide support. I can communicate in real time via IM, VoIP, Skype, or any number of other tools and mediums.

Remote working has disadvantages

My coworkers need to check their e-mail or be on IM for me to communicate with them; I don’t have the ability to physically track them down or stop by their desk in an office. I may miss out or be the last to hear about casual or in-passing conversations and office news that isn’t formally announced via e-mail. I can’t go out to a local bar for happy hour with my coworkers. I have to open an IM window instead of turning my head to verbally ask a question or make a remark. To at least some degree, I’m out of sight, out of mind, and coworkers must be vigilant to include me in communications, both professional and casual, as much as I must be vigilant to be present and heard. Culture is top-down and has to be maintained both in person and online.

I can’t physically raise my hand to a whiteboard to draw a picture or gesture with my hands. My coworkers can only see my face in photos or video chat. Most of the time, they’re limited to text or my voice and whatever obscure contributions they may make to my ability to communicate. Much of the excitement, disappointment, or general nature of my responses may be lost in translation. I miss out on watercooler conversation and the social element of employment and am forced to find time and opportunity to seek it elsewhere.

Remote working is necessary

The global nature of the job market is only increasing. The state of the US economy is making remote working more of a necessity and less of a privilege. Commutes directly affect the livelihood of those who undertake them in fuel costs, vehicle maintenance, and time commitment. The state of the real estate market and the high variability of cost of living and salary offerings make relocation a difficult or infeasible prospect for many homeowners, which comprise much of the older and more experienced work force.

Limiting hiring to those who are local or are able to relocate significantly diminishes the available talent pool. Companies who dismiss the option of allowing employees to work remotely are forced to hire those who are more convenient rather than those who are best qualified. This leads to a relatively stagnant talent pool as well. Experienced non-local talent is less commonly brought in from the outside, perspectives are limited by locality, and local opportunities for professional development experience less growth. That any of these things need be limited by geography is a limitation that exists entirely in the mind.

Sufficient technology exists for day-to-day operations to carry on remotely in at least close approximation of efficiency to a traditional office space given individuals truly dedicated to that purpose. Any organization that would say they’re “too big” or “culturally incompatible” with remote working is either in trouble or in denial. Either way, they’re doing themselves a disservice that will be illustrated by others like Synacor, GitHub, and Mozilla successfully recruiting the best and the brightest.

Epilogue

Remote working may not  be for every company or employee, but it’s dismissed more often than it should be as a viable employment arrangement. The technological and economical state of the world is only making it more commonplace and will eventually render those who resist it ancient fossils of an industrial era gone by. The age of the knowledge worker has arrived and that knowledge is a commodity that must be sought after regardless of its origin or residence. Any institution that will stand the test of time must follow this principle and eventually globalize or perish.

3 Comments

  1. My co-worker and community evangelist John Mertic ( http://jmertic.wordpress.com/ ) has written several blog posts on the benefits and advantages of hiring and maintaining remote employees. He himself is a remote worker and shares many of the same sentiments as you. I do as well. Given the changing nature of business, and the ever growing push to make business run on the internet, it seems totally logical that a company could take the work to the employee so to speak, as opposed to making the employee come to work. And when it comes to software engineering it makes perfect sense given how many of us have worked “remotely” – either on our own projects, in community group projects or other non-central projects – at some point before becoming a full time employee for a company.

    Well written article Matthew. I think you covered the topic well and hit the nail on the head.

  2. Adam Culp says:

    I am a remote worker myself and love it. It just works well for me. As a result it led me to turn down a few decent job proposals recently because they did not allow remote workers. Like you, I also get my son ready for school in the morning, and am home when he returns. I am a long distance runner, and the flexible schedule allows me to run whenever the conditions are best rather than choosing a time around being at the office.

    As a developer I seem to get much more work done by being remote. The lack of office “drive-by” meetings, and constant distractions, really reduces the amount of in-depth thinking in an office. Though I do miss the occasional impromptu whiteboard sessions.

    Something I feel many are missing though is the recent growth of co-working spaces. It would appear that many remote workers are trying to get back to the office and away from the home environment for some reason. Perhaps that needs a closer look to determine if they truly should be back in the office.

  3. Ole says:

    Nice article!
    Coworking ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coworking ) works really nice for me to get rid of most of the disadvantages of working remotely.
    In many cities you can even choose a coworking space that suits you especially well.