Thoughts on Work from home

Disclaimer: These are only my personal thoughts, not pro tips. It is late in the evening, I’ve just finished watching “Perfect Sense” – wonderful movie with beautiful Eva Green and brilliant Ewan McGregor. It is a bit scary that something similar to the plot is happening right now. In real world. With this COVID. Strange thing is that when I’ve posted about it in FB, they have permanently removed this post. May be this movie is considered dangerous right now..

Everybody is self-isolating, all events worldwide are cancelled, borders are closed, airlines are close to bankrupt, my cable TV provider has opened all channels just to keep me home… Toilet paper has become a new currency… Or even a new religion.

On the other hand, I’m just sitting home and doing my job. As always. I’m coding, committing, drawing architectures, attending conf  calls, chatting, doing some extreme programming via shared desktop.. yes, I’m a software developer. I’ve been doing this for 13 years so far, and almost always from home. I have a reason for this – after a ski accident I’m using wheelchair for mobility. I simply can’t go to the office every day, due to tons of medical reasons, even though the office may be adopted. Every day I get up at 6 am to do my 3h exercises and medical procedures to be able to start work at 9 am. And in the evening, I have to do them again. Going to the office every day will simply kill my body.

Nevertheless, most of my career I’m employed, with few periods of freelance/startup activities.

How did work from home changed for all of these years. Actually, not much. Back in 2007 we had almost the same tools as today, may be slightly less powerful, and the Internet was a bit slower. When I started, we already had: VPN/extranet, voip/confcalls, various development and collaboration tools for distributed teams.. everything! Instead of slack we had icq, instead of zoom/jitsi/hangout we had webex… Many of those tools went to the browser and in the clouds, requiring no setup and allow instant usage.

The only thing that was different was the attitude. Most of my managers considered remote position as something extraordinary, a kind of a huge benefit for the employee. They did not trust the remote worker. They thought (and still many of them think) that “remotee” just plays games and does nothing. And only in the office, where there is full control, workers are pushed to their limits to deliver. Only if the team is collocated in an open space the team is able to be productive and efficient! The team shares ideas, can hear somebody asking someone for support, and join conversation to help. Theoretically this sounds awesome.. but in reality, this just leads to permanent distraction, constant search for meeting rooms, inability to concentrate on real work. There are a lot of scientific researches on the topic. Yes, programming is a tough brain activity. To write our code, most of the time we need to think and imagine! Well, if the company culture measures the quality of its work in “manageability”, not in “product deliverability” then yes – open space is the best option. Marissa Mayer even believed that getting all workers in the office could save Yahoo, but, you know this did not help at all.

As I already mentioned, not much has changed in technology. Back in those days we already had the toolset which was quite enough. Although nowadays we have much more remote workers, most of the IT positions still require full time office presence. Even though the worker will do absolutely the same stuff using absolutely the same laptop, still preferring asynchronous communication with his team mates via chat, trying to keep it quite in the open space. Why? To keep everything “manageable” or even “micromanageable”. It is still considered ok to burn tons of kerosene to fly to another country for a 40 min meeting. It is still considered ok to lose several hours every day just transport the body to the office and back.

But fortunately, not everywhere. I see two polar approaches: companies, that do not bind their workers to a specific collocated desk in the office, and those who do it. In some companies, employees can work from every spot of the office, or from every office worldwide. And there are many others (not so well known) which put their employees in a cubicle or just a desk and monitor their presence. Unfortunately, the last ones are still the majority.

But suddenly this COVID has arrived. Definitely a bad situation. Putting all of the workers in open space workers became a great risk. But let us leave the medical stuff to professionals. It is just bad to be collocated right now.

So, what do I observe: nothing has change actually for me. I still my job as usual, still connected, still delivering. But most of my “bound” employed friends and employees are experiencing some huge stress right now! They are both technically and mentally not prepared for what one of them has named – “the big separation”. All of a sudden, managers can’t micromanage and employees can’t be micromanaged! Most of them don’t even have the vpn/extranet and confcall set up. As a result, most of the employees are even forced to go to the office (something I consider as a crime during this dangerous period), or the delivery is just stopped, causing a lot of business losses.

On the other hand, the “not bound” employers (hey, I’ve invented my own vocabulary) have quite easily transformed their work to be “home office” based only. They are still able to deliver in a predictable manner; all of the communication and decision-making processes stay almost the same. It is only the physical location of the worker that has changed. Virtually all of them are there and do deliver!

What was a bit surprising for me is that my twitter has filled up with yammers like “Oh, I can’t work from home! It’s not the same experience!”, “I miss smalltalks by the cooler”, “I want my long dinners back! Where is my free food?”, “I want to play ping pong!”. Looks like the most of the developers are too much used to go to the office and are unable to organize their own self-discipline. As they were forced to move to home office many of them said – “Damn, I have a feeling a work a lot more now..”.

Work from home is not just a benefit, it is also is a developed skill. In my medical case I had no other option! But with this COVID situation, many of us will have to learn that. Will have to elaborate their code of conduct with people surrounding them, allowing and respecting their isolation. Will have to learn how to self-organize and gain discipline.

Fortunately or unfortunately the WFH skill may be more and more demanded by the market. Just because it is economically more effective – no need to pay office space, no need for enormous transportation expenses etc. This does not mean this will totally replace the offline job. It is like saying that television will replace theatres. This won’t happen. But this change in culture is happening right now, and this unfortunate COVID will accelerate it.

We’ve got a lot of examples of how people utilize this way of interaction for many years so far. Most of the open source projects are developed by distributed individuals in an asynchronous way. Gaming has almost totally gone online, allowing huge cooperative scenarios happening synchronously with people spread around the globe. Funny thing is that most of them won’t even meet offline, they don’t know their real names, whether it is a boy or a girl on the other side, the color of their skin, their religion, nationality etc.. But they work together as a team. Their “usefulness” is measured by their commitment to the common goal, not by their location and ability to gather in one room.

By the way, this situation may be a driver for many other professions to go online. Surgeons and even Air Traffic Controllers are already able to do their jobs remotely.

As for now, all of my previous employers, which some time ago have denied my participation in many projects because of my inability to be present at various offline meetings (meeting driven development) have filled up the Internet with great pro tips for how to work from home! I hope they really have changed, not just following the hype.

But.. I’m pretty much sure, after this COVID craziness is gone.. everything will go to the previous(ish) state.

And I’m now listening to Eurythmics song “sweet dreams”.