Working From Home – My two cents on remote work

Anyone who reads this blog has probably also read about, or heard of the recent policy from Marissa Mayer at Yahoo recalling home-office based employees back to the office (Bing search here in case you’ve been under a rock). Most of the reactions I’ve seen to this policy are correctly identifying this as a management problem (or a worker-milking-the-system) problem, and I agree with that assessment.

Of course, remote workers all over the internet are completely up in arms whether they work at Yahoo or not. Perhaps they’re afraid that their employer will follow suit (not-likely), or they don’t want to be discovered as yet-another-wfh-miler (slightly more likely), or they feel like their choice of work method is being threatened by the publicity of this choice (most likely).

To be clear, I am completely supportive of working from home. I’m fortunate enough to have an employer and a history of managers who let me work from home – or remotely as needed. In fact, the recent news reminded me that after I worked remotely for two solid weeks in the summer of 2011, I wrote up some thoughts for my (then) manager. Given that there’s nothing confidential in that write up, I’m sharing it unedited below as fodder for discussion.


From: Alan Page
To: Ross
Date: August 3, 2011
Subject: Working the Swing Shift in France

This summer, I’m spending two weeks working from Toulouse, France. My family came here for a vacation (and to house sit for some friends of friends). I had planned to only stay for about 10 days, but due to a variety of circumstances, I decided to extend my trip and stay with my family for an additional two weeks. I asked Ross if I could work from France for a few weeks and he graciously allowed me to do so.

The logistics

The house we’re staying in has a reasonably fast internet connection as well as an office where the door shuts, so a reasonable workspace wasn’t a problem. I decided that I’d work Redmond hours (I start work between 4:00 and 6:00 pm and work until 2:00 or 3:00am). There was no requirement that I align my work with Redmond time, but it allowed me to spend some time on daytrips with my family during the day before beginning the workday. I was also able to attend a fair number of meetings over Lync.

The experience

I’ve worked from home before and have never had a problem staying focused on work outside of the workplace (I probably learned to excel in this area while writing hwtsam on evenings and weekends). My family (fortunately) “gets” that I’m working even though I’m close by and leaves me alone to concentrate.

One highlight of the experience is that Lync has worked flawlessly. I’ve made several calls to Redmond, and attended several meetings. Audio and video have worked well, and it’s helped keep me connected much of the time.

I was reflecting on my first week of working remotely, and had a bit of an insight. I have been able to get a ton of work done – but to be fair and honest, it’s different work than I would have done had I been in Redmond. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, since some of the things I’ve worked on (e.g. writing up thoughts and experimenting with fault injection, figuring out how Lync should approach model-based testing, writing up debugging tutorials, or polishing up a thinkweek paper) are the right work for me to do, but it seems that working remotely changes priorities slightly. By this, I mean that a big part of my typical role involves interacting with people on the team in a somewhat random pattern – e.g. answering questions in the hallway, discussing topics of the day over lunch, or following up with people 1:1 after meetings. Not all Microsoft roles involve this sort of interaction, but it seems difficult to interact in this manner remotely.

One example I thought of that reflects the above is this scenario: Say Josh and Bob are talking in Josh’s office. I overhear the conversation and have some relevant (and valuable!) thoughts, so I get up, poke my head in and join the conversation. That scenario doesn’t happen if I’m not there.

An interesting Lync feature based on this would work like this. Say Bob and Josh are having an IM conversation. If Lync noticed that I was on both of their contact lists, and they mentioned a keyword that shows up in my “interests”, Lync would ask them if they wanted to add me to the conversation.

I think the casual interaction limitation is more of a cultural problem than something inherent to working remotely (and something that may solve itself if I was away for a longer period). My thought is that in general, people on our team don’t send IM’s casually – e.g. “Hey – I was just talking to Dan about test automation, and wondered if you had thoughts on how to do data driven testing”, or “Do you have any quick thoughts on blah?”. The questions I normally hear in the hallway, or from someone sticking their head in my office haven’t occurred over IM (or telephone for that matter).

Another example is the value (in our culture) of the in-person follow up. For example, I sent an email to a few peers on the team last week – I was expecting it to turn into a discussion, but only received two short replies (I replied to both, and then the conversation ended). If I were in Redmond, I probably would have had an additional casual conversation with a few of the recipients and attempted to clear up any ambiguity or answer any questions that was blocking an engaged conversation on the topic. This is difficult to do remotely (although it’s certainly possible to do all of this over IM, it takes some getting used to).


Now – since I wrote that email, I’ve changed teams, and the world has warmed up more to social media. Lots of Microsoftees use Yammer, and IM usage is on the rise. I (and others) still don’t think we (as a company, and as an industry) are doing enough to support and encourage remote work, and I’m discouraged a bit that Yahoo has seemed to take us a step or two backwards.

 

 

3 Comments

  1. Posted March 15, 2013 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    Hi,
    Likewise, my role is in leadership and interacting with people is the key component of that role. I do work from home 1 day a week.
    My work from home days are some of my most productive, and some of my least productive days. By far, the progress that I make on the good days overwhelm those days when it would have been better to be in the office.
    The type of work at home differs from the office work. I try to work on tasks that require concentration and “flow” for my work at home day.

  2. Posted March 19, 2013 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    Agreed on being at work in person provides more perspective of talking to people and getting involved much better than working from home. However, WFH helps so much to clear the backlog. One thing I noticed about Working From Home, is I usually start earlier than I would have (eliminate driving time to and fro), and I also tend to eliminate the kitchen trips to get a cup of water. :) Would we call that not taking breaks when WFH as productive? well, It depends, on kind of work being accomplished during that time. Troubleshooting, documenting and sorts of work requiring dedicated attention would be easily accomplished remote.

    all in all, comparing between WFH and being in-person, and the amount of work done, really depends on what is being accomplished. With Lync in place, there is a lot that gets done being remote depending on the role and the tasks planned.

  3. Posted March 26, 2013 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    In a perfect world I would work at home no more than 1-2 days per week, usually on days I had work that is better done uninterrupted or days when I had a very early meeting so commuting would make the day much harder. Otherwise, I hate it. The days are so inconsistent. After over a year of never working in office, I don’t have the small habits that help me break up my day. I used to kind of pool up tasks to do, so I’d always have to check email, run to the bathroom, grab a beverage, and “Stop by to see X person” was very easy to add on, as was an extra lap in the hallway to wake me up more. Now that I don’t have that same structure, either I get so absorbed in something I don’t take a break for hours and hours and the day whips by but I get eye strain and muscle cramps from not taking care of my physical self, or the day seems to drag and it makes focusing harder. I have to use tricks to keep myself engaged. All in all, it’s amazing to work from home sometimes, but doing it always is very very difficult.

    As a person dealing with pain & some disability, I thought being able to rest when best for my body would help. The truth is, when I practice hiding my pain, not grimacing, and being nice to everybody, it helps me feel normal. It makes me look normal. It gives me the feeling that things are more under control and I’m more capable than I think, so I push myself to even go out to dinner after work sometimes, and stay for a talk I might not have if it took a drive to get there. I thought I’d be gaining time to do that by saving it in the commute. I’m not sure that time and our perception of it works like that.

    I work my rear off at the office or at home. I try hard to be the person you can count on the deliver. I’m not always perfect at it, and I do fail like anyone else, but I care about it. Now I care about being there when it matters for the client and others that count on me. It isn’t about being attention getting anymore, or building a name, like it is at a big company. It’s about doing what it takes to deliver for the client, and being there to push through a fix if we need testing later than expected. Overtime like that makes sense. Overtime just to fit in more work is demoralizing & not sustainable. But a short term push for a reason can work out. I think the same is true from working at home. I smart, hard worker from home is better than someone less talented in the office at times. That still doesn’t mean it’s equal to that same working in the office often, and at home when it makes sense.

    Working from home is a great temporary gig for me. Trying to stretch it into years is a difficult challenge. Now I go on more customer visits, and I’m skyping or hours a day, so the isolation is less. I still lose something from the daily interaction with others. I lose something because no one is watching. Instead of being more comfortable, I’m shocked sometimes when my camera is on that I’m grimacing and I don’t know it. I don’t want to lose abilities. I never thought that I might by not working in an office. I even miss seeing when my devs get a new haircut. Why? I’m not sure. Because I feel more like I know them that way. Part of “us” is how we behave in person, and we have one less dimension to know each other when that part is gone.

Leave some words for the weasel

%d bloggers like this: