Steve, I appreciate your editorial of July 15th. The topic of remote work has become, for me, an especially important one. Prior to March 2020, when we were all sent home due to COVID induced lockdowns, I’d never heard of working remotely, except for contractors who worked short term contracts. As time went by and it became clear that we were not returning to the office (RTO) soon, I started looking into remote working. My eyes were opened to a whole new world I’d never known about, until our having to work from home (WFH). I’ve joined a community of professionals who discuss remote working, the challenges, approaches to remote working, strategies for mental health, etc.
Prior to March 2020 my commute to work was horribly long. I was living to work.
After it became obvious that we weren’t going to RTO soon in 2020, I began to realize the difference WFH made in my life. I was sleeping 7 hours a night, instead of 4. I had time to relate to my wife and our children each day, rather than just on the weekends. My stress level went way down. I became convinced that WFH was the ONLY way to work. That view of WFH lasted through most of 2020. Then I began to read of some people who were struggling with other stresses I didn’t have to deal with while WFH. Some people were single and were holed up alone for months. Some had young children that they had to deal with. And even in the remote work communities I had joined, people reminded me that some occupations require a person to be on-site. After all, you can’t work construction remotely. The same goes for hair stylists, plumbers, dentists, and dental assistants, many nursing and doctor’s positions (although some can be done remotely), etc. It became obvious to me that the idea that all jobs should be done remotely, was naïve. But many jobs and careers can be done remotely today, given the technology available to us. Certainly, software engineers and DBAs positions can all be done remotely. And for my coworkers and I that was critically important, as early in the pandemic we had to spend long hours working together online. If we were required to work in the office, we would never go home. And I don’t work for a tech startup.
I am not opposed to getting together socially, although in my situation I wish such social gatherings were local.
Steve, you asked if there are some aspects of development or operations which are done better in person. I believe the answer is no, but there’s two parts to my answer. First, the team I’m on and have been on since 2015, never got together to do anything in person. Even before the pandemic when we were in the office (or cubical, as I was) we didn’t meet in person. We didn’t do pair programming or whiteboarding, in person. All of that was done using Skype/WebEx/MS-Teams. By “team” I mean we all reported to one guy, although frequently we worked on separate projects. So, there wasn’t a need to meet or talk with one another in person. Sometimes we would work on a team of two people, but then we coordinated our efforts by email and chat. Even our meetings with customers was done virtually. To force us into a room to work together would have been and would still be stilted. And everyone would leave to return to their office. The only difference was when a Business Analyst insisted that the developers show up at a meeting with the internal customers (we only work with internal customers). Such meeting was always called by those BA’s who are extroverts who need to see everyone’s faces. The developers would sit there quietly, knowing that our participation could have been handled through email.
Now for the second part of my answer as to why I think it isn’t better to meeting in person to do some tasks for developers or DBAs. One of the things I’ve learned about remote working since the beginning of COVID, is that flexibility is key. Besides not having to commute into an office, another flexibility many companies/organizations allowed their employees was to work the times they needed to, rather than adhere to the strict hours that is required when working in an office. (Side note: where I work that time flexibility was never granted to us, which caused a lot of people to leave out of necessity.) So, how do you manage communication, if you’re not able to get into a live chat with someone that instant? This problem has been thought about and there are solutions and I’m sure this is a field that has potential for growth as new companies or established companies address asynchronous communications. For example, Grapevine allows you to record yourself speaking to your audience giving a presentation, which they’ll view later. Another is Fellow . Another is Yac, and there are more. I believe it is likely that many companies haven’t investigated these options under the false perception that the only way to have meetings is if they’re always synchronous.) Of course, these don’t replace the social gatherings that can and should occur on a periodic basis, to help with bonding a group of employees that are distributed. Asynchronous meetings are about passing along information that would normally happen in a regular and frequently scheduled in-person meeting, only not done in person.
I could say a lot more, but I think I would finish by saying what I think will make a difference for someone trying to work remotely successfully. Here are two things I’ve learned from remote working advocates and what has worked for me.
First, in a traditional, office setting, someone else makes lots of decisions for you. When you get there, when you leave. When you have lunch. Some companies can be quite strict about timing, such as one remote worker advocate, I heard when she was still working in an office the company dictated when people could take bathroom breaks. (I’ll grant that’s not going to happen to developers or DBAs.) My point is that you won’t have someone looking over your shoulder, checking up on you. Therefore, you must be disciplined to manage yourself and your time. I do two things. I have a Pomodoro timer going, so every 25 minutes I take a short break, stand up, stretch, look at a distance, etc. Only for a few minutes. I find that if I get distracted by something on the Web those timers are great for getting me to refocus. I also document what I do, each day.
The second thing you can do is communicate. This is big. You might think you’re overcommunicating, but it is better to post notes in your chat platform on what you’re doing, the blocks you’ve encountered, how you resolve those blocking circumstances when you do, etc. That way you, your team, and your boss are conscious of what’s going on. They know and are aware of your work.