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Thoughts on Working Remotely

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Remote Worker

The big news hit recently that Yahoo! gave remote workers an ultimatum:  move to Yahoo! offices or find a new job.  I was shocked that a company like Y! would ever do such a thing.  I've worked remotely for the past three years and I wanted to share some thoughts:

  • I've been much, much more productive working from home than the five years I spent in an office.  In an office environment, you get interrupted by coworkers, blitzed with phone calls, caught up in office gossip, pulled into long business lunches, brought into meetings you have no business being in, and waste time driving to work when you could already be working.  None of the above is productive, yet it's all I remember of the office environment.
  • There's nothing more depressing than a cubicle.  When I started working from home, I vowed I would never work anywhere without big windows.  Today I sit by my huge living room window and every time I get frustrated, I look outside, see a neighbor walking their dog or playing with their kid, and I instantly feel happier.  It's amazing what seeing the big picture, if only for a moment, does for your work.
  • Whenever I tell people I work from home, the first thing I hear is "I could never do that  -- I'd probably get lazy and stop working all together."  That's really not the likely scenario -- in fact, I probably work too much due to the ease of access to work email, laptop, etc.  Luckily I love my job at Mozilla and a little extra work is a joy.
  • The amount of money I save on gas and food (due to escaping to get lunch outside of the office) is massive.
  • During my office days, I was once forced to drive to work in more than a foot of snow despite having everything I needed to work at home.  I narrowly avoided two accidents, slid into a ditch, somehow got out, and just about ended up in another ditch.  On the way home, I was forced to make the decision to slide into another car or slide into a ditch again, so I jacked the wheel and got stuck in the snow.  All that so I was working in an office, so people could call me and stop to ask me a question?  Insane.  I'll never do that again.  It's also incredibly unfair for an employer to make their employees go through that.
  • Painters paint best where they're most inspired and writers write where they feel most productive -- why should that be any different for coders?  Web designers and developers have, arguably, the least reason to go to an office -- after all, if we can connect to a server, we can get what we need.  Put people in the environment they're most productive, with the tools they need, and they will work wonders.
  • Admittedly one drawback to working remotely is the feeling that you never know where you stand.  Am I doing well enough?  Was this completed quickly enough?  Does my boss or coworker have faith in me?  You never quite get over that when you work remotely, so you simply need to do your best and you'll be fine.
  • When you are on deadline or forced to work late, the office worker usually goes into a daze thinking "I can't wait to get home."  The remote employee thinks "Let me hammer this out so my spouse stops glaring at me."  What an incredible difference in motivation.  :D
  • Let's face it -- we'd all prefer to be contacted via email or IRC/chat instead of having someone stop by our desk and chat up our ear.  We can back to them on our own timeline and will likely provide a more detailed answer.  Even better:  you can always reference what you wrote and received.
  • I'm not ignoring the business side completely;  I do understand that there are issues relating to state tax, insurance, and more.  Let me make that clear.  The amount a business can save on office space, office amenities, and more can help offset those costs.
  • Happy developers are productive developers.

Those are just a few thoughts on working remotely and how it's very much to the advantage of both businesses and developers.  Am I wrong?  Am I right?  Share your experience!

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Discussion

  1. I completely agree with you. I’ve been blessed to have a job that allows me to work from home or a local office with just myself and one other co-worker. It’s very close so I have maybe a 15 minute drive that’s mostly backroads. Currently I’m working for a website owned by AOL, which is amazing and they honestly encourage working remotely. One last thing I’ll say is that you are 100% right (at least in my case too) that you never know how well you’re performing and often worry about that sort of thing.

    Great article!

  2. Jemmy

    Awesome post as usual. I started as a front end dev in 1997 and worked in an office until 2000. Since then I’ve been a work-at-home contractor about 80% of the time. Clients have doubted, even resisted, but eventually they saw the quantity and quality of output and changed their minds.I can find “the zone” when I’m in an office but I can’t keep it; at home I stay in it for hours.

    I do prefer being with the team in person for brainstorming and white boarding (I always find these lacking via teleconferencing tools), but then send me home for the implementation.

    That said, I just signed on to a new gig–a fifty minute city commute each way and four to five days in the office every week. We’ll see how I do. Fortunately my CTO has worked with me in the past and said he didn’t think it would be a problem to let me work from home more once things get settled.

  3. All pretty valid points, a few other things id like to add though. 1) You have to make a conscious effort to get out of the house. It can be pretty easy to work during the day, watch TV at night and before you know it you haven’t stepped outside for 3 days. 2) You have to be much better with time management. Distraction from colleagues might be replaced with working on side projects, playing video games, or getting quick round of golf in during “working hours”. While that might be a luxury for some, it can also cause your work day to feel like it never ends when you’re back to work at 10PM. 3) My favorite part about remote work is that it doesnt just have to be done at home. I’ve had the luxury of taking extended workcations arounds the country without having to use vacation days.

    • Couldn’t agree more with David’s article or the additional points you have made here.

  4. When I started working at my first job out of college, I had a realization that my employer was expending vast resources to keep us all in our mauve cubicles where we put on headphones and try to ignore the 100s of people around us. I was put on production support, where I was expected to work *whenever* remotely, when I received a support call.

    However they didn’t trust remote work normally. Totally batty.

    I’ve also been working remote for about 3 years, and I never want to go back to full-time office dwelling. Not only can you balance family life better when you’re not away from the house, wasting time commuting, eating out – but you also have the opportunity to work when you work best.

    I can only hope that this remote trend will continue to grow, as well as killing the whole idea of having to work 8 hours a day and instead move towards a value system where you are paid for the value you provide as opposed to being paid for chair camping.

  5. Trevor

    I previously worked for an organisation that had several offices, I was located at one of the smaller ones so nearly all of my “clients” were located at the bigger offices. I could realistically have worked from anywhere in the world doing what I was doing, except for the couple of days a year training people (because some people were not able to follow a 5 step written process that was pretty obvious from the process flow of the application anyway). I had a number of very productive years until a new manager decided to move me to a high traffic area where people were constantly talking so I could never get into “the zone”. Productivity went to crap. The whole situation ended very badly.

    I wonder how many of the committed productive Yahoo employees will end up having mental health issues out of this decision?

    I suspect Yahoo will end up with the people who were not productive still working for then and the good people will have gone within a short time. They will probably get a short term boost to their bottom line as the redundancy liability goes away, after that…

  6. David, you said it all.

    Working from home is a blessing for me. The biggest advantage is the commutation time. The stress and waste of time in travel is unnecessary and any reduction goes towards improving the productivty and overall quality of life.

    The biggest challenge is “trust”. This thing can work only if there is trust between the two parties. Self discipline also play an important part for the coders.

  7. don

    I’m not worried about this becoming a trend outside of yahoo. It’s just another in a series of their bad decisions.

  8. David, I agree with you on all points. But, all points are true only if the worker from home is mature and responsible.

  9. Gotta say that I just don`t understand the decision at Yahoo. The good news for competitors is that there will be many great ex-Yahoo employees that will be looking for new jobs so they can stay working at home. Another really bad decision at Yahoo methinks.

  10. Yes to all the above. A couple of important points:

    * Remote working is most difficult when you’ve not met the people you are working with. Getting face to face time with your team is hugely important for cutting across the issues you describe with trust and never quite knowing where you stand.

    * You do need to replace the cubicle, watercooler and lunch-time chats with something. There is signal in that noise and having some kind of IM or other real-time group discussion medium is critical for keeping some shared visibility into what other people are working on.

    * You have be proactive about communicating and you have to be reachable. Trust falls away quickly if you can’t get hold of a remote worker.

    * There has to be buy-in at an organizational level, so for example meetings must accomodate video/audio dial-in for remotees (and organizers have to remember to invite remotees to impromptu meetings)

    For the last couple of years I’ve been spending 3 or 4 days a week at a co-working space. That gets me out of the house and gives me the choice of leaving work behind at the end of the day. As you say, I’ve found the problem is you work too much not too little.

  11. Paula

    While I generally agree with your post, I think an employee’s effectiveness while working from home is directly related to the type of work they do. Also, what motivates a developer may be quite different than what motivates a product manager, marketer, or customer service rep. I work from home, and find that an occasional chat with a colleague is essential to keeping me motivated (granted, the interruption is usually mutual). Also, after a sentence or two, I find IRC/Chat completely ineffective. Nuance and emotion is important to me, and I find I often mis-read intentions.

    That said, I think Yahoo was ham-fisted in there “proclamation”. They could have easily declared one day a week as an office day, or asked managers to schedule more frequent face to face activities. Forcing 100% office time on people that signed up for remote work is a recipe for attrition, perhaps intentional, but they are likely to lose the best and brightest first.

  12. I completely agree with everything you said in this article. Fortunately/unfortunately I work at an office most days, but they do allow us to work from home from time to time. I almost always feel that I work at my best from my own computer in my house.

    I think like you said/someone else mentioned the most important part about working from home is being reachable, and for some reason when I’m sitting at my desk at home I feel much more compelled to answer length emails, and phone calls than when I’m sitting in the office.

    Great article, and hopefully one day I can find a place where I can work from home 90% of the time.

  13. Gerald Zeek

    great post. alot people dont realize how these dynamics are, but you laid it out. everyone who lives in the north can relate to the snow and traffic misery. insane gas prices taxing the whole deal. one thing to note also – is that people who go to work in a place outside of home oftentimes eat more fast food. and too much fast food is really unhealthy. ever since i began working at my own pace from my own place, my productivity has risen exponentially. the only time i have gotten sick in probably the past 4 years is when i realized i had blood sugar issues. seriously. i havent had a common cold/flu/stomach virus for a really, really long time. i do not get flu shots either. the freedom granted from working remotely just has alot of advantages.

  14. MaxArt

    I’ve been working at home for two years and I can’t deny its advantages. You’ve explained them very well.

    Anyway, now I’m working at office and there are other good points that I must consider.
    First of all, my opinion weighs way more now, and I often can get my other coworkers to do thing _my_ way. Not always, but not seldom either, like it happened to me in the past.

    I work quite near from home that I can make it by foot. My working place is nice, I have a large window on my left and my PC at work is quite good and has two displays. I rarely get distracted by my colleagues.

    I did many great things at home, but I have to admit that I browse the Internet for way too long. I don’t feel like doing the same in a office.

    I understand your PoV may be different, though. Heck, you’re David Walsh!

  15. I have been working at both places in different periods of my life as a developer. I may say that both have positives and negatives but working at home for me is the best way if you wish to be (and stay!) creative.

    I do agree with everything above and support it two hands!
    The only problem working at home is beeing destracted by “home stuff” like friends calls, friends visits, shopping (food). But in the “quiet corner” of your home you will be so productive, that at the end of the day you will be surprised by the progress you`ve made.

    I have also worked in office (as i said). The office too can be a creative place, but not with 100s of people arround, bothering you all the time with their talks and thoughts.
    Working in an office with less then 20 people – that’s paradise! I think this is what MaxArt have found.

    • MaxArt

      Something like that, yes! :)
      We’re just 13 in our office, with an adequate amount of personal space each.
      And, if I feel like it, I can still ask to work from home for a day now and then.

  16. bg

    IBM is doing the same thing, at the end of the day an empty desk or a room/office full of empty desks is too expensive to maintain – they don’t care how well you work, you would no doubt produce the same stuff if you were at work. your desk is more important to them than the work you do for them.

  17. Funny. I’m staying at home today, sick from a bug I got FROM work.

  18. Reviewing this morning’s news made me wonder if the new Yahoo boss Marissa Meyer was either marking her territory (sort of speak) or she knows something that we don’t. Though after reading David’s list above, especially the one, “…The remote employee thinks “Let me hammer this out so my spouse stops glaring at me.” What an incredible difference in motivation. :D…” it’s abundantly clear Meyer may be making her first mistake as Yahoo’s new CEO.

  19. Geethika Barla

    I agree since you carry that discipline for work even when you work from home!! But this concept doesn’t work for most of the people and I believe when I say “most” I guess that is enough for a company’s call. I guess given a cubical of your own you can actually make almost similar environment how you always wanted to work in. Its all about how you look at it and about your passion for the work you do!!

  20. Totally agree with you david, Really sad to hear what Y! has stated.

  21. I have worked remotely for over 5 years. I don’t do so any more. Whereas it’s a novel idea and it’s flexible and you can get a lot done, I wouldn’t want to work alone again. It’s boring and it’s also constricting my growth as a developer.

    Outside of actual reading, you learn most by constant collaboration and talk with colleagues, exchange of ideas, pair coding and little code reviews. You brainstorm and get stuff done quickly, on the fly – where a skype session or chat message may seem like a bridge too far.

    I still like to have the flexibility to be able to work from home if I needed it.

    And let’s face it, whatever Yahoo have been doing thus far has clearly not worked out that great for them. If they need a change, then fair enough. It may be a way to lay off some people, who knows.

    If only people spent less time talking about how great telecommuting is and focused on helping others overcome the many challenges it involves instead … Like, how do you manage your time, communications, tasks, productivity, motivation, visibility, quality control etc and how you build up trust.

    • A few thoughts Dimitar:

      1. I hate Chelsea fans.
      2. Calling working remotely “a novel idea” is “cute.” It’s more than a novel idea — it’s a way of life for most people.
      3. You mention a few things I would call “you problems”; getting bored and growth constriction because you aren’t physically near someone is actually a bit odd to me. You can IM your coworkers, keep up with them via Twitter / internal email to see what they’re up to, etc.
      4. “Whatever Yahoo have been doing thus far has clearly not worked…” is more to do with a lack of identity and strategic focus.
      5. The last paragraph really has no meaning so I can’t respond to it. You sound like an old-timer complaining about how easy kids have it these days.

  22. jeff

    While I don’t really like working from home, and don’t usually encourage my employees to do so, this is a huge mistake on Yahoo’s part. A lot of engineers enjoy working from home and if they want to retain top talent then they need to offer more perks like this… not less.

  23. You can’t work from home unless you are self-motivated. It’s hardly ever mentioned that one of the greatest benefits of working for someone else is the motivation you receive from your boss or supervisor which you otherwise wouldn’t generate yourself. Then there is procrastination. You can’t quite procrastinate if your boss is watching.

  24. Unfortunately in my current position I am not allowed to work from home but I have worked from home for past positions and ever since my first time doing it I realized that was the way I wanted to go. I’ve only done it for about 3 different positions and all were short-term contracts.

    I just started at my new position (just ending my 2nd week actually) but during this last job search I found that even today most employers just do not like allowing an employee to work remotely. I can’t figure out why. Each of the last 2 places I worked at gave me the exact same reason for not allowing remote work, “You need to be here in the office because we frequently collaborate together, not only with our own team but with members of other teams.” I wanted to tell them that collaboration could be done nearly just as easily with the abundance of online collaboration tools for remote people but each time I was in desperate need of a job and I did not want to hurt my chances. However, also in both cases, at least 99% of all collaboration that was done was done via a simple chat program. It was really disheartening.

    Before I was always a contractor but at my new position I’m an employee. Even though they don’t currently allow remote work (for the exact same reason as my previous 2 employers) I’m hoping that after being with them for a while and showing them that I’m a good worker, maybe I can talk them in to allowing me to work remotely at least part-time at first and then maybe fulltime later down the road.

  25. Sam

    YES YES YES YES!

    new Yahoo CEO is RETARTED is what I think.

  26. John

    This is going to almost sound like spam but there are some great biological reasons as well – being able to laugh or fart is a nice feature of working from home. Nothing worse than getting a hilarious email but having to suppress your laughter.

  27. BlaineM

    I would love the option to be able to work from home every day. Unfortunately, I would have to move at least an hour away from my current employer and take a 10% cut in pay. Someday, hopefully :)

    I’m one of the types who’s much more productive when alone (working at home). It’s so much easier to focus when solving an issue, if I don’t have any interruptions or people around me. Hearing someone’s voice even throws my concentration.

    One of the major distractions for me is all of the complaining in the office. Especially in my department, there’s a residual grumbling hanging in the air. It’s hard to not be swept up by it when there. For me, that’s a huge reason to be out of the office, to have my own environment.

    Someday.

  28. This blog is amazing. I realy love it!

  29. I work remotely with two other coworkers in a startup I joined in January coming from an office and I’ve never felt happier! I find that catching up with them every few days, or getting together at a coffee shop or restaurant is invigorating and helps me stay focused and on track.

  30. Skybox Creative has been crafting web and branding campaigns in San Diego for almost 7 years. For the first 5 1/2, we worked in a traditional office environment. We switched over to a virtual business model in May of last year and haven’t looked back since.

    We were able to expand our team due to the overhead savings, we’re growing in revenue and everyone is happier. I changed the model as a test with the disclaimer, “Anything goes wrong and we’re all coming back to work M-F, 9-6.” Luckily, I didn’t have to do this.

    As creative types, we need flexibility and diversity to be inspired. Working from home has been one of the best decisions I’ve made.

    We still have monthly team lunches and work together for a half day on Fridays to keep the synergy alive with the team. This has proven to be very good for team building and morale… I would highly recommend an occasional meeting of the minds for people who work remote.

  31. Great post and great comments. I agree on most of the points and yes, you definitely need to be a mature dev with good time / life management skills to work at home.

    It still depends on the person though – I feel I’m much more productive when I’m surrounded by colleagues and I find much easier face-to-face communication rather than IM – still, this is subjective and I do understand other people have different ways.

  32. Firstly, great post and comments – helpful thoughts for me at this time.
    I’ve worked as a print and digital graphic designer in my current job for 2 years now (in the office 9-5). I’m making a lifestyle change – move out of the city (and away from the office).
    Having worked in office for 2 years with the small team has been great, and I’ve developed quality relationships that I’m sure will help with the transition.
    My major concern is actually technically based. On the odd day when I have accessed the server remotely, it’s sluggish (to be kind). Dealing often with relatively large files, I’d like to hear if anyone has suggestions/thoughts on how to combat that rift – technically (software etc) and making sure not to burden the existing team in the office with requests to transfer files etc.

    I’m based in australia, expecting the National Broadband Network to come into effect in a few years (100 Mbps), but untill then, what to do?

    Thanks.

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