JHUG works from home
The covid-19 pandemic has changed the way we work. Where feasible every activity has transferred online and this involves work from home (WFH), telecommuting, work from anywhere (WFA), remote working and smart working. Some countries, like Italy, have gone one step further and are talking about the phenomenon of south working, people are leaving the big cities and are moving to the provinces where life is better and cheaper but they keep their jobs and continue to work remotely.
Of course remote working is not something new. Especially in the IT domain, many companies had already embraced it. Many companies allow their employees to work from home some days a month and some others allow an unlimited number of days. There are also cases of organisations that have aggressively embraced it and their employees work exclusively from their homes, coffee houses or co-working spaces, or are even based on other cities than the premises of the company. These companies reflected on the pros and cons of remote working and decided that it is beneficial for them to adopt it.
Alas, this was not the case with most companies during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most companies were obliged or forced to move online for public safety reasons. Crowded trains and crowded offices are considered hotspots for the virus and experts recommend strongly against them. This transition to remote working was neither instant nor smooth. Working remotely during the pandemic is definitely not the same as working remotely in general.
To get a glimpse on the situation we have asked our members to share their experiences for almost a year of working from home. We have gathered the feedback and positioned it using 4 axes: psychology, office, time and processes.
Definitely not the best. There is a pandemic out there and all activities have paused. Most people are worried for their family, friends and beloved persons. Then come productivity concerns and the uncertainty about the future. This adds additional stress which cannot be handled equally well by everyone. Some can cope with it, some not. A lot of empathy is needed for other people, and we should not assume everyone can handle the situation in the same way as we do. We should not blame ourselves if we are having difficulties. We should not expect perfection from others if we are doing fine. During the pandemic, assessments, reviews and performance metrics can wait. Over-performers and under-performers should be judged judiciously.
Offices are full of distractions and interruptions. You cannot start working on something and hope that you will manage to stay concentrated for some hours to finish it. Someone will interrupt you soon, with reason being anything, from an urgent bug in production to a needless meeting that could have been an email, to a question like “where Peter sits? There is a courier at the door”. Working from home certainly does not have that many interruptions.
One of the reasons offices are full of interruptions is because they are full of people that are socializing. This is what people miss the most when working from home. They talk to colleagues not for FOO-242 but for TV shows and football. To say and hear a good joke or story. To suggest good restaurants. To say and hear some well hearted good mornings before work.
Some companies try to compensate by using channels for socializing. This does not seem to work. It is very artificial. Good socializing is spontaneous. You see John and you want to tease him because his team lost 4-0 yesterday. But scheduling a meeting with John on Friday 15:00 UTC to troll him feels fake. It is not the same as the everyday contact at the office.
Of course saying homes have no distractions this period is not true. It is not as pre-covid19 when your kids went to school, your other half went to work, then you could turn the music on, disconnect from the chat and start coding like when you were a student. Now the whole family is at home. There is no longer a clear separation between work, family and fun. Everything is rather mixed. A bit of everything all day long. And this means a lot of distractions, interruptions and noise. If at all feasible, a dedicated room is very helpful for work, the living room is no longer adequate.
Another issue is equipment. Offices usually have better internet connections, better computers and they also have a support team to fix issues immediately. At home, if a problem of this kind happens, then it will take some time to be solved at the expense of work.
The biggest loss in leaving the office is the lack of random talks and encounters and the relaxation of team bonding. It is a great deal to be able to discuss your work with your colleagues. They can give you interesting ideas, well-meaning critique, reliable feedback. Socializing and brainstorming promotes creativity and productivity. This is the most difficult part to move online as it is a result of timing, mood and inspiration. All these are more or less instantaneous and unpredictable and cannot be moved with the same effect to scheduled meetings let alone online. It happens many times that we cannot find a solution to a problem after 3 or 4 intense meetings and we find it when we discuss it over a cup of coffee in the lobby. The best compensation so far is to allow people to initiate random video calls without an agenda or expected deliverables. This of course is part of the organization’s processes.
Time and schedule
One immediate advantage is that there is no commuting. In Greece, the distances are small but the traffic is intense and thus the commuting time is considerable. Remote work saves on the average an hour a day that is spent on other more useful activities.
The next point is the flexibility of schedule, if your employer permits it. You can wake up a bit later, take your breakfast, work 10-14, then take a nap and continue in the afternoon. Or you can start your day with your kids or your hobbies and do your daily work at noon. Of course during the day you can take some longer breaks to go for groceries or to the post office or cook a special dish to eat.
Under these conditions you can be more productive because you manage your own time but is it also easier to waste your time in other activities or get distracted a lot and in the end underperform. For this reason, some companies do not allow it. They require employees to be online 9-5, always available and that their AFKs be small and predictable.
This flexibility and the lack of commuting unfortunately has led to stretching of the work schedule for some. There are 10 hours work days, DMs and emails outside the work schedule and attempts (deliberate or not) to exploit the fact that people are home and can answer 24x7. Of course this is unacceptable and at best it shows the immaturity of an organization’s processes.
There is no verdict as to whether flexibility is an advantage or not. It is very tightly coupled with how well the other processes of a company have migrated remotely.
At the organization level, how different is working at the premises than working from home? Initially almost all companies moved their processes online without changes. A meeting in a room became a zoom call. A need for help from a colleague became a DM. The morning catchup became a slack thread or a zoom meeting. Work continued as usual but you used an online tool for everything.
Soon it became clear that this was not the way for effective remote working. The issue was communication overhead. The on-premises processes were designed with physical communication in mind which is straightforward, terse and concise. For most organizations the transition resulted in a lot of meetings to say the same things over and over again. Meetings are now easier (and abused) because there is no need for a meeting room. Imagine an edge case, an organization without a process at all. To resolve a bug you do: grep logs, git blame, talk to Maria. This is tedious but works. Moving this online is a nightmare. You end up losing a lot of time just to coordinate people. It is not only the issue of telling someone what to do. You must also make sure that they fully understand it otherwise they will lose time on dealing with the wrong problem or, even worse, over engineer a simple task. That needs a second round of communications and maybe a third.
For effective remote working the keyword is asynchronous communication. Everything should be written as concise and unambiguously as possible and posted in the right channels for the teams to find it and take actions. The teams will also communicate the same way and in the same channels to request help or resources and to put the deliverables of the tasks. This is not as simple as it looks, it needs work and commitment on behalf of the organizations. In respect to this, there are two types of organizations:
The first type does not like remote work and prefers to have the stuff on premises. These organizations consider this remote period as transient and expect the people to return to their offices when it ends. It does not invest on improving the processes for remote as they don’t expect to use it intensively in the future. For now they decided to tolerate the remote overhead.
The second type realizes that remote working is a game changer regarding operational costs, overall performance and talent acquisition. It uses the current pandemic period as a testbed for improvisation of the processes, to select the proper tools and learn to use them effectively in the future.
Two processes deserve special mention: hiring and onboarding. How to evaluate candidates? How to prepare new employees to start work smoothly? Admittedly these can be done better on premises with physical communication. Even full remote companies do it that way. Doing it remotely was not exactly difficult but it was challenging. Online tools work well here because there is no shortage of meeting rooms or schedule conflicts or interview stereotypes or dress codes. You have just to talk with each other. Also evaluation forms or coding exercises can be fulfilled online with ease. But physical contact in these cases certainly adds value. In some cases, when the lockdown measures were relaxed, a candidate or a new hire could go to the premises and have a discussion with the colleagues. In many cases this was not possible and thus started working remotely immediately. The issue now is again the team bonding. You are cooperating for months with a person you have only seen on screen. This is getting worse because of the lack of socializing. Even before the pandemic it takes some time to feel at home with new members in your team. Now it takes a bit longer and there is always the question how things will be from near.
The general impression is that remote working delivers. People have adapted to it and now they feel more comfortable and they are more productive. Of course things are still under constant revision and are improving. The point is that from now on, even after the pandemic ends, we are expecting remote working to be a more common case than an exception.