Working From Home: A Retrospective

I’ve spent the past eight months working from home thanks to some great support from my employer, allowing me to support my wife and children and still contribute as a meaningful employee. Working from home with four small children and a loving and supportive wife has brought its fair share of both challenges and delights. This post will describe the working from home experience and the lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Personal Productivity

Without a doubt my personal productivity went up. Working from home meant fewer distractions, noise and interruptions. VendAsta follows an open office plan which can be great for ad-hoc communication but terrible for worker satisfaction and personal productivity. In fact, a recent New Yorker article summarizing the issue (The Open-Office Trap) details numerous studies showing that open office plans are detrimental to productivity and satisfaction at work. In one study, researchers from the University of Calgary found that moving to an open office design is “negatively related to workers’ satisfaction with their physical environment and perceived productivity”. In another, Researchers at the University of Sidney found that open office plans have the lowest level of worker satisfaction stating that “the disadvantages brought by noise disruption were bigger than the predicted benefits of increased interaction”.

My experience working from home confirmed these findings and I found that the decreasing number of interruptions meant I could perform more and better work in less time.

Team Communication

Team communication suffered. At VendAsta, we practice agile development using scrum with all of the encompassing roles and responsibilities. As a team member my role is to estimate stories in the backlog, commit to a set number of stories per sprint, and to execute on those stories during the sprint. When the stories were written with careful business analysis and clear expectations of the acceptance criteria I felt no discernable difference between working from home and working remotely. When the stories were written with vague acceptance criteria or without careful thought of the business implications it was significantly harder to contribute to team productivity. Our usual approach in this case is to get together as a team in an ad-hoc meeting to hash out the details of the particular story so that work on it can resume. Unfortunately, even with modern video chat, screen sharing and other remote working tools, communicating to a group of people is very difficult as a remote employee. There is just no substitute to sitting together in the same room working out a problem on a shared white board.

Work-Life Balance

The difference in work-life balance is difficult to analyze. I’ll start with the biggest and most glaring postive – I was home and helpful to our family during breakfast, lunch, and dinner for almost a year. You really can’t over value how important that is to a young family. Living in a small city I don’t have a very long commute but the difference between a 20 minute commute and no commute at all is striking. Being around for lunch or to help put a child to sleep. Just being in the house so my wife could grab some groceries while everyone was napping. All of these minor benefits add up to really make the experience of raising our children that much easier.

Guilt

Working from home with my wife and children in the same house meant I was always aware of the sheer pile of work my wife was doing each day to help our family – while I had the much easier task of sitting at a computer typing on a keyboard. The dichotomy between the pace and stress level of her day and mine meant that I was, more often than not, feeling guilty about not helping her more. At the same time, if I did stay an extra 15 minutes after lunch to help her get a particularly fussy child to nap I felt guilty to my employer and team for not being back at my desk and working. The reality is that, as a remote worker, I assume the rest of my team thinks I’m relaxing in a hammock with a cocktail if I’m unavailable for a few minutes. I’m not sure how to assuage that guilt.

Helpful Tools

  1. ChromeBox.

    Our company was sent a set of ChromeBox units for free as part of a trial program. They are, without a doubt, excellent for holding meetings with remote employees.

  2. HipChat.

    We started using HipChat internally and the area where it excels is group to group communication. HipChat makes it effortless to jump into a different teams chat and ask a quick question.

Not So Helpful Tools

  1. Google Hangouts.

    This is a tough item to put on the list because it is so great at what it is meant to do – one to one video chat. Unfortunately, when you get more than one person in the same Hangout and that Hangout is being shared on a projector it quickly degrades into a useability problem. I dare not count the number of minutes and hours wasted getting Hangouts to properly share the presenters screen or to get the proper microphone unmuted for a presentation.

  2. Pen and Paper. Whiteboards.

    By far my most used and most useful communication tool is rendered useless by remote work. I’m the type of person that needs time writing, reading and thinking to come up with solutions to a problem. By stripping those tools away during remote meetings I found it very difficult to contribute to joint discussions in a meaningful way.

Qualities of a Remote Worker

Remote working is not for everyone. Although I can’t claim to have any authority on the subject I did compile a list of qualities that make a successful remote worker.

  1. Action Oriented

    A great remote worker needs to gravitate towards taking action rather than waiting for instruction. Being remote implies that you may not always be up to date on the discussions and decisions being made in the office. At times it is up to you to pick up a task and start working on it.

  2. Able to Prioritize Independently

    Closely linked to being action oriented is the ability to prioritize. Not being privy or available for every in office conversation means you need to be able to judge independently what tasks are high priority. It’s important to note that you may be wrong in your choice of tasks. As long as you have some level of trust with your manager or employer and you aren’t too far off the mark this shouldn’t be an issue.

  3. Strong Written Communicator

    As a remote worker one of your primary communication channels is e-mail. Being a strong writer complements so many other professional attributes that you really cannot value this enough. It’s my opinion that every knowledge worker should be comfortable writing and presenting their ideas.

Qualities of a Remote Manager

Remote work is not for every job. The remote employee’s job should be well defined with clear goals. There also must be some level of trust between the employee and the employer. In the end, you are a professional and it is up to you to act as a professional no matter where you are working. That said, there are a few qualities that the employer needs to bring to the table as well.

  1. Trust

    The employer has to trust their employee to get the job down to the best of their ability. You hired the person to begin with so some level of trust must be present. The trust level cannot be different for remote and in office workers.

  2. Planning

    The product manager is generally responsible for determining the project goals and how they are prioritized. Remote workers need a manager with a strong ability to distill and communicate the project goals so that the worker can independently choose tasks without unnecessary communication barriers.

Summary

I really enjoyed my time as a remote worker, but equally enjoy being back in the office. Things are not better or worse in either case. Just different.

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