On working remote

If you are from a rural area where IT jobs can only be gotten to through a rather arduous daily commute then working from remote (i.e. your home) might seem like a sensible and enticing thing to do. Especially when the commute route is as congested and public transport as poorly developed as it is in my area which is northern Upper Austria.

To be honest, this post will be something of a rant on my part, so if you think public venting is stupid or have another opinion, I suggest you do not read on.

Remote work has been all over IT news and periodicals over the last couple of months, 43% of companies in Germany claim that they allow their employees to work from home from time to time. Sounds like a no-brainer then, right? Well, in reality, my experience is a bit different though.

Mine is bigger than yours

Remote-working employees say that they are more productive because they can work in an environment that they are accustomed to and feel comfortable in. Especially IT people can be quite picky when it comes to hardware and allowing them to use their own PCs is therefore not only an opportunity for the employer to save some money for hardware and office space but also will it be a satisfactory and pleasant experience for the employee. Some might even consider it more desirable than soccer tables, a free vegan gluten-free fruit breakfast, or the occasional after-work beer.

Many IT people will invest heavily in their private IT infrastructure because they are enthusiasts and it is highly likely that their equipment will out-perform any company-provided hardware anyway. At least this has always been the case for me. Consequently, productivity is likely to go up as well. However, I will admit that there are some cases where company-provided hardware is a must, for example in some licensing situations, when special hardware is needed, for security reasons or when a tight coupling to company infrastructure is required. But these cases are rather the exception than the rule, especially in software development and many of these cases can be mitigated – if the company is willing – by the use of VPNs, multifactor authentication, RSA hardware tokens etc. For devs, all that is needed is git, an IDE, and access to any collaboration software like JIRA and a collaboration tool like Slack.

Refueled and rearmed

So, making homework a company-wide option would not only contribute to happier employees and supposedly higher work output but also to a more modern approach toward work-life integration. It allows for any personal work preference. Some people simply aren’t productive in the hours after lunch due to a phenomenon called postprandial somnolence, or food coma, when their nervous system is occupied digesting food and all their blood is directed to their digestive system, but they chug along anyway. Wouldn’t it be better for everyone involved to take a break, take a quick nap, play with the kids, go on a walk or whatever and return to work after a couple of hours, refueled and rearmed?

Why is it then, that so many companies, especially well-established ones in the industrial sector, are so reluctant to allow remote work models? Don’t they still have a grave need for qualified IT people? And by extension: shouldn’t they do everything in their power to entice potential employees and keep existing ones happy? One might certainly think so. In my experience, there are two main inhibiting factors.

Big brother isn’t watching you

A lot of companies, especially large ones that have been around for quite some time, are used to the traditional work model, where employees come in in the morning and leave in the evening. It has been this way for years or even decades for them and they have built their processes, their environment and infrastructure and their entire company culture around it. Everything, from punching the (physical) time clock, talking to secretaries, accessing network shares up to the daily coffee break chit-chat is centered around actually being there. Introducing home work would force them to change all that: the’d have to provide VPN access with proper protection, a Slack infrastructure (and actually use it!), allow for some means of time tracking, get used to holding meetings in web conference tools,… the list goes on. Granted, it is no easy task! Big companies often don’t like changes of that magnitude.

The second reason is, that even though companies hardly admit to it publicly, they are afraid that remote-working people do not produce the same output as if they were on-site due to the sheer plethora of distractions they might face and a lack of control mechanisms. In other words, they don’t trust their employees to actually work. This has not been openly admitted, at least not to me, but reading between lines, one might gather as much.

Tit for tat then?

Honestly, I would not want to work anywhere I am not trusted to the extent of actually doing my job. And the definition of what a distraction actually is also is highly subjective. Some people work best listening to podcasts, music or even a youtube video, others require total silence to concentrate. All of which they can achieve in their private home. I personally find human voices soothing and it helps me concentrate better sometimes. Some other time I want brutal guitar riffs of some heavy metal band blasting away my brain cells, because I need the aggression to pull through a tedious task. And I want all that in the comfort of my home office, listening on my hi-fi system. In return will be more productive, happier and more open to working longer hours, even if I do so outside of traditional 9-5 office hours.

Established control mechanisms, such as peeking over the employee’s shoulder, are not possible anymore (except you are the NSA and have hacked the laptop’s webcam), but it will become apparent quite quickly if an employee uses „home office“ as an excuse for taking a day off, at least to an attentive team lead. Their work output will simply not be the same and in the case of software developers, this is very easily trackable through their agile progress, git commit log, and overall workload they get done. Tracking this requires some effort on the team lead’s part, but that’s time well spent in any case.

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