The ramifications of working from home

Not just "sorry I didn't get back to you just now; I was cuddling my dog / on the loo / showering"

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COVID-19 is upon us, and that means encouraging people to self-isolate, even if they don’t yet apparently have, as a recently-ex-colleague put it, ‘OMG TEH LURGI!’.

For those of us whose livelihood involves going around to people’s houses fixing things, there are interesting debates about using self-employed people as guinea pigs for universal basic income. Regarding those of us who work in retail there are important debates about who you should favour when deciding that people should be allowed to miss mortgage payments. And I’m fascinated with the idea that COVID-19 is bringing about the next phase of globalisation, where we both collapse into pan-regional concerns and become more global in outlook in different areas.

But I’ve been working from home for almost 20 years, so I’m going to talk about working from home.

It “helps” that plenty of people have been writing about this who don’t really understand it. Earlier this month the New Yorker ran a piece about working from home that cunningly combined the standard clich├ęs of working from home with the trope structure of Dog 911. And while I gladly pay for the Guardian, their article about the pitfalls of video-conferencing from home had as one of its featured comments someone directly contradicting one of its main points, and extolling the virtues of “winnie-the-poohing” (an age-old practice of “only formally dress the top half of your body” that foreign correspondents and TV presenters safely sitting behind a desk have long been proponents of).

And it’s true that you just might not be cut out for working from home. You need the self-discipline to do some work without having a boss in the neighbouring cubicle glowering over you (so bad luck to Mr. “my girlfriend hurt her knee and I had to be with her, so that’s why I did no work the other day”). But in truth, the opposite temptation is true, especially for geeks who are actually really interested in working on cool stuff (this is why Silicon Valley provides gourmet meals for young, single, male programmers: because it’s much cheaper than overtime). You can easily end up working in your spare time because, well, you had no other plans anyway!

And as soon as anybody in the team is working remotely, everyone else has to. There has to be a mic and a camera in any meeting, for the people who can’t be there physically; general chit-chat has to happen over email and some form of IM (IRC, Slack, Teams etc.); you have to make sure that nobody is disadvantaged by not being part of the serendipitous hallway conversations that happen in any large organisation.

This sounds like a hurdle, and for a small team it totally can be! But in truth, if you’re part of a large company, especially a multiple-office company, you’re already working remotely. You just haven’t realised it yet.

At $WORK, we have a London office, a bunch of Manchester offices, a large Utah office and a smaller one, a Lviv office and we also have some people in India somewhere. That’s just the offices I’m aware of; we could well have more. In truth, as with all things regarding programming, the important transition is between one and more than one: as soon as there are two offices, you need to think about which office is involved, and adding a third, fourth, fifth and so on doesn’t change this to any significant degree.

If you can’t just wander around the office, you need tools to find out if someone’s in an office today; you may need to email someone rather than just asking them something; in extremis, you may need to think about time zones. Rather than roping people into a meeting, you might fire off an email; and a meeting might have to involve people teleconferencing from many small rooms rather than everyone congregating in a large room.

And when you do that, an interesting thing happens: people get flexitime, almost emergently.

Because as soon as you get rid of the crazies who hate email and want to bug you at every time of day (scroll down to “Use other means of communication” - sorry, Guardian!), and you recognise institutionally that not everybody works flat out from 9 to 5 your time, you then suddenly allow all sorts of more positive working patterns.

For one thing, you can encourage non-uniform work patterns that still achieve the same desired effect. A colleague of mine takes time off to take his children to and from school, and makes the time up later on in the day when they’ve gone to bed. As long as Jason from Accounts doesn’t insist on him answering his phone every possible minute from 9 to 5, who the hell cares when the work gets done, as long as it gets done?

Similarly, sometimes I go to one of our offices down-South, and eventually find myself mentally blocked; often the very act of upping sticks and heading back to the hotel is enough to get things sorted again. Some office enforcer saying “stay! you haven’t done your allotted hours!” is missing the point here.

Even people who work in an office might decide to come in really early, and/or really late, to avoid rush hour. (If you do both you can presumably eventually accrue extra holidays.)

And if I have no meetings scheduled for this afternoon, I might decide at about 2pm “yeah, it’s the first nice day for about 4 months so we’re taking Ella for a walk in the park”.

So while we’re all learning, belatedly, how to work from home, the potential ramifications are far more significant, and far more interesting.

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This page contains a single entry by Sam Kington published on March 12, 2020 11:27 PM.

Do we have to choose between Brexit and Indyref 2? was the previous entry in this blog.

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