COVID-19

I feared I wouldn’t adapt well to working from home

I touched on this in one of my earlier COVID-19 reports, but I’d like to expand on it today: I am surprised to find I don’t mind working from home long term.

I always feared I wouldn’t enjoy it. I like the human contact the office gives me. I worried it would be a lot harder for me to build the relationships I need to influence decisions. Also, I like having a place where work happens and a separate place where home happens. Finally, I have always been sure that if I worked from home, I wouldn’t be able to stay out of the refrigerator.

Where I work, we are in the final days of a large, complex, and critical project. I’m the lead project manager. I was handed this project in flight and asked to straighten it out. The kinds of things that go wrong at this point in a project like this are happening. I liken it to bombs dropping overhead while you stroll through a minefield.

Office

About 25 people are working on this project, and four executives over my head anxiously await its completion. All of us are at home. Thanks to Slack, a text-based asynchronous communication tool, and to Zoom, a videoconferencing tool, communication is flowing well. Thanks to Jira and GitHub, a work-ticketing system and a code-management tool, I can watch the work flow. I know that the team is working hard, and I know when they’re blocked. I know when I need to act to unblock the team, and I can keep executives fully in the loop.

Productivity is comparable to nine weeks ago when we were all in the office. We’re not missing a beat in communication.

It works because we all work from home. We all have to use Slack and Zoom. There are no conference-room meetings or hallway conversations.

I find that when some people work remotely and everyone else is in the office, the remote workers have to work triply hard to stay in the loop and be heard. I know of a couple companies that make a hybrid remote/in-office culture work, but it takes a lot of intentional energy to keep it working. It’s easiest when everybody works remotely, or nobody does.

It helps a lot that my first nine months with this employer were in the office. I built relationships and influence the way I already know how: in person. I don’t know how I’d build it if I started with this company right now, while we’re all still at home.

I was right about one thing, though: I can’t stay out of the refrigerator.

Other pandemic reports from fishyfisharcade and Ted Smith.

Last updated on 18 May 2020 by Jim Grey

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13 thoughts on “I feared I wouldn’t adapt well to working from home

  1. You look great, Jim. Don’t worry about the fridge. Let me do that. :)

    As a global society, we’ve been on the precipice of telecommuting for about 15 years now. So few companies are willing to take the leap. Having done it for about 3 years earlier this decade, I’m aware of the isolation it can lead to. But I think that’s outweighed by the positives. All I need to do is think of the waste having to physically move from one to place to another causes—and all just to do things that could be done from that first place in about 95% of cases—to number them. The pollution… smog. Waste of our fossil fuel resources. Contribution to climate change. Paying for parking. Paying for gas. Paying for public transit. And the physical risk of high-speed accidents that cost tens of thousands of lives annually around the world….

    So now I’m wondering if COVID-19 hasn’t forced the issue; if companies peering over the edge for so long haven’t been made to take the leap, and if we might increasingly see this taking hold. Frankly, I hope so. I’ve had internet friends since the mid-90s; some of them the best friends I’ve ever had. As much as it’s good to look someone in the face, I don’t see why out friends, co-workers, and comrades can’t be people hundreds or thousands of miles away. I don’t see an absolute need for everyone to be sitting in dehumanizing little cubes, ten feet apart in the same building to get things done. I hope this is the start of something better.

    • I’m frankly not so sure that this is going to be the tipping point. I read articles, in no less than the New York Times, that suggest this is finally it. But I don’t feel it. Yes, we’ve now shown that for a large class of workers, working from home can work. But a large shift to WFH portends other societal changes that I’m not sure we are ready for. All the cute little restaurants downtown will go out of business without the worker lunch crowd, for example.

    • Preach it!

      The security architecture team where I consult is loving WFH. We’re simulatig comraderie by holding regular thursday afternoon tea (some are in the UK) with one rule. No work talk. Talk about the kdis. BBQ. Some shitty TV show. But not work. I look forward to “tea time”.

  2. Christopher May says:

    You’re doing a lot better than I am. I’m getting to the point that keeping focus at home is getting difficult. I think part of the problem is that I only have 650 square feet of apartment to work with here and it’s hard to separate a dedicated work space in that small of a footprint.

    I tried going into the office once this week. The president worked out a schedule that limited the number of people in the office to a minimum. While I was indeed much more productive, there was still an element of fear being there with other people, as distant as they may be. With a pregnant wife at home, I can’t be taking big chances. So I’m going to see how I can adjust things at home to be more productive here for at least a little while longer.

    • This major project is pretty consuming. When it ends in the next few days it will be interesting to see how much harder it is for me to stay focused!

      We have a 1900sf house with 5 adults living here. My office is in the living room. Very little separation as well.

  3. My wife and I worked from home for decades. She’s semi-retired now only because she doesn’t want to give it up entirely (she is an accountant). The only downside has been how work will intrude on home life often at inconvenient hours. Like someone calling at 10:00 PM on Sunday in June asking if now would be a good time to come over and get their taxes done. I kid you not; that sort of thing happens.
    If you can totally shut off the work intrusion (including compulsively checking your e-mail too often) it has great advantages, especially in the area of being able to choose your work time and take personal time if you feel you need it. As long as you have the discipline to still get the job done.

    • I’m a manager in a software company, so I’ve got corporate structure and expectations — and standard work hours. So it is a little easier for me to turn it off!

  4. I like having the human contact. In spite of the cubicled environment, when I returned from my illness several colleagues, some that I barely talked to, said they missed having me around because I cared about communicating with people.

    So once things settle down (and by that I mean maybe sometime next year) I will go int the office twice a week to maintain that contact. Becasue Human Contact matters……

  5. Kevin says:

    A lot of what you’re saying here rings true with me too. I like the personal interaction that being in the office brings, and not having worked remotely too often in my career, I was nervous about it at first. However, our firm’s productivity has actually been higher since WFH started. We’ve knocked out some big projects on time and under budget, and I’ve gotten good with the idea of WFH long-term if it comes to that. Others in our group feel the same way, but one reason why it’s gone so smoothly is that everyone in our group knows each other well. The tough part is going to be this summer, when we have a new hire scheduled to start. How well is this new person going to integrate if we’re all still remote?

    • In my company, engineers tell me they are sure they’re more productive — but the tools I have to track the work say it’s about the same. I think the engineers are interrupted less, so they feel more productive.

      Introverts — like most engineers — are much happier I think to work from home than extroverts. The extroverts I know who are forced to work from home are losing their minds!

      We have brought on two new hires since this all went down. One of them was in my org. We shipped him his laptop and did all the onboarding stuff over Zoom. It went fine.

  6. Hi Jim,

    I’ve worked from home two days a week for almost two years starting in 2018. I’m a consultant, and the company is a ForEx settlement bank. The vast majority of the staff are IT related, and I sit in the security architecture team, which is split between New York, New Jersey, Hong Kong and London, UK.

    It’s something I’ve always wanted given how exhausting New Jersey commutes can be. Commuting to the office in New Jersey took 45 minutes out of my day, and the commute to Wall Street took just over two hours from my home via two trains and a ferry.

    I don’t miss the cramped trading floor style open plan hot-desk style arrangement that is so popular these days. According to the company, while there were some initial challenges for our operations teams, productivity is the same or better than when we were all in the office.

    The difference between then and now is that with pandemic social distancing, I am not able to break up my day. Pre-COVID, on remote workdays, I had lunch with a friend or family member or a drink at the tavern after work. Nothing beat sitting outside on the back porch of a farm to table restaurant in the Spring.

    My contract ends in December, and I am already fighting with recruiters over being in an office in New York or New Jersey without a statement from the hiring manager on why the job requires a daily office presence.

    • I miss that stuff too. Last year I got a job Downtown for the first time in 20 years and I LOVE being Downtown. All the great restaurants and bars! The great vibe! I miss that.

      Here in Indiana the normal commute is under 30 minutes. It’s great. Public transportation sucks though so you’re driving and, if Downtown, paying to park.

      I have a friend who’s a software developer in Hoboken and works in the diamond district in Manhattan. Her commute sounds brutal.

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