COVID-19

Too soon to declare victory on distributed work

It’s a foregone conclusion that my company will keep us working from home through the end of the year. There’s no compelling reason to go back. We are delivering as well now as we did before mid-March, when the office closed. But more importantly, no amount of office safety precautions can eliminate our risk of the virus.

I work in tech. We can work anywhere there’s WiFi. A group of voices in our industry has said for years that we would all be more productive and have a superior work-life balance if we all worked from home. Now that we’re all working from home and it’s basically working, they are crowing victory.

Office

I say, not so fast. We’ve been at this only four months, not long enough yet to be sure. Let’s see how we feel in mid-November when it’s been another four months. Given the virus’s resurgence, it doesn’t seem far fetched that this could last even longer than that. Let’s see how we feel at the one year mark, four months later in March.

A software engineer on my team said to me recently, “I really miss everybody. I wish I could get a group together to go to lunch, like we did every day in the office.” I miss that, too. I used to bring my lunch, but anytime I wanted lunchtime camaraderie I knew I’d find some group of engineers going out, and I’d be welcome to join them. Many of those engineers are on projects I’m not involved with and I haven’t seen them in months.

He said he especially missed the in-person dynamic of our seven-person team: “I know I see you and the other engineers on the team on Zoom in our daily check-in meeting and in our regular tech discussions, but I miss our energy in the office. I feel isolated here.” Then he asked, “Do you think it would be possible to get us together, maybe for lunch at some restaurant outside? If people want more distance than that, maybe we could all bring our lunch to a big park?”

I checked in with the rest of the team and they were all enthusiastic about getting together, as long as we keep physical distance. We’ve laid in plans to spend some time together this Thursday, outside, at a place where we can stay spread out.

I also manage the managers of three other teams. Our four teams work toward common corporate goals, but we’re set up so that each team has its own backlog of work. It’s efficient. But part of what makes it work is that in the office we all sit in in adjacent groups of desks. This is deliberate. It lets us see each other all the time so we can stay in frequent contact.

It’s been harder since we started working from home. We’ve done our best to stay in touch, but haven’t found a replacement yet for the random, organic, quick check-ins we were used to. I’ve noticed an undercurrent of tension growing among the managers. Recently, there have been a couple spots of friction among them.

We needed to talk things through. My gut told me we’d be better off meeting in person rather than over Zoom. I asked the managers if they’d be comfortable meeting in a park with masks and good distancing. After they thought it over for a while they agreed — the benefit outweighed the (mitigated) risk. We met Thursday afternoon. We talked through the challenges we’re facing and came up with some collaborative and creative ways to stay aligned, both with each other and with some key peers we work with. All of the managers told me that it was good to be able to see each other in person, and to read body language as we interacted. They wished we could do it more often.

The distributed tech companies will all tell you that meeting in person from time to time is essential. But they tend to do it in big annual or semi-annual whole-company gatherings.

Also, these companies either built a distributed culture from the start (such as Automattic, which makes WordPress, the software that runs this blog) or shifted to a distributed workforce a long time ago and evolved their culture to fit it.

Companies like mine — most tech companies finding themselves with a COVID-driven at-home workforce — have not completed that evolution, if they’re even trying. We are used to the dynamics of working together in person.

Several people I work with closely tell me they’re perfectly happy and could keep this up forever. But the rest of us are still figuring out how to adapt. I can think of a couple people on my teams who might never fully adapt. They might need an office environment to work best.

I don’t look for my teams to meet in person regularly. We are all best off limiting our exposure to people we don’t live with. But during these summer months we can meet in person if we need to. There are plenty of wide-open spaces in our city parks, for example. But what happens when the warm-weather months end? This is Indiana, after all. It’s cold in the winter, and we get a lot of snow. For those of us who feel isolated now, just wait until winter takes away all of our reasonably safe options to connect in person.

All tech companies need to keep intentionally evolving toward more effective ways of working while distributed. I think it’s a long journey, one that is unlikely to be accomplished in the short term. I wish us all luck during the long winter.

Last updated on 20 July 2020 by Jim Grey

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24 thoughts on “Too soon to declare victory on distributed work

  1. Mark says:

    Fortunately no longer in workforce but that has its own isolation issues with the virus.
    I could happily work alone forever but homeworking as a career and wanting to move up or to another position, don’t know how that works out. Also fortunate to live in easier climate for outdoor hour long conversations. Winter we can usually get away with a pavilion, a few patio type propane heaters, coats, hats and gloves. -even feet on cardboard. Snow and freezing much much harder. -Any barns around? Underground parking for closed buildings?
    Think you may have to go with a more flexible schedule so you can pick a few days the weather might look possible and ‘go’, ‘no go’ at the last minute.

    Doing things safely takes effort. I carry 2 folding chairs in the trunk and have 6’ spaced lunch with my nephew in the parking lot of a closed community center every couple weeks. There is a wide overhang over one of the entrances so we can be 6’ apart should it start to rain.
    You look at buildings, overhangs, parks, parking lots very differently now.

    • Out here right now it’s pretty easy to meet outside if you want, you just have to avoid rain. We have lots of wide open space here. Many parks have covered pavilions. Here’s hoping for a late autumn and mild winter.

      • The corporation I work for closed its Dallas office and moved about 150 of us to full-time work from home status. It was optional for two years prior to that and only 8 of the 150 were in the office with any regularity, and only 5 of us went in every day.
        I miss the camaraderie and having someone in the next cubicle to voice ideas off of. But what I really miss is what I call the “hi Honey, I’m home!”
        It’s a struggle here, and it’s caused some strain on my marriage. I never leave; I never return after a long day. I don’t have the drive home to take off all the issues from work, and don’t have the commute to work to get my mind right for working.
        My productivity is worse, but then I got a promotion about a year after the office closed and have different responsibilities now. I appointed a couple of team members to organize quarterly luncheons, but only about half the team ever came, and we haven’t met since October last year.
        Most of my team had adjusted to working from home before the office closed, and productivity is about the same. There’s been no change during the lockdown, and there won’t be when we open back up. I’ll still never leave, and still never come home, and my wife and I still haven’t found good ways to manage that. I work in a guest room with the door closed and only come out to fetch water or coffee. But I also never have a chance to decompress after work, and if I’ve got film to process or scan or a new camera to play with, they call to me while I’m trying to work. My work/life balance is so balanced that there’s no real difference in my kind anymore.
        I don’t think I’m doing it right, but COVID or no COVID, I’m WFH all the time. I have no choice.

        • James, I’m sorry this is hard. I hope you can figure out some strategies to make it easier — and when COVID is subdued enough for us to return to the office, you can find a different job.

  2. I’m sure the bean counters like having you working from home where you pay for heat, AC, water and sewer, but there is something to be said for group dynamics.

  3. As someone who worked from home for the two years prior to the pandemic I’ll say this. The lack of social activities, like lunch and after work drinks with colleagues has nothing to do with work from home and everything to do with a global pandemic.

    Prior to COVID-19, when I worked from home I had regular lunch dates with friends k family and former colleagues. Meeting my brother-in-law for a beer after work was easier. Instead of two hour commute from Manhattan, at 5PM I logged out of the remote VDI session, slipped on some shoes and was at the local tavern in 15 minutes.

    In March of this year, our 500 person fin tech company moved to 100% remote work indefinitely until a vaccine is found. The company leaders took a survey and very few want to return to an office environment. No one on my team misses the long morning commutes stuck in traffic on standing on a crowded train.

    After the pandemic has been dealt with, I think many employers have difficulty asking their employees to waste their lives commuting to an office,

    • I can see that absent COVID, while working from home I could make lunch and after-work arrangements with whomever I wished. But it’s just so much easier when I’m already at work.

      Here in central Indiana, commutes are not brutal. I have a 25-minute drive from my suburb to the office, and I park in a garage right next door. I can drive the speed limit or faster the whole way. That changes the game dramatically. While I do save most of an hour in my day not commuting, and I use that time for personal stuff and that’s been delightful, it’s not a hard commute and the benefits I get from being in the office feel like a fair trade.

      • I forgot to mention that the company is UK based so not working in the same office with my colleagues was normal anyway. I’m just doing it from home instead of an office building in New York.

        The people who are saying work can only be done in person are people
        who are resistant to change.

  4. Andy Umbo says:

    Just an FYI, the NYT and ChicaTrib, over the last few months, have been chock full of stores about people wanting to “get back to the office”, many are “done” working at home. There are many aspects of the work community that function far better in a group dynamic, but I can see where sitting at a desk writing code all day would possibly not be one of them! I have a very well paid pal in San Francisco involved in Pacific Rim finance, and his company, for years, has a strict “No Work From Home” policy. They want you “down the hall” when they’re making split second investment decisions!

    One of the things I’ve learned from being in advertising related industries over the last 40 years, is that people have a tendency to take minute life and business experience, and try to globally extrapolate it across all fields, drawing conclusions that aren’t accurate. I even want to know the sub-sub groups of people involved in any polls before I deem the information accurate or not. As an example, someone who spends their day on a computer, says: “I don’t know why everyone doesn’t work at home? Skip the commute, save money, etc.” It’s the same, to me, as an auto mechanic saying: “I don’t know why everyone doesn’t wear greasy coveralls to work? How can they function?”

    For my work, creative team interaction is a primary builder of super-creative ideas and streamlined function!

    My last employer in Indianapolis, tried to hire “project managers” to try and figure out what was wrong with many of the ways they operated. Unfortunately the actually idea of “project managers”, and their education, have a whole lot to do with the IT and building industries. I was horrified by my company letting these people try to bend and shove many other business processes to meet some weird IT process that didn’t have anything to do with what the department was trying to accomplish! They even changed the performance review process to mirror the goals process associated with software production. Totally bogus! Since I had much director level experience before I went there, I offered to rewrite all job descriptions, performance review forms, etc. , to be specific for our needs (something I did at other companies in Chicago and Washington DC). They wouldn’t let me. No surprise that a few years after I left, the company was sold, and they had to fire half the people, and vacate their multi-million dollar office complex (that they shouldn’t have built anyway). I’m not saying that it’s because they didn’t do what I said, I’m saying it was a result of the poor thinking process the principles had, spread across all departments of the company!

    Anyway, the idea of working from home, might work out for a small group of people across the spectrum; you cannot extrapolate it across all working disciplines! There are a whole lot of people that can’t function like that, and more importantly don’t WANT to function like that. We need a vaccine!

    • Writing code is a creative thing, and when many people are working on the same codebase I think it really does help things to do it in the same room. But this is my first time working full remote and I know my teams haven’t figured out yet how to fully adapt to it. There simply must be ways to collaborate that we just haven’t discovered yet.

  5. DougD says:

    I still enjoy the 1.5 hours of commuting time I pick up daily, and often my other three family members are out at work so I’ve avoided some of the issues.
    But I have begun meeting other team members at parks for a walk and discuss, just to try and keep a little connected.
    I wonder what’ll happen when we have a new hire? Our company does not have a training program, just jump in the deep end and ask the person next to you when you have a question. How’s that going to (not) work with everyone WFH?

    • It’s good that you’re able to meet sometimes with team members. We haven’t figured that out very well yet where I work.

      We’ve onboarded a few people since we shut down in March and it’s gone okay. We’ve just had to assign one person on the team to be the go-to for questions. We do it trial-by-fire just like your company does.

  6. Kevin Thomas says:

    The company I work for is a 600+ person engineering firm split over 7 offices around the state. Currently, anyone who wants to work from home is encouraged to do so, but the percent staying home varies from office to office – the hone office, for example, is less than 50% at home, whereas mine is closer to 90% at home at least most of the week,

    Our office meeting space has been configured to maintain a reasonable isolation – the main meeting room was changed from holding 40 people to seating 8.

    The company has decided that even after this is over they will be allowing people to work from home up to 2 days a week. Their main concern is maintaining the corporate culture that has been established over the last 50 years.

    I agree that personal interaction is important to keeping a team on the same track. Zoom and MS Teams helps, but as you say body language helps a lot.

    Personally, I’ve been at the office every day.

    • When a company *must* figure out how to manage distributed workers, it does. I once worked for a company that had offices all over the country and nearly every meeting was a conference call. (This was 20 years ago.) We had this whole conference-call etiquette that worked very well. It was one of the cultural shifts the company made to accommodate the reality we were in.

  7. In _From Chaos to Successful Distributed Agile Teams_, Mark Kilby and I advocate teams get together in person *at least* once a quarter. We are social animals and we need to socialize. Your idea of a socially distant lunch is excellent and will work when the weather is nice. (I have no ideas about what to do when the weather is not nice before we have a vaccine.)

    Also, remote work is not for everyone, as some of these commenters point out. However, sitting side-by-side often means we don’t have the space and time to concentrate. There has to be a better way(s). (In my management books, I explain that people need a variety of spaces in which to do their best work. I can only hope managers wake up.)

    • I’m concerned about what happens when it gets cold and the snow flies here. We will be quite isolated then.

      I can’t wait until the open office fad passes. Isn’t it sad that I would feel happier with a cubicle? At least in cubes there was some physical separation from others. Most companies develop some unwritten rules around leaving others alone, such as leaving a chair blocking the cube opening.

    • Welll, yes, so many jobs require presence or you can’t physically do the job — and the ones that don’t require presence tend to be in well-paid industries.

  8. Aaron says:

    I worked from home for years and (aside from the terrible circumstances that brought it about) am happy to be back at my home office (well, desk) again. I write for a living, and I get a lot more done without the distractions of the office. My boss was not a big believer in working-from-home, but our increased productivity has convinced him. I’d be happy if we didn’t go back to the office ever — maybe once a week for meetings. Fingers crossed.

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