Journey with me, back to my childhood in the 90s. It was common at my elementary school for teachers to group students into four-desk clumps forming a square. The idea was to foster an environment of open communication and collaboration. This was great for some students and not so great for others. Fast forward a few years and I found that my university courses regularly assigned group projects where the students were expected to be self-organizing and autonomous. This usually resulted in an initial meeting, and then one person doing the lion’s share of the work while the rest lazed about, pretending to contribute. The purpose was (supposedly) to prepare students for a real-life career where we’re all required to work with others on the regular. Unfortunately none of my professors ever came up with a great way for these projects to be anything like the professional workplace.
As we are all aware, some of us prefer to work alone and some of us prefer to work with others. None of us can ever truly know what it is like for those on the other side of this coin. Sometimes this is called being an “introvert” or an “extrovert” but the difference is likely deeper than that. I’ll be writing about this difference from my perspective as a Software Engineer.
Since we’re now in the “real-life workplace”, we have been assured that we need to be highly collaborative to produce the best output. Everyone must be working together at all times in order to produce the highest quality results! This has led us to “open floor plans” which is really just the square desk clumps from elementary school, but on a much larger scale. What could go wrong? Surely this will increase revenue! Or is this just the latest popular trend — en vogue until the next fad comes along?
There’s a real difficulty in trying to force people to work a certain way. Yes, it’s management who makes those decisions, sometimes shareholders or the infamous “Board”, but oftentimes we fail to realize how simple it could be to achieve far greater flexibility. Inflexibility causes problems for everyone, because even those who prefer office-based work will want a Work-From-Home day every now and then. It’s a difficult balance to strike and varies person to person.
Collaboration vs Distraction
The cost benefit equation of “easy collaboration” vs “constant co-worker chatter” is difficult to balance and, like most everything else in life, will vary greatly between people.
Office-work is usually preferred for those who want to communicate more frequently. Collaboration is the operative word but we all have to be cautious about the difference between collaboration and distraction. I’m sure we’ve all been in meetings that were a complete waste of time after someone started talking off-topic.
Collaboration will always turn into distraction if given enough time. The open-floor plan does nothing to help this. If you’re hearing the off-topic conversations from your own team, or other teams near you, then everyone else is hearing them too. Should everyone wear headphones then? Then why is the office so open at all… This isn’t to diminish the value of off-topic conversations and breaks. Those are absolutely necessary for success, but not at the expense of others who are highly focused when they hear about something your child did in school and lose all concentration.
- Many people feel a greater sense of accomplishment when they are working while being observed. Recognition can be vital to the success for certain individuals and that should not be discounted.
- Face-to-face relationships can be much more rewarding than face-to-screen relationships. Communication can be easier with gestures depending on the way people communicate best. This will always vary from person-to-person, but is valuable to many.
- The feeling that people are actually people. Some argue that an advantage of working together physically is a way to build empathy for coworkers. When you physically interact with people, you can grow to perceive them as real people and not just code in a simulation.
- Managers might struggle the most when it comes to having employees who are not working in the same location. The whole concept of management is to understand their subordinates as people and how to help them succeed. Managers can achieve this much quicker and more easily when working closely with people every day instead of just over chat or sparingly in meetings.
Distraction while working from home can be very concerning. For the less-disciplined, there are many more temptations for wasting time at home than at work where you are being constantly passively, or actively in some cases, monitored. Distraction in terms of children or pets can also be a concern at home especially if you don’t have a dedicated working area that is secluded in some way.
So What’s The Answer Then!?
Wait, so, nothing works!? People get distracted and lose focus either way?! So what the hell can we do!?!? Well I’m glad you asked!
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. There’s no magic solution for remote vs office work. Every person is effective in different ways with different environments. The best solution is to TRY ALL THE OPTIONS and then decide which worked best for you personally and based on evidence in the form of metrics.
Too often, companies aren’t willing to give other working options a chance because they don’t want downtime. A small investment in determining the best work environment for your employees will give a huge ROI over time for productivity.
Remote-work is often criticized due to a lack of communication. Many companies have solved these problems. Some tips on that are the following:
- Communicate things as you think of them, as you would at work. This can be email, Slack, call, depending on the length and urgency.
- Remote communication is a skill like any other. You can improve it and get better over time with practice.
- If communication begins short and slow, but becomes a bigger topic, get on a call as soon as you realize it or schedule a meeting with the invested parties.
Ultimately, don’t let communication affect you negatively, whether it is too much of it or too little. These are problems that many remote-only companies have solved and you can too!
Fight The Open Floor Plan
Lately there’s been a combination of open floor plans and cubicle-esque concepts. Your team usually needs to collaborate regularly but you often will not need to be involving other teams around you. A large room for each team can solve this problem in a reasonable way.
Adjust For Remote-Preferred
If we can improve the productivity for those who want to work remotely, we should accommodate that. Figure out what works best for your team regarding communication platforms and execute and measure.
Think of The Benefit For Prospects
Suddenly the freedom to choose remote vs office work becomes a huge benefit for prospective employees.
For me specifically, I prefer to work remotely whenever possible.
My personality is such that I prefer to work alone, but understand the value of working together when it makes sense. I also want the flexibility to live wherever I please and not having to commute. I feel like my best work is produced while I’m working remotely. I have far fewer distractions at home than in the office (no kids, no coworkers walking over, no off-topic conversations). I’m the ideal WFH candidate and it is my preference.
December 26th, 2019. While most employees are enjoying their time off work and spending time with family during the holiday break, I decide to go into the office to work and take a day off while everyone will be there. I arrive at my leisure around 9:30 or 10 in the morning. No one is in the office (except the Helpdesk who have to be staffed constantly). I stroll to the coffee machine and get a cup. I casually walk to my desk whilst whistling a tune (whether it was pitch-perfect or not doesn’t matter much as no one can hear it anyway). I sit down, sip my coffee, and start working on various tasks. With no distractions or people wandering over I accomplish much more than I would on a normal day. No one is making last-minute requests. No one is asking how my holiday was. I can focus on my tasks and take breaks as needed at my own pace. I don’t have to worry about Karen spying on me and tattling to my boss about me taking a break because she perceives that I wasn’t busy so I must not be working at all. I accomplish my tasks much earlier than I expected because I wasn’t as distracted.
The above story illustrates my experience while working remotely. I have less distractions, I work better in my own space, and I can accomplish more in less time.
My experience is not universal. Everyone is different and will need to discover their own best working environment and schedule. This cannot apply to everyone but we need to start to realize that the traditional “rules” for requiring social interaction are not universal. The same reason on-site work doesn’t work well for everyone is why remote work doesn’t work well for everyone. It’s important to realize that the “social interaction” that some view as valuable and critical for productivity in teams is detrimental to some of us and actually makes us much less productive. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Employers should encourage their employees to find what works best for them to be most productive. This doesn’t only apply to working environment but work schedule as well. It can certainly apply to more aspects of your career. If employers trust their employees, then take the chance and measure the success of experiments like WFH to see if your employees are happier and more productive. Provide flexibility to see what works best. That alone is a huge benefit to your company.