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Why Working Remotely Needs To Make a Comeback 455

Posted by Soulskill
from the because-commuting-sucks dept.
silentbrad writes sends this excerpt from a blog post about the history of working from home: "Remote working has existed for centuries. And now is the perfect time for its comeback. ... Prior to the Industrial Revolution, goods were manufactured by contracting individual craftsmen who worked out of their homes. The merchant would drum up sales, and would coordinate the production with at-home sub-contractors. ... This all changed with the Industrial Revolution: production was centralized in factories and cities. For merchant capitalists, this made sense: it was cheaper and more efficient to produce goods in one place, with machinery. ... We've been in the Information Age for at least 25 years. We've made huge leaps in technology. Many of us would describe ourselves as Knowledge Workers: we don't work in factories, we work at desks in front of glowing screens. We don't make goods with physical materials, but rather things made out of bits. The great thing about bits + the internet is that the materials and means needed for production aren't dependent on location. But here's the funny thing: the way work is organized hasn't changed. Despite all these advances, most of us still work in central offices. Employees leave their computer-equipped homes and drive long distances to work at computer-equipped offices. ... CEOs, like Yahoo's Marissa Mayer and Apple's Steve Jobs, think that a central office fosters more innovation and productivity. I think they're wrong. We're still early in the research, but recent studies seem to dispute their claim. ... Managers have developed centuries worth of habits based on the central workplace. The hallmarks of office work (meetings, cubicle workstations, colocation) need to be seen for what they are: traditions we've kept alive since the Industrial Revolution. We need to question these institutions: are they really more innovative and efficient?"
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Why Working Remotely Needs To Make a Comeback

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 24, 2013 @05:52PM (#42998037)

    I certainly feel I'm much more effective in the quiet of my own home vs. the open-plan chaotic environment called "the office".

  • Teamwork (Score:5, Insightful)

    by kevin_m_hickey (2663827) on Sunday February 24, 2013 @05:54PM (#42998049)
    I would agree with you if not for the growing trend of collaborative spaces in the IT industry. Sitting isolated in a cubicle and only talking to other people in meetings or the water cooler is no better than working from home and Skyping or talking on the phone. But a collaborative space and pair programming do foster innovation and rapid, high-quality software development. The social aspect yields interesting ideas that the individual would not think of on his (or her) own. Pairing (or at least having extra eyes around) tends to yield higher quality both from being able to have someone check for mistakes and the social pressure of not cutting corners when someone else is looking.
  • by canadiannomad (1745008) on Sunday February 24, 2013 @05:55PM (#42998061) Homepage

    I love it, I can't imagine going back. I like my hammock office, and every time I am forced to work at a desk or table, and can physically feel my mind cramping up. If that is innovation and productivity, count me out!
    Don't get me started about my years facing grey half-walls feeling like someone was watching what I was doing behind my back. Gave me the creeps, and again, just made me feel uncomfortable working.

  • by Bender0x7D1 (536254) on Sunday February 24, 2013 @05:57PM (#42998069)

    If you can do your work from home, it's probable that someone else can do the work from the other side of the planet. For less. So be careful what you wish for.

  • Working Remotely (Score:4, Insightful)

    by DaMattster (977781) on Sunday February 24, 2013 @05:58PM (#42998075)
    Only the most anachronistic, self-absorbed, border-line sociopathic managers are against working remotely. Marissa Mayer, hint hint. It is a win, win for companies. Companies save money on expensive office space and employes have more job satisfaction resulting in less turnover further saving money for the company. Those managers concerned with "face time" are micromanaging, control freaks.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 24, 2013 @06:00PM (#42998091)

    You must not have kids.

  • Re:Teamwork (Score:5, Insightful)

    by pathological liar (659969) on Sunday February 24, 2013 @06:05PM (#42998147)

    It probably varies by job and by person. I find it helpful to talk with my coworkers, but a distraction to overhear them.

    A mailing list, irc channel, xmpp muc etc. allows me to collaborate on my terms. I can rethink and edit my response, and if I'm in the middle of something I can read it later and respond then. Conversations typically don't work like that.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 24, 2013 @06:10PM (#42998169)

    There's nothing more depressing than a cube farm. There's a reason Office Space resonates. How on earth could it be a better solution than anything else?

    It seems painfully obvious to me, and I don't know why others think it's better. I just don't.

  • by MBAslug (184293) on Sunday February 24, 2013 @06:19PM (#42998241)

    As a manager, I can tell you that I need to spend some hi-bandwidth time with my people on a regular basis. I need that interpersonal time to interact with them, make sure they have what they need and the barriers to their work are pushed out of the way. There's no substitute for eating lunch with someone to really understand where they are.

    Can I imagine a corner case where work can easily be done from home and the person doesn't need that time?

    Sure, but this isn't how the team works as a whole and I need the team working, as a whole.

    Even God says we should get together with him once a week face to face

  • by lars (72) on Sunday February 24, 2013 @06:24PM (#42998291)

    One big flaw in your argument is that the linked studies seem to focus on individual productivity. What about team productivity? I can definitely see myself producing more code if I worked in a more isolated environment, or whatever other metric you'd like to use, but I think my team's overall effectiveness would suffer. Note that we don't work alone in cubicles or closed offices, but at desks in an open environment as is common these days. It's hard for me to imagine a remote work environment -- even with chat and Google video hangouts constantly running -- that could match the free flow of ideas and information that we get from working right next to one another. The distractions to individual productivity are more than compensated for by being more plugged in to what other people are doing, which lets everyone make better decisions that save time in the long run.

    I'm not sure why so many people are reacting as though there's a universally superior approach here. All teams and organizations are different. Having employees present at the office seems to work for Google, and presumably Mayer has good reason to think it will work at Yahoo as well. I'm sure there are also lots of big organizations where the opposite is true.

  • Re:I agree but... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by amiga3D (567632) on Sunday February 24, 2013 @06:27PM (#42998311)

    I find that it matters not where you work. If you keep your mind on your work instead of kissing ass and politicking then you are likely to find yourself getting overlooked. The exception is the small shops usually where the manager is also the owner. Things that directly hit his wallet tend to get noticed more.

  • by Guido von Guido II (2712421) on Sunday February 24, 2013 @06:28PM (#42998321)

    The majority of remote workers are slackers doing just enough to keep their current income and benefits.

    The majority of office workers are slackers doing just enough to keep their current income and benefits.

  • by dynamo (6127) on Sunday February 24, 2013 @06:29PM (#42998331) Journal

    Damn right. I spent a decade in various cube farm environments, they are horrible, productivity-killing and soul-killing places. Never Again.
    Cubes are just a half assed attempt to pretend people have privacy when they don't. give them tables, give them offices, or admit you don't have enough space.

  • by swillden (191260) <shawn-ds@willden.org> on Sunday February 24, 2013 @06:43PM (#42998443) Homepage Journal

    This is an issue that's very important to me, personally.

    I've relocated my immediate family far from all of our extended family for a job. It's a great job (Google), but the relocation has imposed some real hardships on us, and I'd very, very much like to be able to move back "home" but keep the job, working remotely. I came to Google from IBM, a company which has gone largely distributed, and I spent the ten years prior to joining Google working from home.

    So I have both motivation to convince Google that I can work remotely with great effectiveness and experience to show that I have, in fact, done it. Further, Google has outstanding tools for facilitated distributed work... not only do we use Google Docs and Google+ Hangouts extensively, they're also integrated with each other and with Gmail, and Google Chat, and Google Voice. Plus, of course, all of our source control tools are well-suited to remote work, our code review and systems management interfaces are all either command-line or web-based (either works great remotely). It really is a world-class remote collaboration suite.

    However, I've had to grudgingly admit that Google is right in its assertion that distributed work is less efficient, that remote teams move slower and accomplish less than co-located teams. I'm in the Boulder office, but much of my work has reached across site boundaries to include teams in Mountain View, San Francisco, Boston, New York and Zurich. And, as a result, I've ended up spending a lot of time in those cities (I'm in Zurich now) because it is so much more effective to communicate with people in person.

    How do I reconcile the conflict? Was I just ineffective at IBM? I mean, there I was e-mailing Office docs and talking on conference calls. That had to have been even worse than at Google, right? No. Remote work can work, and very well, but it requires a massive cultural shift. The technology is there, and has been for a while, but what's lacking is the motivation to be willing to suffer the large cost of essentially re-training your entire company on how to communicate.

    IBM made this shift because it was drowning in red ink and Gerstner decided a first step to fixing that problem was to eliminate most of IBM's real estate, and the resulting lack of office space led the company scrambling for solutions. IBM had decades-long task forces focused only on finding and addressing obstacles to remote work. There's no doubt that IBM's productivity did take a big hit during the transition, and it lasted for a long time. But IBM was at the same time fighting its way out from under massive internal bureaucracy, and the improvements from eliminating the bureaucracy papered over the problems caused by retraining. Another source of improvement was the fact that IBM built, at the same time, a whole new -- and very large -- services business, which was inherently distributed.

    A key to IBM's success, though, was that almost everyone was pushed out of the office. The people who couldn't be productive working remotely ended up being slid out of the company, many in the course of a few layoffs. If you want to make remote work effective, everyone needs to be comfortable dealing with remote collaborators all the time, and by sending nearly everyone home, IBM achieved that.

    Google, on the other hand, is already a highly productive, efficient company, one which doesn't really have massive layers of bureaucracy to clear out. As a result, any widespread transition to remote work would cause the company's performance to take a large hit, and not briefly. 5+ years, I estimate. I think Google could make the transition faster than IBM did, partly due to better tools, mostly due to better people -- not everyone, mind you, there were lots of highly capable IBMers, but there's hardly anyone at Google who is not highly capable. But it would take years and Google's apparent dominance notwithstanding, Google can't afford that.

    IBM's market position was built primarily on long-term, solid c

  • by K. S. Kyosuke (729550) on Sunday February 24, 2013 @06:54PM (#42998519)

    You must not have kids.

    Or, alternatively, lock the sound-proof door of your study.

  • Re:Teamwork (Score:4, Insightful)

    by pathological liar (659969) on Sunday February 24, 2013 @07:04PM (#42998591)

    A lot of people (thought granted not everybody) find that after spending some time in a collaborative environment the background conversations move from being a distraction to an undercurrent of information. It becomes possible to tune it out but still hear keywords that might be relevant and allow for better teamwork.

    Research doesn't bear that out. Multitasking reduces efficiency, interrupts and context switches hurt. If, for your specific workload, you find it's a net gain... well, more power to you. It's not one-size fits all.

    That's true but your way has high latency. Conversations happen much faster.

    That's the point. 'My way' allows my coworkers to decide when they can be interrupted. 'Your way' allows people to demand focus.

  • Re:I agree but... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by stretch0611 (603238) on Sunday February 24, 2013 @07:06PM (#42998601) Journal

    ...people that work remotely are less likely to get promoted regardless of their productivity and work ethic.

    Chances are that if you are a technical person, your likelihood of getting promoted are pretty limited already.

    There are only so many PM's and middle management positions available, and chances are even if you do get promoted to management, you will never leave the technical side of the business and have a snowball's chance in hell of reaching upper management.

  • by BradleyUffner (103496) on Sunday February 24, 2013 @07:21PM (#42998667) Homepage

    If you can do your work from home, it's probable that someone else can do the work from the other side of the planet. For less. So be careful what you wish for.

    And if you can do it from an office, it's probable that it can be done from an office on the other side of the planet. For less

  • Re:And Then (Score:2, Insightful)

    by norpy (1277318) on Sunday February 24, 2013 @07:34PM (#42998749)

    What the fuck are you on about? Did a bicycle tube kill your mother or something?

  • by Grishnakh (216268) on Sunday February 24, 2013 @07:48PM (#42998843)

    At one of my previous jobs, I got stuck in an "open plan" office, aka bullpen. The management always told us how great it was because it fostered "collaboration" (even though I never had any need to collaborate with my coworkers, as we all worked on different projects). Strangely, these same managers had walled offices with windows and doors.

  • by UnknownSoldier (67820) on Sunday February 24, 2013 @09:11PM (#42999369)

    > Think headphones will help? Try it, and find out what a heart attack feels like when some asshole comes up behind you and taps you on the shoulder to get your attention.

    But a small convex desk mirror on your monitor.
    Use noise canceling headphones.

    This isn't rocket science people.

  • by TheABomb (180342) on Sunday February 24, 2013 @09:19PM (#42999433)

    Yes. You must sit in a cube farm all day within earshot of the eleventy hens cackling about their kids.

    Otherwise, whom will they pawn their work off upon?

  • by thegarbz (1787294) on Sunday February 24, 2013 @09:33PM (#42999517)

    My work relies on collaboration and the bullpen approach actually works well, as does keeping management locked in an office somewhere. When management is out here "collaborating" they aren't managing, they are micro-managing, one of the worlds greatest project killers.

  • by Penguinisto (415985) on Monday February 25, 2013 @12:04AM (#43000273) Journal

    ...which leads to a point for those of us who are childless:

    I get a *shitload* more work done here at home (no kids, just dogs) than I do in an office full of people yapping, project managers who love to stop by unannounced to slip in extra things to do (at home I can conveniently ignore IM and email until you have time to deal with them), and other team members who want their particular ancillary crap done right now! (and hey, since you're right there...)

    Yeah - much prefer working at home.

    Recently (as in, Friday), some executive in my company decided that telecommuting must die. Probably read it in some shiny CxO magazine or something. In one fell swoop, he has managed to force those of us who work remotely to take a pay cut (the money now goes into the gas tank), waste hours otherwise spent tidying up things a little late (because now we're commuting), and in general shoving morale into the toilet. Mind you, my commute is 80 miles long in each direction.

    Maybe I'm bitching, but I average 2-3 (FT, not contract) offers each month from headhunters. I usually turn them down immediately since none to date had telecommuting as an option. If I have to make the drive anyway, I may as well get a bigger paycheck out of the deal, so the next offers that come down the pike...

  • by cayenne8 (626475) on Monday February 25, 2013 @12:46PM (#43004965) Homepage Journal

    If you don't have children, your job is to work in an office and cover for all the time the people with kids take off every week for PTA meetings. And doctor appointments. And picking the kids up early. And taking the kids late on half days. And leaving early to take the kids to birthday parties and soccer practice. And staying home because the kids are sick.

    And..don't forget, with taxes, those with kids get to take deductions and get refunds based on having kids, while those of us without do not, so, in essence we're subsidizing those with kids.

    Shouldn't parents have to pay MORE since having kids uses more resources than those without?

    And no...tax deductions will NOT encourage or discourage people from having kids as many posit. People will fuck, kids will result...they did it LONG before there were income taxes.

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