The discussion that I keep seeing everywhere over and over again about office versus remote work is quite interesting. But not as much as it could be, because most people seem to have a similar opinion. Remote work is the latest fashion and is here to stay, but I have some unorthodox opinions that I thought would be nice to share too.
* If you can’t see the embedded video you can try to watch it on the original website.
In the dramatisation, Matt Stillman is the CEO of a fictitious company and he discusses with Jason about remote work (and why he think it sucks). Obviously this video is a joke (it’s coming from Vooza anyway). I do have a sense of humor and let me agree beforehand that the video is kind of funny. But at the same time it called my attention because it reflects the real world in a way. The comments – although clearly exaggerated and supposed to be a joke – are an extrapolation of what fervous remote workers out there (like Jason, perhaps) think about office work.
For instance, Matt on the video says people can’t work from home because he hires “morons who can’t be trusted and need constant adult supervision”. Matt also says that “he would never want to work from home because he hates his family and only started a company to have somewhere to go every day and get the hell out of there”. Then it gets even more exaggerated when Matt says he evaluates employees badly if they get there 9:05am instead of 9am, or if they use Facebook at work. Again, the video is a joke as we know, but I’ve seen fervorous remote workers really using silly things like that as their real arguments.
I’m not here trying to convince anyone about working from an office. It’s just that when I saw the Vooza video it crossed my mind that I don’t think I ever saw an article about why it’s cool to work from company campuses. With my own experience in mind, here’s why I think working from the office is nice(r):
When you are in person with your team, the communication barrier is really low or inexistent, so it’s naturally better. A lot of the non-verbal communication (gestures, eye contact, body language, facial expressions, etc.) can get lost in remote teams, and those things are really key to make communication better and more effective.
Remote teams often find effective ways to communicate using Skype, Hangouts, Facetime and other technologies. I’ve done that too (to its full extent, including remote champagne celebration), and I can remember many instances where I couldn’t communicate because Internet went down, or connection was slow, or just to start a meeting we would need 15 minutes for people to get set up, or when kids were shouting and dogs were barking on the background and it was impossible to hear the other side, or when the call was just bad quality and it became unproductive… Those examples are not the rule, but when they happen during a key meeting, or, let’s say, your iteration planning, it really really hurts.
I’ve also seen remote teams (me included) using the Basecamps and Trellos of life. Basecamp for instance is a very nice tool, and It’s also built by Jason and 37signals, so I can totally make the connection that stimulating people to work from home directly contributes to his business and I totally understand why they do that so fervently. Jokes aside, those tools are great for improving remote communication and collaboration, but again you lose a lot of the face-to-face signals in that process. Many of the best ideas that I’ve had or seen people having happened in the middle of brainstorm discussions in a room with a bunch of people. Tools like Basecamp help indeed in several ways, but maybe your team is missing out in terms of discussions, brainstorms, collaboration, innovation, etc.
Bottom line is that communication is key for a successful software development team, and in my experience in-person conversations are the best ones.
White board discussions and radiators
Another thing that I really like to do (and is also related to communication) is using white boards and information radiators.
White board discussions make it much easier to get on the same page quickly with a bunch of people. I can think of numerous examples throughout my career where, at the end of the day, it took a bunch of smart people discussing, brainstorming and drawing on a board to solve a tough problem. Actually it just happened today (I’m not joking)! That to me is a big advantage of being altogether at the office. I bet there’s a tool that attempts to solve that problem, but I bet it’s not as productive as the good old “analog” board.
As an agile practitioner, I’m also adept of Kanban boards. This is by far my preferred tool to communicate priorities, track requirements and progress of a development team. There are again tools like Trello and many others that attempt to provide digital boards that can work well for remote teams, but one key principle of the Kanban boards is the principle of information radiation. When the information is retained (say, on Trello), you need to go there to find out what’s going on. When the information is everywhere (say, in the walls and whiteboards around you), you don’t need to go look for it, it gets radiated to you. When you walk into the room you already know what’s going on almost without having to look. You can have electronic information radiators too – and I use that a lot for Continuous Integration dashboards – but they work much better on a big TV in the middle of your work space like this.
Pair programming is one of the nicest ways to get programming tasks done, especially the complicated ones that require a lot of attention. I’m not a fan of doing it (or enforcing) a 100% of the time, but it works really well and I like to do it more often than not. When you do it in person, you can have paper notepads and draw stuff to discuss, or have a to-do list to track things that you want to come back and do later, and many other things like that. You can do it remotely too, but doing it in person is at least one order of magnitude better. Maybe you can get used to it, but it was frustrating enough for me to not want to try anymore.
“Separation of concerns”
Separation of concerns is a common practice in software development: you separate your code into distinct sections, such that each section addresses a separate concern. I like to do that with my life too: work is work and home is home.
When I worked from home a few years ago I remember I would wake up and suddenly be working already, the hours would pass by, and by the time I noticed my daughter was already into bed and I didn’t even had the chance to say good night. At times it would be really challenging to get concentration going for a number of hours without usual “home” distraction like kids coming in and so on, and if you are a programmer you know that to do your job really well you need to get into flow mode sometimes. Lastly, if I was stressed with a tight deadline or anything like that, because I would “leave work” and “get home” in a heartbeat without even having some time to “decompress”, I would have lunch or dinner frustrated, with my family (and myself) not really enjoying my mood. Even a short commute like mine (10-15 minutes) helps you leave work at work and get prepared to have some quality time at home.
Hallway conversations are a great way of knowing what’s going on in different groups, share and learn with others, discuss our favourite tech topics with other geeks (like this week’s Apple Watch announcement), hear different opinions and so on. And when you work in a big company like Yahoo it’s especially good because you also get to meet a lot of new people this way (besides at trainings, in meetings and so on). If you like conversations and getting to know others, the office can be one of the best places to be.
Lunch with the team
My team and I have ridiculously fun conversations and a great time when we have lunch together. From thoughtful conversations to obscene and censored that I wouldn’t be courageous enough to mention here, every time we do that I feel we get to know more about each other and bond as a group, which directly impacts and improves the quality of our work as one unit. Remember the “whole is bigger than the sum of all parts” saying? This is one thing that definitely helps 1 + 1 be > 2.
Have you ever been at a Nerf gun war? If not, dude, you are missing out! Not only that, but I also play table tennis on a regular basis (there was even a tournament a few weeks ago), basketball or beach volleyball sometimes during lunch, go to the gym (not so frequently these days), besides all sorts of really fun and relaxing stuff. Not to mention the soft serve ice cream machine, which is the 8th wonder of the world. I do all of that with my family over the weekend too, and we have a great time together. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have fun anywhere else, especially in the office where I spend a good amount of my time.
I don’t know, maybe I’m just very lucky and have always worked in amazing offices with the nicest people (probably true). But as I explained, there are also many communication and cultural aspects of working from an office that, in my opinion (and based on my experience), make the quality of the work and outputs better.
I’m far from being an “office work advocate” or anything like that, but I really like working at the office. Before you ask or think, I’m not saying this because I work at Yahoo (and by the way, the opinions here are my own and not Yahoo’s). If remote work works for you, that’s great! I’m very supportive. You should continue to do it. I’m not only very supportive of that but also office work and whatever else makes sense in your case and works for you.