In the past five years, four times I have made the transition from working in an office to working from home.
All transitions were initiated by me. Three times I was in the minority among my co-workers; many were co-located in the company office. Only one time did the majority of my teammates work remotely or from home.
While it took a lot of work, the reason I made the transition was due to the realization that open-floor plan offices were not just a detriment to my work habits, but also a cause of very real anxiety.
Introversion vs. Extroversion
“Everyone shines, given the right lighting. For some, it’s a Broadway spotlight, for others, a lamplit desk.”
A Manifesto for Introverts
If you haven’t watched it yet, take the 20 minutes to watch Susan Cain’s Ted Talk on The Power of Introverts. It explains very intelligently why “The Extrovert Ideal” is harmful to so many people, both introverts and extroverts. It also is the foundation for why I’m passionate about working remotely.
In her talk (and in her wonderful book), Susan explains that whether your an introvert or an extrovert depends on how your body responds to stimuli. Extroverts are most comfortable in an environment with lots of stimulus (i.e. background activity). Put them in a quiet room and they’ll go stir-crazy.
Introverts, in general, are the opposite. Too noisy of an environment and they become overwhelmed with everything going on.
One study measured the this difference, noting that “On average, the extroverts chose a noise level of 72 decibels, while introverts selected only 55 decibels”.
They also found that both introverts and extroverts performs poorly when placed in environments that didn’t match their temperment.
As an introvert with years of experience working in noisy offices, I can attest to how difficult it is to try and be productive in that environment.
Every movement of every co-worker is noticed by my brain and my attempts to ignore the situation only amplify the distraction. I’m no longer thinking about how to complete my work, but on the fact that I can’t focus for more than five seconds because there are all these people moving around me.
“Yeah, but you can just wear headphones”
Even with the very expensive and high quality pair of noise-cancelling headphones I own, I can’t block out the sound of a conversation five feet from my desk. The only hope to deafen chatter is to crank up the music. But this just takes a choatic noisy environment and replaces it with a melodic noisy environment. The noise is still there.
I love listening to music while working, but not to drown out the sound of people talking.
Many programmers love listening to chill/lo-fi beats, which have low parts where the outside noise sneaks right in.
Headphones don’t cancel out the effects of a noisy office. They merely add a little beat to it all.
Private offices could solve this
Some companies get it; they provide their employees with private offices to get their work done and open spaces to come out and play as a community. But in my experience, those companies are rare.
Part of the problem lies in the people in charge of the office layout. While they have good intentions, they aren’t the ones using that layout. They’re goals are to create an open, collaborative space that won’t cost a fortune. Developer individuality just isn’t brought up.
I’ve had several conversations with multiple different managers throughout the years about this. While they agree with the need for quiet space, they simply don’t have the power to change things.
The decision on office layout is based mostly on perception and cost-savings. Private offices for developers can seem like a waste of money. Office space isn’t cheap, so from a budget perspective, it doesn’t look like it makes sense. This ignores the benefits of private office space: employee happiness and improved productivity, both of which improve the ROI for private offices.
The other reason given against private offices is the fact that they can encourange employees to *gasp* work independently. Collaboration is a hot buzzword and any attempt to resist being more “collaborative” can come off as not being a team player.
It’s an even tougher conversation if customers visit the office. They want to see people working together, sharing ideas that will earn their company money. An office full of closed doors isn’t what they want.
But the truth is, the majority of productive work comes as an independent activity. Meetings can be useful for planning, but products aren’t built in meetings. Products are built by individuals getting down to business and working on them. The idea that we should discourage independent work simply because it’s independent flies in the face of the reality of how things get done.
Finding the Right Fit
If someone told you they wouldn’t like working from home every day, you wouldn’t force them into it. It’s okay that working in solitude isn’t for everyone. We’re all different. But some people don’t like working in shared offices and that should be accepted as well.
I fear I give the impression that I think everyone should work alone. To me, that would be just as bad. Rather, employees should be given the choice of their work environment and be trusted to collaborate in their own way (more on that in the ‘communication’ section). But until people’s needs are prioritized over appearances and cost savings, remote working is the only alternative.
Works with my communication style
One part of being an introvert is thinking with your mind instead of with your mouth. I like to think slowly, plan things out for some time and then finally act once I’ve considered my options. I can’t do this in a face-to-face conversation easily.
Develops strong habits
“The single biggest problem with working remotely is that you have to be excellent”
The Most Important Optimization: Happiness
When the majority of your conversation is online, it’s always getting recorded. This allows you to easily search and recall the exact words spoken.
This is insanely useful when trying to remember that debugging tip your co-worker mentioned to you right before you left for a three-day weekend.
It can also prevent information from being siloed to just those around the water cooler. Open discussion in a group chat room is available for everyone to read and respond to, even if they weren’t there in that moment.
Companies fret that remote working will lead to a lack of collaboration, but with the right culture, it can actually improve it tremendously. It can bring together groups of people from around the company who would never have a chance to talk if they were located on opposite sides of the office.
A Focus on Results
When you work remotely, measurements like “Morgan is a hard worker because I see Morgan working hard all the time” go out the door. Instead of being able to focus on misleading physical cues of someone’s efforts, managers and companies have to focus on actual results.
Well, they don’t have to, but it’s a lot hard to fallback to measuring productivity by seeing butts in chairs.
Remote work encourages managers to measure success by output, not by input.
This means that, when paired up with the right environment, I can work my work in as part of my day. If I need to step in to my backyard for 30 minutes to debug a program in my head while I weed my garden, I don’t have to worry about how that appears to others.
All I need to focus on is continuing to output quality work. People will see that, instead of trivial measures like staring at a computer screen for 8 hours straight.
One of the toughest parts of working remotely is the missed conversations with co-workers. While tools like Slack are wonderful for keeping up conversation, inevitably many interactions are lost when you have co-located co-workers.
This is why I believe having a successful remote worker on your team is half based on the remote workers abilities, and half based on the teams effort to include the remote employee.
It’s incredibly easy for communication gaps to occur between employees in the office and the one or two remote workers. So easy that many remote worker experiments fail because of it. And sadly the remote worker gets blamed for the companies unwillingness to adjust work behavior.
But even with a fully-distributed company, isolation will still occur.
There are far too many companies that are entirely remote but fail to bring the team physically together on at least a semi-annual basis.
No matter how individual you are, you need to spend face-to-face time with co-workers to form the very important emotional connections that will get you through tough project times.
I often have to shake off the guilty feeling I have when, after meeting my co-workers for lunch, they have to drive back to the office while I head home (especially when they make it known that’s what’s happening).
It’s part of the reason why I’m writing all of this down. To help me explain my side of things. I don’t work from home because I’m too lazy to drive in or because I’m anti-social. But it’s very easy to feel guilty about it.
Even if you feel confident in your decision to work from your home office, there’s still a nagging guilt about it all.
It eats at the back of your mind knowing that your co-workers choose not to work from home (or want to but are unable/unwilling to convince their manager).
The best thing to do is:
- Make sure your manager and co-workers really are comfortable with you working from home
- If so, take a deep breath, re-assure yourself on this, and let the feeling of guilt go
- Kick ass and be productive to where you really feel no guilt at all because you’re able to get so much done.
A Final Plea to the Open-Office World
I suspect that some people working remotely as a special privilege. Some sort of bonus or benefit of being a good employee.
I agree, it’s a privilege, but not in a “look at this special treatment I get” way.
It’s a privilege in the same way that having a good laptop is a privilege.
It’s the privilege of working for a company that values their worker’s individual needs.
If you talked with a developer whose company made them use a year 2000 laptop running Windows ME, you wouldn’t feel ‘privileged’ for being the one with a Retina MacBook Pro.
You would question the decisions of their management for providing such a lackluster tool for development.
I feel the same way about companies that are dead-set on requiring developers to work in big, open-air office layouts.
Yes, open-office floor plans work great for some people.
But everyone is different.
What works for one group of individuals won’t work for another. It’s okay for someone to need isolation to get a part of their job done.
It’s okay for someone to not be as “social” as someone else. It’s okay to not have everyone working under the same roof.
If you’re on the side of the fence that work just gets done better in an office (and that may be true for you), please take a step back and consider that for some, work gets done better alone at home.