Example of power loom - one of XIX century industrial revolution inventions. Unlike then most of the workforce in XXI century do not operate such machinery any more, working with computers instead. Uncategorised

Why do we work remotely?

At the time of writing it is year 2019. Yes, 2019. Not 1819 – the middle of Industrial Revolution, not 1919 – when the Hours of Work (Industry) Convention was established, but 2019.

It was just few months ago when we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first man landing on the Moon. World Wide Web was invented 30 years ago, and Internet has been publicly available and commonly used for about the same time. Today, 99,9% of European households have access to broadband Internet. Google is over 20 years old, Skype – over 15 years, Slack – 5 years. Over 85% of population in Europe has a mobile phone and the average mobile penetration rate is near 125%. And on my phone alone I have more than 10 communication, messaging or videoconferencing apps. Communicating on a distance has never been easier.

At work we rather use a laptop, which is today a small and relatively inexpensive device, rather than operate a power loom or other heavy machinery of prohibitive price. Yet there is still a widespread concept of coming to a factory an office, as it used to be 200 years ago, and spending there 8 hours per day – a limit commonly adopted around 100 years ago.

To be fair I acknowledge the fact there are some companies which core business is to build, program or use sophisticated machinery or specialised equipment which is available on-site only. Even then not all the work requires continuous access to the said equipment. If we think of startups this case is rare and I was not be able to find more than very few examples. Some others may need to physically limit access to their computer systems due to security or confidentiality reasons. This is more subtle. Sometimes it is perfectly well justified and I personally worked in few places of this kind and know of few others. However, they were all industrial or production plants of some kind. Often, security and confidentiality are used as a mere excuse for not setting up a VPN access and I have seen these examples as well.

The companies, especially startups, in order to attract best software developers compete in “what cool amenities we have in the office” and the “modern, open-plan office” phrase still appear in job ads. I admit, the latter phrase seems to be less often these days. It does not change the fact that “an office” in most cases means “an open-space office”.

If we think of software development (data engineering, data science and business intelligence are or make heavy use of software development), and put aside the above mentioned exceptions, what can really be the reasons to do it in the office?

I bet most of answers to this question would mention either productivity or communication. Or both.

Both of these answers are wrong.

Being in the office is not the same as working

I suppose the conviction of higher productivity in the office may come from making (unconsciously) equality between “being in the office” and “working”. Or rather the other way round: “NOT being in the office” and “NOT working”. Interestingly enough in the office amenities competition companies seem to acknowledge the fact that people will not work all the time they are in the office (which, of course, makes sense). One of the adds coming from one of the quite successful Berlin startup says: “Hang-out in one of our many shared spaces, playing games with colleagues or enjoying a full range of events, including workshops, on-site meetups, guest speakers, and fun events (…). Sharpen your PlayStation, ping pong, and kicker/fußball skills during breaks in the day.” In fact what they say is: “we want you to be in the office, you can do other things than working there”. Presence is not equal productivity.

People can efficiently perform mental work which require high focus for a limited amount of time. Then a break should be taken. Different sources give different numbers for this limit, but certainly there is a limit. And it is much lower than the total of 8 hours per working day, even if split into to slots of ~4 hours each. After this time is exceeded the efficiency drops drastically, and on longer term so-called burn-out appear. Of course, we can make a stretch and work hard 8 or 10 hours per day, for a day or maybe three. We would need a relax after each of these stretches though, so the consecutive days we would work either shorter or less efficiently. The average gain on a longer run will be around 0 and may be even negative.

So, if one requires people to come to the office for 8 hours it is wise to assume they will not be working all that time or will not be working efficiently. And it is also due to the fact the most popular open-space offices decrease the productivity. But why to require people to spend 8h in the office then? This looks very much as an XIX century concept of 8-hours working day. Except we do not work physically in factories, in XXI century we do completely different work. XIX century ideas, commonly adopted in industry 100 years ago, do no longer apply.

Instead of saying “come to our cool office and stay here 8h or longer, play kicker or PlayStation” it would make more sense to say “use your 5-6 hours of productivity best you can, when you like, where you like and do whatever you like with the rest of your time”.

It is trivial to calculate that people who stay home save 1-2h per day on commuting to and from the office. They can use this time to do whatever they like. Obviously, this would improve so-called work-life balance and generally make them happier. And with positive attitude comes better productivity. Win-win situation. But there is more. Many of these people spend some of the additional time on… doing more work. And this is an instant gain.

Fortunately, there is more and more organisations which realised the need for a change and the clear benefits coming from flexible work arrangements. We want to be in forefront of that change and that is why why adopted fully remote working style. It is just better for everyone that way.

View on large open space office with densely packed desks and CRT screens on them. Uncategorised

Working in the office and productivity

Is the time spent in the office more productive comparing to the time worked elsewhere?

Apparently not. At least not when in comes to open-space offices, by far the most popular now.

There are more distractions, which means less focus. The open-space office, with its inherent noise and lack of privacy, greatly contribute to that. People working in the open office are less happy and less motivated. It also means: less productive. It has been known for decades and confirmed in many later studies, yet mostly ignored. The recent studies confirm that working conditions in open space offices make it harder to focus and generally decrease the performance.

Some companies seem to acknowledge that open offices are bad. Unfortunately, their solution is to replace open offices with… more fancy open offices with “private spaces” and more conference rooms. Of course, this is not a solution, but a desperate attempt to revive a concept which should have been already dead. In all the “cool” offices I have seen so far there is always a shortage of free conference rooms and comfortable private working spaces, irrespectively how big the office is and how many of these facilities there are.

People try to fight these shortcomings of working in open space office – if you ever noticed developers with headphones it was not necessarily because they love music so much. They hate noise and distractions at work.

If you are in the office there is high chance a co-worker would stop at your desk to have a friendly chat or to ask a completely unimportant question. Or your team lead / project lead / superior decides to held an ad-hoc meeting, because he have an idea and a free slot at the moment and noticed that everyone is (or should be) at their desks. There are plenty of these and much smaller distractions (like someone passing by or talking to a person nearby) every day. Each of them cost you focus, productivity and negatively affects your well-being.

And if you were not in the office? Your co-worker most probably would not bother to call / message you just for the chat and would only ask a question if it was vital. The meeting would be held with a proper notice and an agenda or the topic would be addressed at any of the other meetings. There would be no other distractions. And you could focus on things which are important.

If the office is not a comfortable place for people to work it would be cruel to force people to come there. More importantly, it is just economically unjustified to force them to work in the environment they are not fully productive. This is why at Narwhal Data Solutions we adopted fully flexible and fully remote working style.

But if you sit in the same room in the office the communication must be better than if you all were in completely different places. It sounds logical, doesn’t it? And this is what HR managers proudly says: “we have a modern open space office to promote direct communication and team work”. They know it, right?

Not really. Or maybe they know it, but they ignore it.

How comfortable are you to have a chat with another person if you know that all the other people are listening? Would you dare to discuss the project at your colleague desk if you know you would disturb a dozen of other people with your conversation? Would you rather write a private e-mail instead? Or held “a quick meeting” in one of the conference rooms if you really prefer to talk? Many people answer “yes” to the last two questions and this is how “open communication” looks like in many offices. Again, the belief of improved communication in open office was proven wrong many years ago and the recent studies confirm the adverse effect – decrease of face to face communication and increase in e-mail and IM. And e-mail and IM works the same way, irrespectively if you are in the office or not.

As usual, they are caveats. All the modern communication means will not replace a face to face interactions between two people. It is important to meet personally people you work with as this greatly facilitate further remote communication. There are some activities which are better done with physical presence of the participants. Nearly all sorts of trainings and workshops, which require collaboration and immediate bi-directional feedback between the presenter and the audience, fall into that category. Some key architecture, design or planning works can be conducted easier and faster if every involved person is physically in the same room. However, these events are rare and occurs neither frequently nor regularly. In many cases, with some effort, they can be conducted remotely. And not every single communication act has to be face to face.