What Tech Workers Don't Understand They've Lost by WFH
The debate around Working From Home is fast becoming a proxy culture war issue. The right wing is becoming increasingly more opposed to Working From Home. While the left wing retort that the preference of bosses for increased "bums on seats" is a consequence of the implicit feudal structures of "late-captialism".
Much like the effect of the plague in medieval times, one of the effects of the pandemic has been to perturb the power balance between employers and employees. As an employee, I was initially excited by the benefits of working from home, but slowly realised that complete remote working was an alienating experience that has diminished the boundaries between work and leisure.
I want to make a developer-centric argument that the current state of majority remote working is bad, not because it is bad for your company or for your salary but because it is not best for yours and others mental well being.
The Past & Present
Since the pandemic work life and attitudes for people working in tech have changed significantly. Before the pandemic only a minority of tech jobs allowed for remote working. Now it is considered the expectation and it is rare to find office based roles. Any hybrid roles that are advertised are effectively remote as it's usually unenforced.
Many people in tech profess to really liking the new arrangement. Not having to commute any more; being able to play video games during lunch time (and during work hours for some); waking up just before their first meeting of the day. These were all seen as positives of remote working. In addition, many developers, who tend to be more introverted in nature on average than the general population, have enjoyed not having to socialise so often.
Because of these changes, now that the pandemic is over, it's difficult for employers to get employees back into the office. Many people working in tech are adamant that they want to continue remote working. Any attempt to coerce employees might lead to mass resignations in a field where the hiring market is very competitive for employers.
Having been working from home in tech during the pandemic, this saddens me. The initial excitement about WFH has worn off and I've become conscious of the depressing alienation that remote work is causing. I think that this will be affecting many remote workers at a sub-conscious level, in a way that most of us haven't acknoweldged.
The Social Alienation of Remote Working
Nobody likes to do video call hangouts/drinks, but many of us enjoy it in person. There's a reason for this. The social bandwidth in our interactions with colleagues is different in video calls. The stimuli have changed.
If we're lucky, we're confronted with the images (including our own) of several different people all on one screen. If we're unlucky everyone has their camera off, and we speak into a void of muted mics and turned off cameras hoping that someone is actually listening to us.
There are many sub-conscious nuances to conversations that we're missing out on from not having these conversations in person, like lower-body body language. When pair-programming, I often find that unconsciously I am physically pointing at lines of code that I'm discussing with my colleagues. This is of course pointless in a video call as they would have to be facing the same physical location as me to see what I'm pointing at. But, it's an example of unconscious physical actions that we take that facilitate understanding that is lost in a video call.
Video calls add friction to human interactions. The most jarring experience of this for instance is telling a joke while people have their microphones on mute. No matter how funny the joke is the response feels like an awkward silence.
The video call attempts to simulate an in person interaction but it does so imperfectly. This is without even considering the inevitable drops in internet speed; software bugs; and, ominous hidden tasks being processed in the background of a call. In a previous role, one Microsoft Teams update led to calls exceeding 10 minutes turning the fans on my 2 year old Macbook Pro to their highest setting. I'm still curious to know what Microsoft Teams would have been processing in the background of those meetings.
Often the convenience of having access to the internet right at our fingertips makes it difficult for us to pay attention in meetings. Media companies with a digital presence, whether that be social media like Instagram or traditional journalism like The Guardian, spend a lot of people to make their product as engaging as possible. They need you to pay attention to their platform, not your meeting. There is so little friction to accessing these platforms that as soon as our attention wanders in meetings it is hard to stop ourselves. I've seen it myself, even in the casual conversation part of meeting people are often not engaged.
You might say that this is great, meetings are much more efficient now that I have the ability to tune out discreetly when the conversation is uninteresting or irrelevant. A 2021 study of Microsoft employees found that attention is often split in meetings. But, at some point the compulsion to tune out has become so strong that many of us are not bothering to pay attention to our colleagues anymore. Reasearch by Gartner has shown that remote new joiners have a diminished sense of beloging to their organisation. Remote working is making it too easy to stay in our bubbles rather than to engage with our colleagues.
Ultimately, by staying in our bubble we're missing out. Knowing our colleagues on a more personal level makes it easier to communicate and solve problems, making work much more rewarding. It can also lead to many opportunities. At my current company many colleagues have been poached by someone who used to work with them and is now managing a team at a different company. This poacher who has enticed a lot of the Data Science & Data Engineering talent has been offering their former colleagues jobs without interviews. It's because of the meaningful relationships that my colleagues have established with this poacher while working in person before the pandemic that they have been offered this opportunity.
Overwork & Accountability
The lines between work time and home time have become much more blurry with WFH. It is not just us either: a study of real-time data from millions of GitHub users found that work was often being re-allocated from the traditional 9-6pm weekday hours to evenings and even weekends. Life is losing the punctuation points between work and leisure that we have enjoyed in the past.
Remote workers are in a cycle of procrastination and guilt. I have frittered away my time during work hours obsessively reading articles on the internet and then having to work late to catch up with the work that I should have done during the day. At one point it got so bad that I had to cancel my subscription to The Athletic to stop myself reading it during official work hours. Analysing Google searches for "rightmove", Britain's most popular online property portal, we can see a clear pattern where the peaks occur on weekdays between 12pm-8pm. We distract ourselves browsing the internet throughout working hours and then work hard to catch up with what we've missed in a fit of guilt.
One of the advantages of office work is that being surrounded by colleagues pushes us to get our work done during office time. Many knowledge workers are paying to have silent video chats with people who act as their accountability buddies. There has been a rise in companies offering what is essentially "focussing-as-a-service". These companies often match people up for a silent video call with an accountability buddy who monitors that they're working. The penalties for procrastinating on focusmate.com can also be severe: “If your partner goofs off during the session, you can report it using the reporting button on the appointment card in your dashboard.”...“If you are late, your account can be banned.” The feeling of being watched makes us feel accountable and pushes us to work. The rise in these services shows that offices provided more than just workspaces, they provided accountability, a useful service that some are now realising they are willing to pay for.
Part of the human condition is to grow and produce. But, it's often easier to read that next article than it is to work on something hard but fulfilling. YouTube hires teams of very well paid Data Scientists to ensure that you watch that next video. When so many big media companies' bottom lines are so directly related to their ability to capture your attention, of course they would spend massive amount of resources to do so. The urge to procrastinate is so strong that people are paying for accountability buddies to keep them working, something that used to be provided by office working for free. Yes there are many out there who are happy to appropriate the value of your work, but that does not diminish the satisfaction and sense of self-esteem from solving a problem or creating a product. You and your bosses incentives are aligned. Ultimately you will produce your most satisfying work and have the most enjoyable leisure time by working in an office and relaxing at home.
I hope that this article will start to change the tide of opinion on remote working. As someone who wants to work more in person with our colleagues, it is disappointing to see that my opinion is so contrarian. As a result there is very little choice in jobs that are onsite and even hybrid with shared days onsite.
Ultimately, too many of us are like the unaware sufferer of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder stuck in the well of their debilitating obsessions. Like the unaware OCD sufferer, we don't appreciate that our remote working habit is causing us more harm than good, and we prefer the immediate comfort of our homes to the slight inconvenience but long term communion of our offices.
As such, I don't see much changing anytime soon. Unless companies are highly prestigious, market forces make companies too wary about annoying the majority of their tech departments in one go. The massive knowledge drain could be catastrophic, and there are many companies who are happy enough to entice any potentially disenfranchised tech workers with their own very relaxed remote working policies. I hope though that this starts to encourage enough of us back into the office that we can restore some sense of belonging into our working lives.