Remote working and the elephant in the room

The COVID pandemic largely forced the industry to adapt to remote working conditions for a number of months. It does seem like we'll eventually get over the pandemic and life will return to normal, with far fewer restrictions in place. That said, i have noticed something going on, that people don't really address head on. With the end of the pandemic, many companies will be forcing their employees to return to the office, to work as they used to. Now, i'm using the word "force" here and while it's rather strong language, that's also the situation in many cases - where people simply don't want to return.

But perhaps more importantly, that's just half the story. I've seen two very distinct groups emerge:

  • those that can't wait to return to the office
  • those that really don't want to return to the office

It does appear that both of these groups are mutually exclusive, vaguely correspond to the personality types of people - the former consisting mostly of extroverted people, while the latter has mostly introverts in it. It's not that cut and dry, because some people have found that either they just work better in a remote setting, or are worse off for it, regardless of their personality type. However, the most important thing here is the fact that you can't really easily take a person from group A and move them over to group B or vice versa - no amount of corporate swag, free food or other amenities will be sufficient (though some will certainly make concessions - i'd also consider working in the office if it had a gym and comfy sofas to work on).

elephant in the room

(that's the elephant in the room; to make him more relevant to this discussion, imagine that he's working remotely, in his pyjamas)

And i've personally seen the Internet errupt with an incredible amount of unrestrained contempt and sometimes even disregard that these groups seem to have against one another. No, not against their own coworkers or colleagues which simply belong in the other group, but the ideas themselves - it's like an unresolvable clash of wildly different ideologies. I've seen many arguments that have been made by either of those groups to discredit the opinions of the opposite one, these discussions sadly not always remaining civil, which is an unfortunate reality on the Internet.

But why is that?

The types of people and the unforseen consequences

The workplace is made up of people with different personalities, that much is clear. However, what noone really talks about, is how they gravitate towards certain jobs based on these personalities. For example, let's consider me, a software developer - the skills that i need to be successful at my job and create technical solutions are very different from those that someone in sales would need to be able to convince clients. And i'll only be able to acquire and perfect these skills, if what i desire coincides with what's required to learn them - there are a few people who go into software development just because they want to earn a good salary, but oftentimes they find themselves to be pretty miserable.

For example, consider the following:

  • with computers, everything is binary - things either work or they don't, therefore i need to be detail oriented
  • these logic gates and checks quickly accumulate to create complex solutions - therefore, i need to be patient to understand them
  • after a while, certain patterns tend to emerge and i must be able to learn these - therefore, i must be persistent in this repetition
  • not only that, but there's an incredible amount of minutea that must be addressed - so i need to be ready to put in the time and effort to understand it, learn new things, attend conferences etc.
  • all of this also does impact communication with others - i need to be able to talk about concrete solutions with exact approaches, instead of talking vaguely, yet poetically
  • all of this also requires great mental effort - therefore having some peace and quiet so that i can focus is at times paramount

You might notice that the above is a big generalistic, which i've written a bit in the style of The Tao of Programming, but i'm sure you get the idea. It makes sense that many of the people who work in software development value the ability to focus highly. It makes sense that they're detail oriented and sometimes prefer slower, yet more well thought out approaches, as opposed to trying to convince someone about all of the many benefits of your product, if only they were to become your client. They also don't necessarily flavour fluff and instead are a bit more detail oriented, since that's what development takes from them. They can't sweet talk a compiler into producing the correct output - they either express what the program needs to do correctly, or they don't.

That's not to say that they're in any way necessarily "better" than those whose jobs revolve around social aspects.

That, however, is absolutely to say that their ideal working environment will be a bit different than those of the other people. They won't feel as good or won't be as productive in an open office environment. They will have to spend a lot of time collecting their mental model of a problem, after someone will drop by to chat and interrupt their entire development process because of this.

Whereas in the case of people in sales, or even QA, architecture, business analysis etc., people will find it harder to collaborate remotely. They'll miss that bit of human interaction that a message in Slack simply won't provide them with. They'll miss the nuances to gauge how others feel about ideas, since a video call doesn't necessarily convey that. They won't be used to dropping their friends a message on Discord to chat, and perhaps instead will be more comfortable with talking in person or going out.

The jobs don't make the people these way, but rather these jobs make different people gravitate towards them.

Remote is hard

And, to be honest, they are right in some ways! The tools that we have for remote working, are oftentimes a poor imitation of being on site. Until now, we've often only had to use them as stand ins for collaborating with customers when we're not in the same office. Thus, the standards that we've had for them have been way lower, than if we need to use them full time. In addition, the paradigms that they force upon us don't really coincide with the reality of working in an office: you don't always plan meetings ahead of time like you'd do in Teams or Zoom, sometimes there are just very productive ad hoc conversations.

There are tools popping up to try to address this, like Spot, for example, yet they're largely in their infancy. Furthermore, talking to someone who's sitting next to you takes less cognitive effort than using some software platform to message them does. One of the reasons why IRC chats were historically so popular, was that they didn't have many fancy features and were extremely easy to use. Of course, then there's also the problem with typing being slower and harder to do for some people, for a variety of reasons. At the same time, voice calls don't give you a look at the person's face, so social cues can go out the window. In short, there are many things that virtual platforms miss, even though i think that in 5-10 years we'll see a far better landscape. But who can wait 5 years for stuff like that, really?

Not only that, but the manner of communication actually is way more important than people give it credit for! Remote working is an entire culture, as described by GitLab. If you just try to shove your current development processes into a remote setting and try to make due, you'll oftentimes find that there's something missing. If you're not used to having discussions publically, documenting things in Wikis, or working with people whose schedules might differ from yours, you'll run into problems. Furthermore, that type of working won't appease everyone and many will feel either less productive, or downright miserable while working like that.

Now, personally i think that writing down decisions and collaborating on them asynchronously is one of the best approaches out there, because it gives you the ability to refer back to them more easily, than trying to recall what you chatted about on Skype 7 weeks ago. As a developer, i don't really care about working in the office and am comfortable with Slack and the self-hosted alternatives like Rocket.Chat or other tools like that. But the world does not revolve around me and therefore it's very important to recognize that many people out there aren't comfortable with the current course of things.

What will happen

So what will that lead to? Chaos, plain and simple.

As i said, certain jobs make certain personality types gravitate towards them. And i have a hunch that the managerial folk are on average more comfortable being in the office. Many companies simply don't want to bother implementing remote work culture, or maybe have slightly dated views on productivity and believe in micromanagement. Of course, some have seen an opportunity in remote work to close their offices and not pay exorbitant rent, while others have also attempted to cut the salaries of the remote workers - in part to spend less on their employees, while also making it appear like they're subsidizing the office workers.

Many of these things will cause great strife among the people in the industry. Many employees will eventually resign and look for different work opportunities that better match their preferences. Others will simply bite the bullet and return to work in the office, while at the same time feeling miserable, either due to the commute, due to having to give up their peace and quiet, interact with other folks in person every day (just a shout out to the introverts or socially anxious folk out there, who are otherwise great people), or having their points of view erased entirely.

For example, many companies are now doing polls, that go along the lines of the following: "How often would you like to work remotely?"

  • 2 days a week
  • 1 day a week
  • i would not like to work remotely

What happened to the people who want to work fully remotely? Their views are being erased, by it not even being an option. What happened to those who'd just like to spend 1-2 days a week collaborating in the office and doing all of the meetings in one day, so that they can focus on actually getting things done the rest of the week remotely, seeing as their lives don't revolve around meetings and that's simply not what they generate any value in? Their views are also erased. That only builds contempt.

Not only that, but if a company does a split between the in office folk and remote folk, it's inevitable that there will also be a shattering of the culture. There will be an in crowd in the office, who will have discussions, these people will also form personal bonds just due to how most people work and also be considered for promotions more. But it doesn't end there - there will also be differences in what information is communicated. It stands to reason that things which are hard to do simply won't be done - and filling in the remote workers and writing things in Wikis is definitely hard for these people who excel at in person communication, so the remote employees won't be filled in as often, which will harm the business as well.

Furthermore, a wave of resignations from these companies is inevitable, especially in the case of those who only support in office work. Apart from making them be short on hands, there is also a deeper problem with this - these people will take their domain knowledge, all of that stuff which wasn't necessarily documented in those Wikis, with them. How will you onboard new employees, when there's noone to tell you the full picture of the existing solutions in place? And if you message the developers who have left, do you think that they'll be interested in helping you if they already have contempt for your corporation?

The industry will have to deal with this and it won't be pretty.

My experiences

Of course, it's not all negatives. I might have to make that very same choice in the future as well, but i think that it's good to talk about some of the positives of remote work as well. Actually, i got that idea after replying to some of the comments on Hacker News in a discussion about remote work. So, below you have another poster's arguments quoted and my responses to those in turn.

I can't wait to get back to the office.

That is a valid point, since different people work better in different settings. I am personally in the opposite group.

I don't have dedicated remote work space and that really eats into my productivity. Also being home and having no external pressure to keep working I can already see any breaks people tend to take are way longer than what they would take at the office. (Now someone is going to tell me that this just shows that people need more breaks, but I don't believe that)

Overall, i get way more done at home, because of my 4 monitor setup, privacy, peace and the ability to take walks to clear my head and breathe some fresh air while i consider how to solve technical problems. I cannot do that at an office setting and my mental health has improved bunches. Also, no commute has done wonders for my sleep schedule and productivity. I no longer waste 10% of my life in public transportation.

It also helps with my physical fitness. Now it is super hard to go to the gym in the morning just to come back home. When I commuted to work the gym was just on the way and it was easy to get out of the bed and go work out.

My physical fitness has gotten way better since i started working remotely - i've lost about 12 kg in 2 months, since now i exercise for 1-2 hours every single day in the countryside. No anxiety about how i look while working out. No shame about not living up to anyone's expectations. Just me, nature and listening to a podcast while i jog for 5 km and do sit ups, push ups, pull ups and whatever else i want.

Food is also big draw. Now I have to worry about what I eat every day and make my food. That's extra stress and cognitive pressure that is completely avoided when I get to just eat lunch from office's cafeteria.

I think that people should always make their own food, since it's both economically more responsible and on average also more healthy. I now enjoy a primarily veggie based diet and communities like /r/MealPrep have been fun to explore! Plus, my cooking skills have gotten way better.

And of course other social aspects i.e. since I am already outside it is easier to do other stuff, but when I'm still in my underpants at home after work it is way harder to dress up and go do stuff.

I get to chat more with my friends remotely on my down time. I no longer worry about how i look. I no longer have to worry about someone dropping by and just making me lose the mental model of the code that i have in my head. Meetings are properly scheduled ahead of time. Noone makes assumptions about me based on my gender, age, looks or anything else.

Frankly, it's great. It won't be that way for extroverted people, or those that prefer in person collaboration for any reason. It also won't be that way for people who live in the city, at least sometimes. But, living in the countryside, it's absolutely great! Also, no overpriced real estate or rent to take care of.

Summary

With all of that said, there is no one true answer. There are no easy solutions that i can think of for this situation. I work better in a remote setting, some other people will work better in the office. There are drawbacks and advantages to both of the approaches, sometimes in general, while other times for particular personality types.

Overall, however, i think that this great awakenening of people getting the taste of remote work will cause much strife in the industry in the long term, not because of remote work being the problem, but rather that there are different facets of humanity which work better in completely opposite settings. For a long time, the introverted and remote first people have tolerated working in the office, but now they no longer wish to.

In conclusion, i will simply leave you with an article that was pretty interesting, as was the discussion in the comments: The 'Great Resignation' is really the 'Great Discontent'

Oh, and here's a reminder to be excellent to other people, even if they're different. Don't erase their points of view, attempt to understand them and seek compromise, if one can be found at all.

Update

Why the reminder? Because one of the responses my post generated was the following:

internet is a hostile place sometimes

Now, i'm not big on the whole culture of pretending to be victimized and deeply offended by comments online, but the topic of working from home versus being in office is one that deeply polarizes people for some reason.

It is entirely possible to disagree with someone and be civil with them, which i believe is important to remember!