The guilt and paranoia of the remote worker

November 27th, 2010   14 Comments

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It’s thick snow in my part of Edinburgh this morning. I just took the dog for a walk over the golf course – an exciting treat for her as she only ever gets to do that when it’s snowy – and I listened to the latest Hanselminutes show, all about remote working at Microsoft:

Show #242 – The Plight of the Remote Worker with Pete Brown

I’m a partial remote worker. What I mean by this is I work four days a week: two days from home, and the other two days I drive 50 miles to work in the office, then join the queues and crawl the 50 miles back again (a round trip of typically two and a half to three hours). Some of the points Scott Hanselman makes in this podcast struck a chord with me.

He mentions how remote workers are often paranoid about being perceived as not doing enough work, and how they over-compensate by working extra hard – or at least by working extra long hours. This is certainly true in my case. The days I work from home I always work in the evenings – partly because there are always things I’d planned to get done that day but I didn’t get finished by six o’ clock so I spend another couple of hours or so in the evening trying to finish things off. But I also feel obliged to work evenings because I remember that, when I went to make myself a coffee, I tidied up the kitchen while the kettle boiled and I feel guilty because I know I ended up spending 10 minutes doing that and I could have gone back to my computer and worked while the kettle boiled. The fact that, while at work, everybody spends time each day getting a coffee, chatting about non-work things, sitting in meeting rooms waiting for the meeting to get started, and a hundred other things that stop you getting stuff done in the office … that all seems not to count somehow. As a remote worker – to guard against the perception that you’re slacking off, watching daytime TV – you attempt to ensure you have spent a minimum of 8 hours doing productive work. Even if that means some of those hours are in the evening. Even if that means choosing work over time with your kids. Even if that means leaving your partner to prepare the evening meal, and then leaving her to watch TV alone for the rest of the evening.

The “remote guilt” that Scott talks about is a truly bad feature of working from home. Not only do many remote workers worry that they need to be seen as providing extra value to the company to justify working from home, they are often, nevertheless, seen by management as less committed members of staff than the high visibility folks who make sure they’re notice around the office every day (irrespective of the actual value the company is actually getting from them).

As a low visibility remote worker it’s hard not to feel that, if it came to a management meeting to discuss who to make redundant, you’d be a prime candidate: “Well, he’s good – but he’s never in the office.”

However, there are many great things about working from home, rather than commuting long distance to work. For example: not sitting in a car for three hours every day; not spending £60 on petrol; reducing your carbon footprint; getting more work done. And there are usually good reasons for not relocating nearer the office: not forcing your family to move away from friends and family; not forcing your partner to find a new job; continuing to live somewhere you like living.

So, if I sound like I’m bitching, I’m not. I choose to be a (partial) remote worker, and I like it. It just worries me, that’s all. 

Technology to make you more visible as a remote worker

Although Scott starts off the podcast by saying that Microsoft are not generally keen on remote working, it seems like they do, at least, have the technology to make the remote worker’s life easier. Scott talks about Microsoft Lync and Microsoft RoundTable. At Microsoft the issue seems to be getting people to use these technologies. For most of us though the issue would be getting our companies to invest in technology like this. The fear and paranoia of the remote worker tends to mean that, having been allowed to work from home, you accept that this is probably at the expense of any other discretionary goodness from your company (like pay rises) – so asking for anything that makes remote working less alienating, if it costs money, is probably not a good idea and you’d better just shut up, count yourself lucky and keep working those long hours. 

However, Microsoft RoundTable does sound great. Here’s a promo video for it. It’s an incredibly silly video, but it does give you the gist of what RoundTable is:

Finally, in January of this year, Scott put a video on Channel 9 showing the work Microsoft Research had been doing into "Embodied Social Proxies". This is something beyond video conference: having a physical presence in a meeting that you’re attending remotely.

It looks fabulous, but I think it’s going to be a long time before many companies invest in something like this:
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  1. User Gravatar @blueskywriting said:

    November 28th, 2010 at 9:58 am (#)

    This guy talks a lot of sense: http://www.ted.com/talks/jason_fried_why_work_doesn_t_happen_at_work.html

  2. User Gravatar Craig said:

    November 29th, 2010 at 2:20 pm (#)

    The people who are the movers and shakers put in lots of face time in the office. The executive vp's are allowed to work from home, but seldom do. They are very nearly always on site, working late. Seems that showing up and being seen counts more than ever.

  3. User Gravatar Paul Danger Kile said:

    December 6th, 2010 at 10:02 pm (#)

    I found it difficult to separate work from rest when I was in my early 20's. I worked too much. I had this remote guilt.

    Later on in my 30's working at home became extremely efficient, and there was no remote guilt.

  4. User Gravatar jjZwangCMT said:

    December 6th, 2010 at 10:23 pm (#)

    I have worked from home for the same radiologist for the past seven years. I have some times when I have difficulty sticking to the work. His office hours are from 7:30 a.m. until 7 p.m. and he is often dictating reports for a couple of hours more. He know though that if there is work I am doing it . . . even if it means keeping at it until 2 a.m. even and then getting up at 6 a.m. to finish everything before the next day's dictations get started. My personal motto has always been if there is work I am doing it! It is sort of a medical transcriptionist mind set! Besides I love what I do!

  5. User Gravatar itauthor said:

    December 6th, 2010 at 11:26 pm (#)

    Work/life balance is a real issue for the remote worker. If you're going to work from home you've got to be able to prevent work from taking over your home life. Remote guilt tends to skew things in favour of spending more time than you should working rather than resting (or doing other non-work things).

    Sounds like you've managed to find a good balance Paul. Thanks for the comment.

  6. User Gravatar itauthor said:

    December 6th, 2010 at 11:32 pm (#)

    "My personal motto has always been if there is work I am doing it!" That sounds dangerous to me. How do you stop work consuming your life so that there's nothing more to you than what you do for a living?

    But I guess if you really love what you do then you enjoy spending long days and nights just working, working, working. Watch you don't burn yourself out! Thanks for the comment.

  7. User Gravatar remoteGuy said:

    December 7th, 2010 at 3:01 am (#)

    I've been working remotely for about 5 years now, programming in Boston from Oregon.

    Some would consider it a pain, but I wrote a spreadsheet to be able to "punch the clock" every time I get up to tidy the kitchen, etc.
    Hit a keystroke that invokes a macro to insert the current time in a column, formulas calculate the time between the start and end columns, and a pivot table to show me the total I worked each day.

    At least when I just worked from 7am to 7pm and only worked 8 hours, I know I really did just work 8 hours and really did spend the other 4 on naps and showers and tidying the kichen.

    So do I punch the clock to get a cup of coffee or not? Yeah, I usually do, guilty as charged.

  8. User Gravatar @yecril71pl said:

    December 7th, 2010 at 9:08 am (#)

    Being paid for hours worked is unreasonable in IT. It applies to dull foreseeable repetitive tasks only that IT was invented to eliminate. At the end of the day, it does not matter how long you have searched for gold, it only matters what you have found.

  9. User Gravatar Gary said:

    December 7th, 2010 at 1:29 pm (#)

    yecril71pl, I think "hours" are important. If you have a really productive 4 hours, do you then stop working because you've provided enough gold for the company that day? How much more gold could you provide in another 4 hours? The value of a true professional is that his or her productivity is predictable. The comment on VPs by Craig is also instructive. If you want to work from home, then you will be developing software, and not developing people. That's fine, it's just a choice to be made.

  10. User Gravatar Marie A. said:

    December 7th, 2010 at 2:05 pm (#)

    I have no guilt about working only 8 hours and then walking away, I'm just as productive at home as I am at work. And it's a much shorter trip to get coffee or use the facilities. After 8 hours, unless there's some pressing need to finish something or follow up later, I'm done.

    I'm a "mostly remote" worker. I go in for meetings I have to be at in person, but otherwise I work from home. We have a good desktop viewing/digital voice teleconf system for all the other meetings. Since my team is distributed worldwide, I have to do most of my meetings like that regardless of being in the office or not.

    I make extensive use of Outlook's Journal and Task features to track my time. I start journal entries while I work on tasks, and let it keep track of my office document work so I can look back and know what project to charge my time to.

  11. User Gravatar itauthor said:

    December 7th, 2010 at 10:58 pm (#)

    Going to the length of creating a spreadsheet to prove to yourself you worked your 8 hours seems like extreme guilt. I completely understand.
    :-)

    However, I wonder how I'd use it those days I'm in the office, where I spend quite a lot of time on the social bookmarks around the stuff that's undeniable "work" – e.g. chatting before and after a meeting. I think it's tough to demand more full-on, break-free work of ourselves when we work remotely than we're okay with when we're working in the office.

  12. User Gravatar itauthor said:

    December 7th, 2010 at 11:28 pm (#)

    I'm not sure about this. If I were employing gold-diggers I'd prefer to have a guy who some weeks delivered nothing but two or three times a year brought in a 100-ounce nugget, rather than a guy who delivered an ounce a day regular as clockwork, but never anything bigger. This sounds like a silly comparison, but I know people (particularly programmers) who are sometimes difficult, unconventional characters but nevertheless, when you really need an expert, or a flash of brilliance, always come up with the goods. Those guys are truly worth their weight in gold.

    So I'd say, yes – to a degree – hours are important, but not as important as getting things done. And I'm not convinced a habit of long hours is the best way to get things done – although some people might find it an effective way of convincing incompetent management that they're a "real hard worker".

  13. User Gravatar itauthor said:

    December 7th, 2010 at 11:29 pm (#)

    I like your attitude! Thanks for commenting.

  14. User Gravatar Jana said:

    December 26th, 2011 at 2:49 pm (#)

    In Germany there are right now many discussions whether the remote worker concept can be useful for our economy or not. Thanks for these insights, they help me to understand whole thing better.