November 27th, 2010
It’s thick snow in my part of Edinburgh this morning.
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.