There are a few stories in the news about working remotely from another country. Simon Wardley tweeted about returning to physical spaces and whether it will happen. So, it might be good to talk about the pros and cons of working remotely versus returning to work.
We work remotely, but we’ve worked for many years in the office, so we have experience of both to make a fair analysis. Everyone worked from home during the pandemic. Post-pandemic, there are different factors at play. It’s a topic of conversation that’s bubbling up. It’s a contentious topic, for sure.
We’re not talking about any individual company. We’re talking in general because we do talk to loads of people who are working for different companies. Going on personal experience, I will go through the 8 key things to know about working remotely.
1. Are Team Dynamics better working remotely or in-house?
Remote versus in-office, what do you think about team dynamics? Is it better or worse working remotely, or is it not impacted?
You have to acknowledge it’s different. But is it good or bad? You must learn to accommodate when you’re remote. Managing calendars is a big one. You must get ahead of your calendar and block off space that you genuinely need, even for social things like a chat or getting work done. You need time to reach out and talk to people. So you must protect that space and time.
In the office, it’s easier to go and tap someone on the shoulder. We remember times when we were working in the office, and we did not want people interrupting us. We used to talk about trialling, turning a light red when we were swamped. When you’re remote, you do the same thing by checking someone’s Slack or Zoom status, and you can ping them async when you have time for a chat. There is more collaboration and interaction in the team because we are only a Slack or Teams message away. And communication is regular and consistent compared with bumping into somebody in the elevator.
We remember sitting in a bay with our teams in the office. If your team was good craic, it was great fun, but you would need more time to get your work done. But if you had work to do, it was a nightmare. When COVID-19 started, we checked in every morning as a team. That was an excellent practice. There’s more opportunity to grow a dynamic, diverse and globally distributed team than ever. It’s a lot harder to have a ‘click’ when you are remote first. Remember people sneaking off for coffee or creeping around? There used to be an unfair advantage that smokers had from meeting and having side conversations. Although smoking is a big sacrifice to make for promotion!
2. Does ‘whiteboarding’ still work when you work remotely?
The next one is ‘whiteboarding’. We liked carrying pens and writing on the whiteboard because we are visual. We struggle without that when we work remotely. But we usually have a bit of paper where we can scribble to help us think. And we have Lucid and Miro.
The emergence of online collaboration tools has been a godsend. All the tools now have whiteboarding capability for team collaboration, better documentation and remote collaboration. Multiple people updating the same diagram, architecture or data flow is a game changer. Even in the office, using a MIRO board and online collaboration was a better way of capturing what everyone was thinking. And you could also keep it afterwards. With whiteboards, it was a burden to take a picture and transcribe it. Go to Google Drive pre-pandemic and search for whiteboards, and it’ll be full of pictures of whiteboards.
What about the confidence to participate? If we are sitting with a team and drawing on the whiteboard, it’s unlikely that junior engineers ask about it. But with Lucid elicit, everyone throws ideas in. So it’s a level playing field.
When you’re in the office, it’s easier to hold people’s attention. If you’re on a whiteboard, they’re present and not distracted by another window or reading an email or Slack. When you’re working remotely on Zoom, it can be a challenge for any facilitator. But you can navigate it with good facilitation. If you go into your session, say that you want to take two hours of their time as a group and use it effectively. If we’re doing event storming, I ask everyone to keep their camera on. I’ll keep Zoom with all the faces on one side, and I will have a chart on the other side. And you can still judge reactions. If anyone needs to leave to go, then switch it off so everyone knows you are not participating.
Workshop etiquette is much better. I remember planning an event storming took time. Now we can do event storming with an hour’s notice as everyone can log on. It used to be a significant overhead to schedule people, resources and time. Now, it’s spontaneous. We also have compelling base templates. In the past, you spent ages getting the room set up with the correct words on the board. Now, in seconds, you are productive and in the meat of what you’re trying to achieve, which is a game changer.
3. How does working remotely affect you relationship with you manager?
Let’s get into the environment. What about your relationship with your manager? In the office, you had your manager sitting with you in the bay, and they could see what you were doing. But remotely, it’s probably a weekly check-in, which is a different dynamic.
It’s challenging when people need a hand if they’re struggling. Some of those signals are weaker. It’s more problematic for managers because a lot of managers work on ‘spidey sense’. Because in the office, they see if someone is always getting cups of coffee and they are not working. In the office, you are in for a fixed amount of time. If there is an issue, it’s easier to escalate before you leave. If you’re at home, you could take a few extra hours or procrastinate longer. It is more challenging, particularly for a manager, to work out where people are and where they’re at.
For junior people, are they receiving the right mentorship and seeing how others do things? So, you must double down in collaboration and learning sessions to bring them on in that way instead. It’s more complicated for junior people, but it’s different. You will get a different experience than we had starting. We are still determining if it’s better or worse. Like any mentorship, it depends on the mentor.
People generally improve at articulating what they’re trying to achieve and documenting what they’re doing. Async communication mechanisms are much better, and people are writing stuff down more than ever. Less stuff in people’s heads.
4. What about work-life balance?
It’s better to work remotely. You can do things at home that you would put off when you were in the office, and you were home at six o’clock or after your commute. You’re seeing your family more, and you can balance work. But there’s a double-edged sword because, at home, you need to be disciplined about the separation of work and life. Because you can do another half an hour, answer emails, respond to that Slack message or check out that last line of code. That extra half an hour adds up. We need discipline and separation.
It is harder to switch off. It’s essential to not look at certain apps on your phone so that when you leave your office space, you are offline. You are in life mode, as opposed to work mode. It’s a big challenge. You worked long hours in the office and had an hour’s commute afterwards. Now you put the same hours in at home, but you don’t have a commute, which is better. People say that when they stop work, they go for a 10-minute walk back to clear their heads. So the commute worked to clear your head. Without the commute, you get two hours, but don’t use those two hours to work. Go for a walk instead.
We’re experienced in our careers. And we run households etc. But people have different personal scenarios. So, the work-life balance is different for others. But for those who are more junior, they may be living in shared accommodation or a rented place.
5. Do you feel you belong when you are working remotely?
What about organisational belonging? When you go into the office, you see people the brands on the wall, and you feel you’re part of the organisation. At home, you’re just looking at a laptop. We make a joke: when you change companies, it’s just different faces on the Zoom call!
Organisations need to focus on their clarity of purpose or mission and ensure it’s articulated to those working there. You must get your employees to buy into that mission for that purpose because the paraphernalia of the office environment and brand signals are not available at home. You should like the people you work with and the things you’re working toward. Silly stuff like excellent coffee, seats, desks, or a view from the window no longer matter.
It’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Look after people’s basic stuff. But when you work for a company, you must relish the challenge and the work must motivate you. As an individual, you want to develop, learn, progress and satisfy your ambition. When young, you can get caught up in the wrong things and not think objectively. When you’re remote, you are more precise and focused on what you are doing. If it is not challenging, or you are not enjoying it, you see it quicker. If you’re in the office, and everyone’s having great craic or feeling like you are part of a big family, it might take a bit longer to see reality.
6. Is remote or working in the office better for deep work?
What about deep work? If you’re writing or coding, is remote or the office better?
When you’re in the office, it can be hard to protect your space sometimes. There are ways of doing that in the office, like putting your headphones or your lights on. What distracts people at home is what’s in the fridge or game consoles! You must be disciplined and introduce natural breaks to ensure you’re calm.
More options exist for finding a space to do deep work than in the office. There’s a limited number of places or rooms you can book. Before laptops and headphones, we remember trying to find a quiet time in the morning for an hour before people would come over to ask questions. Or you were putting on phone headsets so you wouldn’t be disturbed. When that stopped working, we would sneak to a coffee shop. But then you felt like you were sneaking out of the office. Now you are remote, you can choose where to work. It’s okay to work from a coffee shop for peace. You have the choice when you’re in the office; there’s a wee bit of guilt.
7. Do you think executives are happier working remotely or in the office?
It depends on what they’re measuring or what outcomes they’re trying to achieve—some like status symbols such as the corner office stuff. But hopefully, that’s on the wane. What impact can they have? Can they measure the impact of their teams? Are they increasing their outcomes and goals? Is it more challenging for them in the office?
It’s a lifestyle thing. Some executives travel a lot, so it is easier to have flexibility and not have to rush into the office for half an hour. Now, if you need to meet someone, you don’t have to fly. It’s okay to meet over Zoom. Five years ago, it would have been bad craic to meet an executive on Zoom. You had to go to them. So there’s more collaboration with executives now. We work with execs quite a bit. However, the gaps between the executive conversations can be significant sometimes. It’s good to assemble as a team physically, in a shared space, for face-to-face sessions. But many discussions are about going through numbers, metrics or trends.
8. What about sustainability?
Remote work is more sustainable. Simon Wardley talks about the virtual miles you are saving. If you had a Zoom call with five people distributed globally, how many flights, air miles, taxi rides and hotel rooms would be engaged to enable that conversation in person? You should take those virtual miles into account when you’re thinking about remote work or online collaboration. You are saving carbon and money.
It would be interesting to see the statistics on reducing flights and petrol. It’s not going to go back to pre-pandemic normal. But there must be fewer cars on the road. I know there is less wear on my bike tyre from not cycling to work!
During the pandemic, we functioned well; we used to travel quite a bit. Sometimes, it’s good to be in a face-to-face room, particularly if you’re making big decisions and need to spend time together to work better. But for most things, when we are travelling, we wonder if we need to do this or be there. It’s the first question you ask yourself now. Can I do this as a remote working session? Most times, they’re more effective anyway. And you can switch off at the end of the day as well.
Are there any other big revelations to share?
We have experienced both for significant periods. We much prefer remote working. It’s healthier with a better work-life balance, and we see are families more.
At an individual level, we like remote work. We like having a day a week where we get together with people and experience the social side. People want options, and you can’t go one way or the other. Orgs must support people’s needs and come up with the correct strategy. It’s harder organizationally. But individually. we like having options. We remote-first, but we like the idea of meeting people regularly.
It’s the same as serverless first and not serverless only. So remote-first, but not remote only because you want choice. And you don’t have the pressure of everyone being in the office, and you are not there. Instead, everyone is remote. So if you want to meet up somewhere, you can arrange it. You can be where you want to be.
There’s enough experience, good practices and guides to make it successful and work. If you need a better remote first experience, seek guidance and advice.
That’s the craic. That was a good discussion. Log onto TheServerlessEdge.com, subscribe to our YouTube channel @Serverless Craic and on X @ServerlessEdge.