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Zooming in Pajamas: What Will Happen to Remote Work?

The author of this article is EPAM Lead Software Engineer Alberto Icaza.

Lead Software Engineer Alberto Icaza

Introduction

Before diving into the topic, I would like to share the reader my short personal chronology.

  • 2006

Amazon Web Services launched its first line of products for the cloud in 2006. Before this, corporate communication was mainly carried out using landlines. Yahoo Messenger, MSN Messenger, and Cisco WebEx were the primary tools used by companies for real-time text communications, or chats. Skype already existed, but it was not widely used, and the quality of video calls left much to be desired.

That year, I started working remotely under a nearshore outsourcing system (little used at that time). I had to be in an office located somewhere in Mexico, but I worked and communicated with people from the United States, Spain, Russia, India, and Chile.

The people who sat around me were mostly assigned to other clients and projects, we worked from an office simply because international calls were easier and cheaper to make from there than from home.

I worked under this system for 7 years.

  • 2013

I started working 100% remotely from home in Mexico in 2013. My employer had an office in Austin, Texas, and my colleagues and clients were in different countries. I did not have to visit any of my clients’ offices to do and deliver my work.

I worked this way for 5 years.

  • 2019

In April 2019, I joined EPAM and started working from my client's office in Dallas, Texas. This lasted approximately 11 months – until the pandemic hit.

Since the “great confinement,” like many people worldwide, I’ve been working remotely, from home, again.

So, my total experience of working remotely is 15 years. That is why I decided to share my thoughts about this form of work, including challenges, pros and cons, and my perspective on the future of remote work.

Why is there so much resistance to remote work?

This question applies not only to companies but to employees as well. To answer, I want to focus on three points:

  1. The first one relates to the remote work itself; its advantages, limitations, and challenges.
  2. The second one corresponds to the fear of change that is natural for humans.
  3. The third one involves the economy and market movement.

I address each below.

Remote work challenges

The initial challenge that first-time remote workers face is self-discipline.

For some people, setting limits within their home can be difficult. They might think, ”I am in my house, why should I limit myself?”

Self-discipline for a remote worker consists of setting limits for themselves and their environment. It is necessary to limit the distractions that are within reach at home.

A quick greeting to friends on a social network can easily turn into an hour-long conversation. Taking care of children or other family members who live with us can quickly consume many working hours.

So, it is necessary to train yourself to be organized. Each person will have a unique way of doing this. It’s important to know yourself. If you are one of those people who is not able to cut off a conversation with a friend on a social network for fear of seeming rude, it is better not to start that conversation at all.

It is also important to set limits for the people or pets that live with us. Your family must understand that the fact that you are home does not mean that you are on vacation. Establish clear limits about your work hours and the issues you can or cannot pay attention to while working.

And please, even though it will pain you, do not let your cat lie on your keyboard while you are working.

By saying all of this, I am not suggesting that you should be glued to your chair eight hours a day. It is about the self-discipline necessary to deliver work in a timely manner. Although it sounds simple on paper, this part can be difficult for some people since it requires time management skills and changing your way of thinking.

What are some of the advantages of working from home?

The home is full of distractions on which we must set limits. But, at the same time, being at home removes distractions typical of an office that are actually more difficult to control.

The first, obvious, advantage is transportation time. The time spent daily to travel to and from an office can instead be spent on productive tasks or personal time.

The second advantage is that it is much easier to manage the people in your home than those in an office. You can close the door to your space to manage your pets, and ask your children not to interrupt you or make noise.

In the office, if a colleague approaches you to talk, it is difficult to ignore or interrupt them without being perceived as unfriendly of unprofessional. Working from home, you can simply ignore a message for a few hours without anyone taking it the wrong way. Obviously, you should only do this when something more important requires your attention.

Working remotely also means that you can choose your most productive hours as your work hours. There may, of course, be situations in which you need to be in a live meeting or actively monitoring a system. Beyond that, however, you can decide the time of the day at which you are most productive, and use that time to complete queued work. Usually, this will be the times of the day when you can be more focused, alert, and energized, because some people are naturally early birds, while others are night owls. This is your work adapting to your natural biological clock, rather than the other way around.

Are there any WFH disadvantages?

No. They do not exist.

I am serious. Once you have established boundaries for yourself and the people around you at home, and have found your rhythm for working from home, there is nothing you can do in the office that you cannot do from your home.

There will be those who say that dependence on the internet connection is an obvious disadvantage. An internet failure, however, can occur at home and in any office. Wherever you are, it is difficult to make progress on anything if you do not have internet. Even in this scenario, remote work has a great advantage: if the internet fails at home, you can use your cell phone data or go to a coffee shop.

Moving beyond the internet issue, you sometimes hear that people who work remotely are less productive. From my point of view, there are no disadvantages if we refer exclusively to productivity. In fact, there are multiple advantages that naturally increase productivity when working remotely.

Consider, for example, that at home: you wear your most comfortable clothes, you can decorate your own space, you can decide on the optimal lighting conditions for yourself, you can control your own thermostat without bothering others or having to ask someone to adjust it, you work with gadgets and devices chosen by you (monitor, keyboard, mouse, etc.), you have the ability to react to disruptions (energy blackouts, internet issues, etc.) more nimbly and efficiently without depending on others, you don't need to spend time in evacuation drills, etc.

I could have continued listing advantages here, but the list would have quickly become too long.

How is resistance to change connected to remote work?

We are all familiar with the natural tendency of human beings to reject change. And remote work represents a profound change, not only on a personal level but as a global society.

Initially, a remote worker will celebrate remote work during the first days. Those who are more sociable will feel uncomfortable with the lack of “human contact.” Remote work, however, does not imply that human contact will be eliminated, it will simply change: we will now spend more time with our families than with our colleagues.

The second level of resistance occurs in middle leadership, in leaders without prior experience with remote work. Their main concerns focus on how they will monitor and guarantee the productivity of remote employees if they cannot see them. But this is a trick of the mind. Let me explain this point in more detail.

Little kids have a natural fear of the dark. The fear of what cannot be seen — a mostly irrational fear — is hardwired in our brains. It dates back to the time when humans, without access to a source of light, were easy prey for all kinds of nocturnal predators. Although very few of us have to live in fear of being attacked by a pack of wolves at night, that primal instinct has not changed. In the same way, the brain of those middle-level leaders tells them that “not being able to see something” must mean “fearing that something.”

With all of the available modern tools, however, any manager can have an excellent view into the productivity of any employee, regardless of whether they are in sight or not.

A manager with prior experience in remote work realizes that it actually increases productivity. Employees do not need to invest time in transportation. No more time is wasted on short (or long) talks in the office that are unrelated to the work. No more unforeseen distractions routinely arise (such as evacuation drills, birthday gatherings, etc.). And, if working at night or on weekends is required, a remote employee is more likely to do it, since they are already in their “resting environment.”

Meme about remote work

The senior management of any company usually offers the most resistance to remote work. Their dissatisfaction with remote work is not due to the productivity of their employees, but to purely economic factors unrelated to productivity, which I explain in the next section.

But I am confident that once the proper, objective, measurements are made, the corporate world will realize that remote work is much more efficient.

The impact of economic and market movement

The pandemic had a global economic impact on every business. At a corporate level, this impact included the loss of real value of some investments that were made prior to the pandemic.

Consider the big company that invested millions of dollars in a corporate building before the pandemic, or the small consulting firm that signed a lease or mortgage loan to acquire office space.

Regardless of whether we are talking about a large or small company, any investment in workspaces became a terrible investment very quickly. Substantial amounts of money were invested in something that no one would use for (as we now know) about two years.

The situation is exacerbated if we focus on a company located in a country where health and safety regulations force owners and landlords to keep all building services operating if at least one person is inside the property.

Imagine having to pay monthly for water, internet, electricity, security, cleaning, etc., for a space designed for 100 people when there will only be about ten employees present.

This situation is even more complicated for a public company, with shareholders who demand results from their senior managers. One of the main metrics to evaluate the performance of those high-level managers is the investments the company makes to grow and keep the business running.

Maintaining a large and expensive infrastructure for only a handful of people does not sound like a wise investment, does it?

I believe that is why senior managers are pushing for a return to the office. It is not due to issues regarding productivity, security, or business management. It is due to unrelated market reasons — managers who feel obliged to justify large investments in real estate, whether or not these investments were made prior to the COVID pandemic.

Generally, ordinary people must adapt to the financial, economic, and labor markets. I suggest that, in this case, the markets must adapt to new social and economic realities.

This will be a difficult and painful transformation, but it will happen. Setting aside the cost implications for office spaces, there is no genuine justification for mandating that employees work from the office when their tasks can be accomplished on a computer at home.

Conclusion

Remote work is here to stay. There is no way to undo this trend. Market forces will eventually realize that the money invested in office infrastructure will be much more productive if applied to other areas. And, ultimately, remote employees take on the costs of their own work materials (Internet, furniture, water, etc.) and do so voluntarily.

The only thing left to do is for all of us to adapt to the new reality and look for more efficient ways to discipline ourselves, trust our colleagues, and manage the investments made by our company with a vision for the future.

In the words of a quote frequently attributed to Charles Darwin: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

The views expressed in the articles on this site are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of Anywhere Club or its members.