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How Remote Working Can Hurt You

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Out Comes The Beanbag

It's late 2019. There's recorded cases of a new virus coming out of China. "Ah, that won't reach here will it. Will it?"

3/4 months later, the 23rd March 2020 to be precise, the UK enters it's first "lockdown" with orders to stay at home. Balls.

Now, fortunately in my scenario and I guess much of the tech industry, the ability to continue work, albeit remotely, fell naturally into place. And despite the actualisation we were all living through a real pandemic with a virus we didn't know that much about at the time, I was excited at the prospect of being able to do my job from the comfort of my own home.

I had no desk at this point in time and so, my initial setup was a beanbag on a floor, a popup drawing desk with a side clamp for an extra monitor (placed vertically for bonus programming points).

Suffice to say, it didn't take long for my back to seriously start hurting and thankfully I upgraded to a proper small desk a few months later with a chair. A CHAIR! King of the castle type stuff that.

Time, The Great Revealer

Due to the initial lockdown, subsequent lockdowns & govenment guidelines to work at home if possible, I worked from my abode full-time during the period of March 2020 to July 2021 and then again for a period of time in late 2021 due to a differing variant. Give or take I would say it totalled 17 to 18 months. Yikes.

So, with my broken beanbag back in tow, I want to share some thoughts with you about working from home and how time can take something which seems amazing at first and slowly poke holes in it at every angle.

I will preface by stating I am aware my experience & bias working from home was also compounded by a pandemic, and thus I spent long periods of time actually never leaving the house because everything was closed.

I also had a young demon child to help raise which is a challenge all of it's own.

That being said, my current working situation still has working from home days during the week but is a much more hybrid setup, which I believe is the best way forward.

Some amazing benefits that working from home brings:

  1. Financial savings due to no commute, no lunch-time meal spending etc (this is becoming more and more relevant these days)
  2. More time for yourself due to said no commutes in the morning & finish time
  3. Allows you to use your home setup which you may be more comfortable with
  4. Forces an upskilling in social communication tools for online collaboration
  5. Just feels like fun initially and breaks the mould of a typical daily job cycle
  6. For introverts and those that like to be left alone, it can allow you to get your head down and just work with no distraction

This all sounds brilliant so far I hear you say. How could it possibly harm you? Well...

  1. It makes you super lazy

To prove this point, I bet you've been guilty of these two things. One is that you've totally rolled out of bed 1 minute before work starts, turnt your machine on and that's how your day begins.

The second, and likely coupled with the first point is that you've then worked in your pyjamas or at least changed your top for meetings (or not). You then continued to wear them until you finished work in the afternoon or beyond.

This drop in routine and immediate work starts threw off my eating habits in the morning and because I was working from home, I would not eat well at lunch either, a reverse of office working where I meal prep before commuting.

  1. Your productivity drops

I do think you can be very productive when working from home for short bursts but I do not think it is sustainable in the long run. Why? Because being alone eventually gets boring and your mind will wander without external stimulus.

Working from home requires a high level of self discipline the longer you do it and I suspect a lot of people end up realising how bad their discipline really is. The real you is you when nobody is watching.

Additionally, due to remote working, the reliance on social communication tools such as Slack, Teams/Google Meet can become a burden and less work is actually done because of them. Not being able to turn around to a colleague and get an answer then and there is annoying if you want to confirm something and move on for example.

  1. You become isolated

Now, I know programmers for the most part prefer things and not people, but communicating online through a messenger service or using video calling is just not the same as being in the same room as your colleagues or any other human in a day-to-day scenario.

Even if you talk to people online during the day, you are still alone in the real world. It's kind of ironic that despite our advancement in social media, messengers and the like, it actually does anything other than fall into the term of "social". The disconnect is real.

There is no office talk, no chance to have a bit of fun with conversation on a whim, and these small moments, the laughs, the smiles throughout the day, are integral to building strong bonds with each other.

If this doesn't happen, the days of a team that is consistent in producing high quality software, is numbered. If you don't feel part of a team, who are all comfortable with talking to each other, you're creating extra barriers to overcome when completing projects and solving issues.

  1. Soft skills deteriorate

I think this is the biggest one. Being an incredible coder is great. But it's less great if you can't then communicate your work.

Simple things such as being able to have a decent conversation, maintaining eye contact or being able to convey your ideas in a spoken word are all soft skills that turn to mush through remote working, yet they are fundamental aspects of communication developers need to have.

If I am working from home and I don't have many meetings that day, it's not uncommon to go 6+ hours of the working day not even talking to another person vocally. Then when you do get to talk to someone it feels bizarre to do so and there is a level of awkwardness at how your conversational skills have devolved to a level even my 3 year old would cringe over.

I remember returning to the office after working remotely for so long and having to remember how to hold a conversation.

For me, being able to work on these aspects of yourself is also a progression and needs consistent work in order to be able to convey complicated ideas more clearly, translate issues into laymans for non-technical people and become a more well rounded individual.

If you just want to be a coder that sits in a corner, doesn't want to communicate to anyone and push Jira items through a sprint all day long, good for you, but you are hurting your own ability to become a better you.

Offset Some Downsides

I found out quickly I had to adjust a few things to accomodate to remote working full-time and if you are, I would hope you find some of these pointers useful.

  1. Get up ahead of time & get dressed

Hard one right? I found if I treated my day like I was going to commute but worked from home, my productivity was sustainable for longer. Get up early well ahead of your work start time. Get some exercise in. Do some yoga. Sit in the garden if you have one. Have breakfast.

Dress appropriately before you start work, in a way you would be able to leave the house at any given moment and not die of embarrassment. The routine really helps.

  1. Do not work in fake light all the time

Open blinds, get natural sunlight in if you are able to. Open a window. I felt by being able to see the world outside or feel a breeze that the feeling of isolation would go away.

  1. Break the silence

Now, this wasn't too bad for me as I have a child who doesn't understand the concept of silence which brings life to my home but I was still in a room by myself working.

I cling to music (my spotify now playing is probably active like most of my waking life), as a way to keep my ears busy 1. I find long periods of silence deafening and music really helped me not be alone. It's also a superb way for me to reach my flow state when programming (an upcoming post about that coming shortly!), maybe it will work for you too.

  1. Go outside after work hours

Do not spend the entire day inside if you are working from home. Go for a walk after work. Go to the shops. Feel some level of connection with the world. Most certainly, try to avoid finishing work, shutting off your work machine and then turning on your personal computer. Get out of that chair.

  1. Don't just use messenger tools for work

Break the day up every now and again by talking to colleagues about non-work related things. Have a conversation to feel connected to others while working remotely. Check in on others to see if they need anything. Simple things to do right, but that random topic you brought up or question you randomly asked might have been really needed to bring someone back into the fold of reality and to make them feel heard.

Balance In All Things

Since returning to the office, I have realised I took just being around people for granted. I think working from home can be great, but I certainly wouldn't want to go back to working remote full-time.

It's not until you stop doing it, you fully realise the negative impacts it has on you.

A hybrid setup, one I currently have, which is in the office 3 days a week with two remote days (one being optional, with the office still open), seems to be very effective at reaping the benefits of remote working without the drawbacks.

If you are not doing something like the above and are still working remote full time, or seeking full time remote work, I would urge you to take some of the pointers above seriously and to find a balance that works for you.

Footnotes

  1. A song lyric I kept thinking about to help inspire this post - "How do I form a connection when we can't even shake hands?"