Mar 102013

When Marissa Mayer ended Yahoo’s work from home policy, the Internet went nuts, and stayed nuts for days, which is a pretty long time for Internet nuttery. There’s been all sorts of random talk…um….personal annecdotes…er….”news articles” have sprung up discussing this very important issue of 1 specific company’s policies. It’s almost as if people think that Yahoo, great, shining beacon of largely irrelevant and nobody cares anymore, is a precursor to the whole tech industry (something it hasn’t been in a long while). Some people have at least either tried to either limit their discussion to Yahoo’s particular situation, or moved everything to a broader discussion of telecommuting in general. I’m going to focus on why I personally don’t like to telecommute if I don’t have to.

Like almost every software developer, I have the option for working from home when I need to, and I’ll take it from time to time, especially if anything other than water falls from the sky. For me, working remote is like insurance, great to have when you need it, but works best when it’s not constantly being used. It should go without saying (but probably doesn’t), that I am not everybody, and what’s best for me isn’t obviously what’s best for you, yada yada yada. However, I prefer to work from an actual work location, and here’s why.

First, for me the office has fewer distractions. Granted, that seems to be the opposite of what most people who love working from home say, but remember, I’m not them and they’re not me. My job blesses me by not putting me in unnecessary meetings, making me write status reports, or putting a lot of time or thought into things other than trying to write good software without a compelling reason. The only real distraction is conversations with co-workers, but those never really impede on my ability to get things done. The distractions I’m trying to avoid aren’t even things like the Xbox game I need to finish so I can start the next one, or the past week’s comics that I ordered online and still need to read before this week’s books come out, or the book in my laptop bag I need to finish so I can start on something else on my long to-read list. The distractions I’m trying to avoid are the chores that still need to be done.

It sounds stupid, but whenever you’re faced with something you don’t particularly feel like doing, you distract yourself with anything else that you want to do more, even if more is really just a very slight amount. The only times my apartment got cleaned when I was in college were when it got unbearable to live in, or when the alternative was a project I didn’t really want to start. Besides, when I’m at home, the other things I need to do are right there. And it’s so easy, it’s not like I’m that far away from my computer. I’ll just put a load of clothes in the wash, or fold the stuff that just came out of the dryer so they don’t wrinkle, or just set my laptop on this counter so I can check up on something while I iron, or I’m going to step out for a couple of minutes to take the trash out. Do you see how this sort of thing gets out of hand very quickly? If I’m at the office, I can’t do any of that. My options are work or…work. I can’t use chores to procrastinate stuff I don’t want to work on, so I can focus on getting things done.

Another motivational danger to working at home is that people (and me especially) get motivated for projects by indicators of progress and/or success (how about that, gamification is a real thing!). Making progress on chores, motivates me to do more chores. Making progress on code, motivates me to write more code. Since it’s a lot easier to make progress on chores than with figuring out how to fix a bug or implement something tricky, chores are not only more appealing, but doing something other than work while I work from home becomes that much more tempting. Working from the office means that I have to draw my motivational successes from achieving something for work, instead of conquering my own personal issues.

One benefit to working at an office, is that sometimes things get done faster when someone else is standing at your computer looking at what you’re pointing to. For all the hype about how we have e-mail, IM, etc., nothing beats actually standing at a screen and seeing exactly what someone’s talking about. Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but code and logs are worth a million. They’re worth about a million and a half when you’re having a hard time describing exactly what is going on. Less time spent trying to figure out just what the heck is going on is more time spent fixing issues. You could probably do all of this via e-mail, IMs, or screen sharing, but that wastes time, even assuming your co-workers are at their computers working and aren’t taking their recycling down to the toters because they’re stuck on their own code at the moment. If you’re all at work, you can skip the setup and get straight to moving forward.

One danger to working remotely is that if you’re out-of-sight, your code check-ins had better be pretty publicly awesome, otherwise people are going to assume you’re getting a free paycheck. 1 of my previous jobs involved a team that was divided between multiple offices. There was already a perception that the developers, who were working in a different office from management, slacked off more and worked less. Then people got put onto a project that nobody in the “main” office was working on and didn’t have any real discernable impact on the stuff we were doing. Pretty soon there was an air of resentment towards the other developers throughout the “main” office, especially after a couple of rough releases on what was supposed to be our core code where they were too busy on the other project to be tasked with helping us. Working in the same office at least gives people a chance to see that not only are you working, but what you’re doing, and that what you’re doing is actually relevant. It also helps keep your co-workers from questioning your value to the company.

Another advantage for me working at the office is that there’s less inclination to assume that I’m not, you know, busy working. When you’re the kind of guy who plays around on your computer for fun during your free time, the sight of seeing you at your computer on a day while you’re not at work, and people assume you’re enjoying some personal time. That just adds to the temptation to do other stuff around the house, not only are there things that you know you could get done and thus feel accomplished, there’s somebody else literally speaking into your ear to get you to do them. It’s worse if they don’t aren’t working from home – after all they have the day off, that’s why they’re home, why do I have to work?

The last, and quite frankly most important, reason why I don’t work from home as a general rule, is that personally I would go bat$^!+ freaking crazy if I had to do it. Over my working career, I’ve worked from home enough to know that I have about a 2 or 3 day limit to my ability to work from home. If nothing else, I need the change of scenery to break up my day. But waking up, getting dressed, and walking to just another room in my apartment and spending all day there, with no change of environment, wears on me fast. It also never creates a psychological transition to “working” at the start of the day and back to “not working” when everything is over. I need something to get me into “at work” mode and “me time” mode, and being at home all the time isn’t it. I also need to break my day up and change my surroundings for the sake of my sanity, and going to an office helps.

The other side of the coin

Obviously, my personal psychosis doesn’t apply to everyone. For some people, working remotely is perfect, and they may be great at it. Heck, a couple of them may even work at Yahoo. However, while I personally prefer going into an office, and find that going into said office works for me, I do still think that if it’s physically possible for someone to do their job from home, that needs to be an option on the table, at least on an as-needed basis.

Just because working from home can be more challenging for some of us than working from the actual office,  doesn’t mean we can’t do it when we need to. What’s better? Someone having to push a little harder so they can get the job done, albeit from home instead of their desk at work, or someone just blowing off the day entirely? After all, if you have a sick kid, a cable guy coming out to the house, are feeling a little under the weather, or live somewhere where the ground is frozen, there’s no “I need to step out of the office for an hour or so”, instead, you’re home all day. Now, you can either get something done, because working from home is a perfectly viable backup plan, or you can call the entire day a wash and just goof off instead. Personally, I say take what you can get.

Although working from the office is my personal preference, it’s still not perfect. I tend to be productive in bursts, which is typically helped by me moving on to something else when I’m stuck and coming back to it after I’ve put my mind to something else, essentially forcing a mental reboot on the problem. That’s hard to do in the office, where I ‘ve limited myself to just work. However, given that I’m also motivated by making forward progress on something, losing the temptation to fixate on getting chores and other homey-things done is a more important tradeoff than having the ability to walk away.

While you’re mileage may vary, and this in no way reflects what was actually going on at Yahoo, everyone with a thought on the matter has come in on the “working from home is awesome” side on the fence. Hopefully the perspective of someone for whom working from home full-time isn’t a good fit right now helps explain why some people still believe in driving into the office every day. There’s plenty of good reasons to work at an office, and there are some people who really do better in that situation. It’s something that’s worth remembering the next time you want to go ape-crazy over the thought of people working…well, at work.

 Posted by at 5:48 PM