I haven’t had a regular office for 17 years. When I was teaching for Global Knowledge, instructors were never in one city long enough to need an office, so I created a nook in my home that I used when I was there. Its main furnishings were stacks of networking gear! My other employers either encouraged or allowed teleworking, so I continued to use my home office. My current employer, NetCraftsmen, was a virtual company for the first 15 years of its life until spring of 2016. Even though we have a physical headquarters now, I primarily work from home.
Working from home was difficult to get used to at first. I had to get showered and dressed — and even put on my shoes — as if I were going to work, to tell my mind to switch to “work mode.” I also had to make sure my bed was made, to reduce its siren call. (That is absolutely not the case now, which explains why I rarely turn on video during early morning calls.)
I really enjoy working from home in my virtual office, and would hesitate to take a job that required me to be onsite full-time. But with companies such as IBM, Yahoo, Best Buy, and Reddit stopping telework, and others such as Google, Facebook, and Apple encouraging employees to work in a corporate office, am I on the wrong side of history?
Communication is one of the biggest challenges I’ve found with working remotely. Technology certainly has made this much easier. When I was with Global Knowledge in the early 2000s, I was on a virtual team that wrote some courses for Cisco. My teammates were located all over the U.S., and it was months after the courses went live before I met most of them in person. We used teleconferencing and email to collaborate, which seems primitive by today’s standards. Today there are many more options available, some free and some that integrate with corporate systems. Personally, I prefer to use those that encrypt my data where possible.
I’d be interested to hear what communication and collaboration tools my fellow remote workers have found helpful. The main tools I use right now are:
- Cisco IP phone system – so I can receive calls to my NetCraftsmen phone number at my home office over a VPN, and see the person I’m talking to over the video phone.
- WebEx – to share documents and video conference with fellow employees and clients. WebEx also lets me control someone else’s shared screen, so I can help troubleshoot issues or provide tech support.
- Jabber – to message with others in my company quickly and securely. I can even message with other companies, if they allow that functionality. I also receive my business phone calls through the Jabber app on my cell phone.
- Spark and Slack – to hold asynchronous group conversations and share files with like-minded folks all over the globe, as well as collaborate with customers.
- Box – an encrypted cloud-based file storage that allows me to share files with my co-workers and customers without resorting to less-secure email.
- Skype – OK, I use this mostly to video chat with my parents, but also to participate in podcasts.
Allowing employees to work remotely is good for a business’ bottom line. It saves on expenses such as real estate, furniture, electricity, and network infrastructure. Companies additionally benefit because it allows them to hire talented workers, no matter where they are located. Worker productivity and number of hours worked typically increase when people work from home. When you are at an office, you work during the time you are there. When you work from home, you never leave work — it is always there to pull you in when you have an idea or think of something that needs to be done. In spite of this, most teleworkers feel that it enhances work-life balance.
However, remote workers do give up the “water cooler effect” — the collaboration, idea exchange, and relationship-building that happens when people work in close proximity to each other. Those companies that are bringing workers back to physical offices cite this effect as a main motivator. They feel that innovation and creativity will increase when employees can collaborate and interact more easily.
In my remote working environment, I can reach out to co-workers and interact with them, but it is always intentional. There is no equivalent of the spontaneous hallway conversation that sparks the next great idea, for instance. That is what companies such as IBM are hoping to capture.
Many companies that are bringing their workforces back in house are designing “agile” offices with combinations of group and quiet spaces. Our new NetCraftsmen office has this kind of collaboration-oriented, reconfigurable design with flexible workspaces — and I can attest that it does have its benefits. When I’m in the office with other co-workers, there is a lot of information exchange and casual assistance given that would not happen if we were not onsite together. Working with an online whiteboard is not nearly as efficient as getting together and diagraming things out on a physical whiteboard. (Cisco’s Spark boards will improve this experience, though still not duplicate it.) But when I need to concentrate on something (such as this blog post) without interruption, or get something done quickly, I head for my home office. I am fortunate to have the flexibility to choose the best way and place to work on the various projects I’m involved with.
It is important to understand that technology is the underpinning of either way to work. Obviously, any remote work that requires accessing corporate resources could not work without technology in place to support it. Less obviously, advanced technologies are needed to get the most out of onsite work too. Employees need wireless and mobile solutions to be flexible in their workspaces. Phone calls must reach them no matter where in the building they are. Security is necessary to allow access to appropriate resources only. Conferencing and collaboration systems are needed even if you are all together in the same room. Luckily, many of the same solutions can be leveraged for both remote and onsite working.
Is work something you do, or a place that you go? Or is it a combination of the two? I think the real question boils down to this: What is the most effective way to do your job? Personally, I feel it is easier to build relationships when you have spent some time together in person. But that does not mean all work has to be done in person. In my line of work, I find that meeting someone in person makes it easier to collaborate virtually, and that working virtually is much more efficient than having multiple people always travel to one location to work together. So my preference is for a combination.
Work is a thing I do, not a place I go. But the best work happens when the thing I do determines the place that I go.
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