July 20, 2013

Time flies when you're having sun

What a difference a year makes. Exactly one year ago today, July 19th 2012, my wife and I risked everything and moved to Florida. Why? Well, why not? I still can't believe we've already made a full trip around the sun since we packed everything up and sold our (awesome) home in Massachusetts. In this first part of a potentially two part series, I'd like to reflect on some of the benefits and challenges of not only working from home, but doing so from across the country. In the coming days I'd like to write another about life in general having moved to a completely new state away from everyone you've ever known.

What is it like to work from home full time?

Obviously one of the biggest changes for me after we moved was the shift from working in an office cubicle to working from home every day. To most people this sounds like a dream come true, and for the most part it's everything you would expect it to be. I no longer have to spend 80-90 minutes of my day sitting in traffic and dealing with lunatics on the Mass Pike. Instead, I use that time to be more productive at work. I tend to start earlier and stick around later than I ever did when I was driving to the office everyday.

Between my wife and I, we save close to $400 per month on fuel and that doesn't even account for the reduced wear and tear we're saving our cars from as they sit quietly in the garage most of the time. That's like getting a $5000/year raise!

My overall productivity at work skyrocketed when I started working remotely. The level of focus I'm able to achieve when I need to is just incredible. When you work in an office, there are distractions everywhere. Maybe the guy next to you has some kind of east Asian avian flu and sniffles and coughs all day, or the guy on your other side decided that everyone in the office should listen in on his hour long conference call. And of course there are always unwelcomed visitors who just happen to "drop by" to ask a quick question. All of these things work together to prevent me from entering the mental state of Flow) I need to solve complex problems.

Working from home also affords a few other luxuries you can't have in an office setting. If I want to keep the lights off, I keep the lights off. If I want to blast music, I can put it as loud as I want. If I want to shoot a rack of pool at lunch, there's no one around to disturb. And of course, the dog loves that she doesn't have to go in her crate for hours on end each day. I really think working from home is the single best thing I've ever had the luxury of doing, and to be honest, I'm not sure I could go back to working in an office that wasn't my own.

Working from home is not all puppies and rainbows.

Working from home is pretty great, but it's not all great. There are a few disadvantages to working from home, and to be honest, they're pretty substantial. In an industry infamous for erratic layoffs and "reorganizations", combined with a less than stellar economy, it's more important than ever to prove your worth to your employer. When you're not in the office face to face with your manager and peers everyday, it doesn't take much to become "out of sight, out of mind". I put an exhausting amount of effort into going above and beyond at work. I am always looking for ways to compensate, and sometimes overcompensate for the fact that I'm not around to participate in "hallway" or "watercooler" conversations. In the software industry, as in many others I'm sure, these informal conversations and run-ins are invaluable when it comes to things like innovation and group problem solving. Obviously, when you work 700 miles from your closest co-workers these kinds of interactions are impossible.

One way that I try to combat these shortcomings of working from home is to always be available through all possible channels as often as possible. When I worked in the office I was almost never on the office communicator (an internal instant messaging service). These days I make sure I'm not only always signed in, but that I always respond to incoming messages within a few minutes or as quickly as I can without breaking my current train of thought. It's important that the people I work with can predictably reach me when they need to since they can no longer just casually "drop by" my office. In addition, I try to be available nights and weekends if needed. It's a small price to pay for the freedom I enjoy throughout the week. Because of this, however, it is sometimes difficult to draw the line between "work" and "not work". I often find myself having to force myself to stop at 6:30pm-7:00pm, not realizing how late it has gotten. If I was ever in the office after 5:00pm, people probably thought I got lost in the building somehow.

An additional challenge I've experienced is not necessarily working remotely, but working remotely for a traditional software company that has little to no remote working culture. Some companies, like Github or 37 signals are famous for their remote hiring. They employ engineers from across the globe and are both wildly successful at making it work. EMC is an older, more traditional technology company where remote workers are an exception, not the rule. The culture at EMC is built around large, distributed but co-located teams. (This is not a bad thing, by the way). EMC doesn't utilize many modern remote collaboration tools like smaller, remote-centric companies do. For example, Google docs and Google hangouts are not only not used, but are completely blocked by the corporate firewall. Sharing sensitive company information on cloud hosted apps like Google docs can have serious ramifications from the global security office. Unfortunately, there are no real viable alternatives to something like Google docs offered.

Luckily I'm an extremely introverted and anti-social person because working from home can be extremely lonely (even for me!). The lack of human interaction is something I obviously considered when making the decision to move here, but I think I underestimated the true destructive power of never leaving the house and not seeing anyone other than my dog and wife for days on end. This is compounded by the fact that having already moved an hour away from all my friends and family years ago, my closest friends became those that I worked with. There is little I miss more than taking a break halfway through the day and bullshitting about cars and TV shows in the cafeteria with intelligent, like-minded people. And speaking of the cafeteria, while EMC's isn't exactly a gourmet restaurant, it was always nice to have a variety of ready made lunches to choose from every day.

All in all, working from home has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for me, but not everyone is cut out for it. If you're anywhere near the extrovert side of the introvert/extrovert spectrum, working at home, or working alone more specifically can and will take a serious toll on your psyche.