With Facebook, Twitter and others announcing they are now allowing their employees to work from home (WFH) indefinitely, it’s easy to assume that offices of the future will house skeleton staff, and staffers will all be laboring online from their mountaintop cabins.
The reality, probably, is somewhere between the office of 2019 and total work-from-home. Still, companies and employees are becoming more comfortable with WFH than ever. An effective remote culture is a great way to attract talented people, and to give workers more options to define their work/life balance.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, many companies allowed a portion of their workforce to work remotely, at least intermittently. But without the right equipment, training, policies and cultural adaptations in place, productivity can suffer.
Engineering and software development are prime candidates for long-term WFH. Here’s what such organizations should be considering to ensure that their output continues at a high level:
- Make Collaboration Easy. Collaboration isn’t the same as communication. Teams need both—but collaboration keeps work flowing smoothly by allowing people to quickly and conveniently trade ideas and experience shared energy. Multiple platforms are required for effective collaboration, and staffers need time to learn and become comfortable with each type of tool. At a minimum, most software organizations will need tools for instant messaging, video conferencing, bug tracking and code tracking.
Just as important as the choice of tools, however, is a culture that supports remote collaboration. Video conferencing, for example, has become an everyday part of life for most people, spanning both work and personal uses. To fully leverage this tool, project-based organizations will likely need to encourage several forms of virtual town hall meetings using video: monthly, for entire departments or divisions; weekly, with managers and project leads; dynamically, among frontend development teams (an equivalent to standup meetings); and ad hoc working sessions, to collaborate on a specific problem, e.g., debugging a routine or module.
Instant messaging, another key collaborative tool, can be as useful as in-person interaction as long as two factors are present. The first is a comfort level, as established by the organization; it helps if the messaging platform has already become a part of the in-office workday. The second involves establishing multiple messaging channels, so people aren’t needlessly bombarded with interruptions. Messaging channels should be arranged vertically as well as horizontally. For example, engineering should have options to talk with operations, marketing, finance, and so on. Other channels should be product- or project-specific among and between development teams. The best way to implement these channels is to encourage both top-down and bottom-up initiatives—some can be set up by the organization, while others will come from the users themselves.
- Establish Appropriate Infrastructure. Smooth and consistent productivity is a result of well-designed onsite and offsite infrastructure. At your place of business, implement a solid VPN and make sure everyone is registered. Also, provide a centralized datacenter that is sufficient for present and anticipated workflows. (It’s a good idea to put remote controllable power supplies on everything, as it allows IT to cycle servers even if technicians aren’t physically present.)
Engineers are power users. At home, they will likely need the same high-level workstation they use at the office. Either send those workers home with their devices, or enable offsite access to their office equipment via appropriate security protocols.
- Ensure a Professional Workspace. Whether subsidized by the company or as a BYO option, all aspects of WFH hardware, furniture and connectivity must be considered and accounted for. Couches and dining tables are not conducive to productivity over the long haul; home workspaces must be comfortable, private and dedicated to the task at hand.
Not all workers have the luxury of defining a separate space for working from home—and this will be an issue for employers and employees alike over time. Apartments and even homes may need to adapt to accommodate widespread WFH. Equipment will be an issue as well. Workers need ergonomic chairs and desks, and many engineers need multiple (and sizable) monitors at home just as they’ve used at the office. Similarly, home internet connectivity may need to be upgraded.
As companies consider the ideal mix of at-home versus in-office operations, one caveat needs to be addressed: the minutiae of human exchange. Video conferencing conveys more information than voice—but in-person communicates much more than video. For some forms of business exchange, nothing takes the place of person-to-person interaction. It’s what’s revealed in “downtime,” as opposed to scheduled interactions, that often determines corporate success. In-person exchanges will have to be accounted for.
Nonetheless, COVID-19 will undoubtedly leave a lasting impact on the way companies get work done. This pandemic has forced all of us to stretch our ideas of what is normal, and what we choose to call “essential.” Despite the challenges, many development organizations have carried on admirably. With the right technologies and cultural practices in place, work-from-home, as a key element of our working lives, may become more efficient, more flexible and—in a word—healthier than ever before.