As more people get COVID vaccinated around the globe, companies plan to bring their employees, including software engineers, back to office.
Apart from small tech startups with budget constraints, companies in pre-COVID days were generally suspicious of work from home. It was never considered a serious alternative. Come 2020, nearly all companies were forced not only to arrange this option but also to ensure that it works. So much so that there’s been a debate about offering remote work as permanent employee benefit.
Since its efficiency has been proven by natural circumstances and real-time data, it’s about time we ask this question, especially from a software engineer’s perspective: Is it really necessary to get back to office?
In my opinion, one-size-fits-all approach would prove counterproductive in the long run. We have to see advantages and drawbacks of work from home in light of variable factors before reaching any definite conclusion. Let’s discuss.
1. Cost Effective And Proven To Work
This benefit goes both to companies and engineers. It’s good for companies because: no office space, no maintenance or utility bills, no arrangements of visas and tickets for foreign employees. Software engineers on the other hand save cost on daily commute.
In technology world, work from home was a decade old pre-COVID reality; COVID-19 just sped up the existing process. The quick internet access, remote and freelancing companies such as Odesk/Elance (later Upwork) and Toptal, and huge inflow of new talent in the third world countries, opened up cheap remote tech work force to the investors, and promising opportunities to the talented youngsters. Granted that well-known companies still preferred to fly new hires to the country of the company’s origin or team location, but numerous small startups made use of this cost effective force to their advantage and got success with their products.
This just goes to show that work dynamics were already transforming rapidly. If work from home functioned before and during the COVID-19, there is no reason to believe it will not perform equally well in post-COVID era. Multicultural remote software teams are reality that will continue to exist.
2. Time Saving
Pick any metropolitan city, and do some research about the average time it takes to reach a few kilometers away destination. Unless you luckily live at a walking distance from your work, it will be anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.
Now add to that the time for preparation, breakfast, and shower. It easily amounts to a minimum of 2 hours of daily waste that one could have spent somewhere else – walking, cycling, lifting, gaming, sleeping, writing, watching, or reading! Weekly, the 10 hours mean a full working day and then some.
Contrast that with work from home. You wake up 10 minutes before the scrum call in the morning to start your day, spend the work hours on coding with dedication, and simply close the lid of your laptop to end the day.
For software engineers, work from home affords solitude that you cannot expect in office environment, which is full of unpleasant disturbances. Somebody in your surrounding is taking a Zoom call and isn’t bothered to lower their voice. Two colleagues are discussing a newly launched car. A guy has just tapped on your shoulder to discuss a trivial non-work related thing that you could do without discussing. This all adds up and reduces, if not kills, your productivity.
Working remotely establishes a natural barrier. To talk to you everyone has to book a time or at least confirm your availability. The rest of the time is for you to concentrate on work alone.
If work from home seems too good to be true, it probably is. We should go over its disadvantages too:
1. Cost Effective And Proven To Work – But At A Cost
While saving overall cost for the company, work from home in turn may cost the remote software engineer unforeseen issues.
Some companies take undue advantage of this arrangement and demand/expect, in a subtle way, excessive working hours from their employees, not unlike the camel in the Arab and the camel story. Since check-in and checkout times are not physical, you might end up working regularly well beyond the closing time, without compensation.
There might be a psychological compulsion to it too. At home, during office hours, you might spend time on personal tasks which you can’t spend time on in office, such as, breakfast, extended lunch, attending children, or chores. It’s only fair to make it up with some extra time at the day end, but how much time exactly should be made up is where it gets trickier. Therefore, out of this feeling of duty you might work more than necessary and without well-defined boundaries.
Additionally, estimates about programming tasks are never accurate. What you commit to deliver by day end might not be doable by then. In office, you can ask for the approval of overtime if the task is urgent; if unurgent, you can ask for extra time the next day. Both are usually justified and require little hassle on your part. At home, however, it’s hard to justify either, and most often than not you’ll prefer to sit extra to get the task done in order to avoid the trouble of explaining your case to the skeptic management.
2. Solitude Might Not Be Guaranteed After All
It comes down to how spacious an accommodation you have got and how many people you live with. A small place is sure to have frequent disruptions. Crying children, ringing doorbells, and you being dragged in unnecessary family discussions are few notable examples. If you live in a country like Pakistan or India, be prepared to be disturbed by water pump noise, electricity breakdown, or a yelling corn-selling peddler on the street.
For this reason alone many software developers crave for office space, as such disruptions turn off their productivity.
3. Might Burden Physical And Mental Health
For all the shortcomings of office space, going to and returning from office has one sure advantage over remote work from home: You have to move!
Saving time is not always desirable. If you sit in a chair (or operate from bed, as many do) all day long, with no breaks to move about physically, you’re probably better off going to the office. This is truer for software engineers, who have to sit tight and concentrate for a lengthy period of time to solve complex problems.
It’s not uncommon to hear from software engineers complaining about their back and neck pains. Overweight and obesity are on the rise in the software community too.
Daily commute to office is not an ideal exercise, but it’s better than nothing. You might also get a little sunshine and in turn a small dose of much needed vitamin D on the way over. If your office has something for physical activity that you enjoy, such as ping pong, then it’s a big incentive to go and work there.
Many people also consider the commute time relaxing, however long it is. It offers a unique opportunity to wind down that you can’t artificially create at home.
For some engineers, work from home might be an ordeal as different people enjoy different levels of social interaction. To cut off entirely from such environment might result in unhealthy loneliness.
With all this discussion, what should companies do to aim for the most productive software engineers post COVID-19?
If possible, both choices should be presented to engineers to choose from. Welcome the office comers, and accept the remote workers. Don’t force the office lovers to stay at home, and don’t compel the home workers to come to office. It all comes down to the preference and means of a particular engineer. If they feel more productive as home worker, and can afford the calm work environment, it would be foolish to not let them be one.
Only when the management finds presence of an employee in the office absolutely necessary, should it be made mandatory. There may be genuine cases where the performance of an engineer really suffers working from home. In that case, and if the management’s evaluation is not highly biased, the company is justified in asking them to come to office.
The office space can be cut down to the estimated average presence of people a day, instead of keeping the full capacity. Intermittent appearance of employees will still save cost for both parties.
Companies would also be wise not to overreach their influence to squeeze any more hours out of their remote developers than justified.
In short, this work arrangement is here to stay, because everyone from the companies to the software workforce have seen it work successfully. To make this hybrid option work smoothly in post-COVID future, companies will need to enact better policies and pass as many benefits to their workers as possible. It will be interesting to see how the world adjusts to this alongside the traditional office.