Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Is working from home a good idea?

One of the benefits of modern network technology is supposed to be the fact that "location doesn't matter" and "you can work from anywhere". While it is true that remote working is now very feasible for many occupations, I think that where you choose to do your work has a very significant effect upon your productivity.

I was recently at a conference and I noticed that during the lunch break many delegates chose to use the free time to catch up on the work they were missing by reading emails, checking voicemail, returning calls etc.. They were all a long way from their normal place of work so it is good that they could get some work done. However, they did not simply choose any location in which to do their work, instead there was a frantic search for suitable locations i.e. a quiet alcove where they had some peace and quiet as well as a place to sit and maybe even a place to rest their laptop.

What this means is that where you are located on a global scale doesn't matter. For example, you can easily do most jobs from New York City, but it would not be a good idea to base yourself in the middle of Times Square if your job requires some peace and quiet. Likewise you could probably do most jobs from a location in a remote wilderness location in African so long as you had power and in Internet connection, but you would probably need to move to a shady location ensure there was not too much glare on the screen.

IBM is quite liberal in terms of allowing employees to work from home if they want. In general the consensus seems to be that senior people can work productively even when remote from their colleagues, but junior employees benefit significantly from working in a team where they can learn from more experienced engineers. In some IBM labs in the USA, there are so many people working from home that people are beginning to complain that there is little point in being in the office since there is nobody else there to interact with, and the company has launched a "back to the lab" initiative to counteract the problem (which I guess is similar to the problem of city centres becoming empty shells when all businesses move to malls in the suburbs).

The factors influencing your decision about whether to work from home or not would include:
  • How far your home is from your normal workplace? I am luck enough to need only 20 minutes to cycle to work each morning, but many people live over 100km from work so they naturally don't want to make that journey if they can avoid it.
  • What is your home environment like? Some people are lucky enough to have a well furnished office space at home, but others might live in cramped accommodation shared with other people and hence working from home might not be feasible for them.
I am the only person from the team I am currently working with who is based in Ireland, so all of our team meetings are virtual meetings. However, I still find it useful to go into the office most days, becuase I know if I spent too long at home I would begin to suffer from severe cabin fever. It is great that companies allow people to work from home, but this does not mean that everyone could/should work from home on a regular basis.

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