My experience with remote work

So various CEO’s suggesting we should go back into the office (Zuckerberg, Musk) have been in the news recently. Was prompted to write this blog post, as a story about Malcolm Gladwell was shared on Hackernews that literally made me lol, Malcolm Gladwell opposes WFH while he works from his couch for the last 20 years.

To be fair to Gladwell, I just read that Fortune article (I did not listen to his podcast). Of course this is hypocritical of Gladwell, but to steel man his argument I think there is a mixture of individuals in how they respond to remote work. Some individuals will be better suited to in person work, whereas others being remote will be just as productive.

Whether everyone should blanket go back to in person work depends on the proportion of people in those categories. If many more people are in the need oversight to get stuff done group, then sure going back to office makes sense. If that is not the case though, still being full remote or allowing flexibility is likely the better option.


For my own experience with remote work, I started at HMS (now Gainwell Technologies) in December 2019. So before the pandemic, but I was intentionally applying to in person jobs. My experience in academia (both as a student and a professor), very few people came into their office. I thought this was bad (professors being deadwoods for the most part). And part of my personal productivity I attributed to consistently putting in regular hours. In grad school I would go into my office and put in my 8 hours throughout the week. As a professor I would come in 8 to 4 on weekdays, and then also put in a half day on either Saturday or Sunday.

At HMS on our team, we had an informal ‘can work from home’ on Fridays. We just get a laptop to plug into our cubicle, and when working remotely we can simply VPN into the network. We all had 30+ minute commutes into the office, so it was nice to forego that at least once a week. So when the pandemic started in 2020, it was not that big of a deal. The majority of our meetings were video meetings anyway, since HMS had business teams all over the place. The only consistent in-person event that differed was not sitting down and having lunch together with the team.

So it was not that much of a culture shift to go to 100% remote at HMS.

Personally I think my productivity is about the same. There are of course more distractions at home – I don’t have someone behind my cubicle to stop me from reading whatever on the internet. Even if I put in 8 hours, I think maybe productive ‘write real code that takes effort’ is more like on average 4 hours. It is just managing other meetings and easy stuff in between to be able to focus those 4 hours. Which was true in the office as well – I could flake off for a week doing random projects just as easy in the office as I could at home.

So now that I have done it, I personally like remote work quite a bit. I think it improved my home life (as I could be more present and involved with wife and son in daily activities). And this for me greatly outweighs any minor cultural benefits of being in the office (such as sharing lunch with my coworkers).

I had a few things going for me that I believe made remote work easier. 1) My son was older at the time, and my wife stays home. Remote school was ridiculous for the middle school kids, I am sure it was hellish for the very young children. And if you have a baby at home I imagine that would also be a more severe distraction than an older child.

Probably just as importantly 2) I was myself older, more mature and independent. I could see how being 22 and not being at the stage where you can read the room and go do work on your own could limit your productivity in a remote setting.


Like I said earlier, I think there is a mixture of individuals who will (or will not) do well in a remote setting. While many people write about missing out on personal experiences, I think this totally misses the mark (at least for data scientists and maybe software engineers). From a business perspective, you just care if your engineers are productive. While cultural benefits may on the margin keep someone (or push someone out) of an organization, I don’t think they will impact the day to day productivity of an individual. Me having lunch with my coworkers did not make me more or less productive.

What in my opinion matters the most is a coders ability to independently stay focused on tasks. If you can do that, you can work remote just fine. If you cannot, remote work will be a challenge.

This ability of course matters in an office setting as well. It is just you can more comfortably shirk your responsibilities in a remote setting than you can sitting in an office cubicle.

For organizations, they need to weigh the good and the bad with remote work in the end. For the good, you can recruit people anywhere (my team at Gainwell is currently spread across all continental US time zones, if you are a data scientist in Alaska or Hawaii hit me up!). I suspect that benefit far outweighs any cultural reason to go back into the workplace.

Even if the average productivity for your workforce decreases with remote work (which I grant is plausible, although I think would be at worst a tiny decrease), the ability to recruit more widely and retain individuals is a big win for organizations with fully remote options.

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2 Comments

  1. Shelagh

     /  September 6, 2022

    All good points, Andrew.

    Thinking back to when you were an analyst, working for a PD – do you think that the remote working model still applies?

    During the pandemic I found that I could do the “work” part of the equation quite well in a WFH setting; but information sharing and maintaining legitimacy with the troops was more difficult, especially working with a police agency with high turnover / extremely young officers and first-level supervisors.

    Police agencies are still a hard nut to crack when it comes to reconciling the analysis/intelligence environment with reality. Realizing that we have a more agile, less likely to conform to the 40 hours of “butts in seats” workforce, we’ll need to compromise to locate and retain talent.

    Reply
    • There were only two things I did in Troy that could not really be replaced 100% remote. One was community meetings, the other was periodic ride alongs. These are nice to have things but are non-essential to the job. (And periodic on-site can probably meet that need.)

      It ultimately takes strong leadership to accept the input of information and change behavior (as well as competent analysts on the other end). It certainly is not impossible though. Many rural agencies already have this model, with an external center providing intel and analytics.

      I don’t view the police as much different than other agencies I have been a part of. On occasion I meet unreceptive people at my current job too. Sometimes I can turn resistant people over (and that resistance can be due to not wanting change, or having a low opinion of analytics), and sometimes I need to move onto other things. But most people just have general problems and are receptive to any help they can get.

      Reply

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