No. 49 Vol. 1Mon 09 August 2021Price: 0/0d

Remote work isn't remotely working for me

pointing finger Sensible Ramblings >> Mon 09 August 2021 by Thran


I had this vision that working from home would be bliss. Just me sitting in the room with nothing but the code. No distractions, no worries. Nothing would sidetrack the engineer from his proud handiwork.

This wasn't so.

Life was lived before covid fled

I recall earlier work. There was much spontaneous learning and discussion. A goodly number of lessons were taught in the room from the whiteboard, with other developers contributing extra ground as their engaged minds prompted them. The concepts were explained as they related to the software developed there. I had a strong sense that knowledge of the problems I faced was always at hand. I became better at spotting and solving the problems after each discussion. (Indeed, this method of transmission is likely why many would report the cliche 'you learn more from placement than university')

Additionally, I had a strong sense that everything was going well. I was in close proximity to my cohorts and saw the work ongoing. This increased my confidence in my own work. All work is corporal, as part of a team, as part of a company. Given that livelihood depends upon completion of successful work, instant visual feedback is necessary for peace of mind.

Then stay at home is what they said

Alas, what I found myself facing in the home office environment was a harsh inversion. When beginning a job I truly needed the same experience. While I could gleam elements of a workspace from my computer, this was simply a vestige of what was before. I found myself bearing levels of stress hitherto unknown in my life. I think my wearied mind was trying to tell me something.

I'm not alone in this struggle and mindset, as a number of comments at HackerNews indicate. This is no claim to scientific study, but these are commenters from the junior to the senior reporting lived experiences identical to my own.

'Remote working is absolutely devastating to the development of junior team members'

A strong indictment reported here and I couldn't concur more.

What I sensed was a muddying of workplace and home, of personal time and professional, with more of the worst elements of both. A whole section of my house now owned by the workplace. There was no ebb and flow to the day, no clear boundary to when work started and finished. Surely these are natural and necessary; that feeling that a day's wage has been earned and the realisation that free time begins only strikes me while on the journey home. My mind was in a strange, confused and despairing place without these boundaries. I could say 'just get used to it,' but I'm not a computer. Replacing a deeply-ingrained lifestyle habit isn't anything like a few lines of code changes.

Additionally, this colonisation of the home is something closer to an invasion from some employers:

The contract allows monitoring by AI-powered cameras in workers' homes, voice analytics and storage of data collected from the worker's family members, including minors.

Source: Is Big Tech Pressuring Its Call-Center Workers to Install Cameras in Their Homes?

Wasn't it bad enough when we've already 6 million CCTV cameras in the UK? Or state-sponsored spyware infecting our phones? It seems this wonderful idea of polite stalking has now entered the mind of employers. This is exactly akin to a manager watching your every move, all day long. Not only that, but in the home. In what world is this a good idea? Call centre work is grim enough. You don't want to convey immense distrust and stoke resentment in your workforce. (I stress that this isn't a practice of any company that's had me in employment. Further, I would never consent to such conditions whatever the reward.)

You'll be fine, just ignore your head

What is missing is the age old tradition of handing down knowledge. Many trades are still best taught by apprenticeships. When having an in-person conversation, many ideas spring to life in the mind and many hints and best practices only come to mind while on the job. This is surely ideal for both master and apprentice.

Sitting alone staring at a Slack channel doesn't even begin to compare to perceiving a full human interaction. Correction is not delivered well in this form, for tone of voice is absent in private messaging, and the mind easily mistakes a gentle rebuke as a harsh lambasting. Even a spirited or good-humoured discussion in text form gives only a limited lift to the isolated soul. It's seeing the band live versus listening to a badly-ripped MP3.

The 'work from home' vision might still apply to a greenfield project built to a specification. Indeed, I saw a successful delivery of my university project. I was able to develop it in entirety, to my own specs, to the required deadline. I worked mostly alone at home, with brief visits to the library and computer lab. No such anguish ensued, even under the pressure of a tight deadline.

But with formal work, there is never one ultimate deadline. There are always tickets on the kanban board and there are performance reviews. There is much information that is required to function under such steady pressure, and without being in person together it is not straightforwardly acquired. Pressure only exists when we are beholden to authority; with the authority nowhere to be seen the mind only assumes the worst.

There is a deeply biological basis to these experiences. The oldest and simplest parts of our brains process social status and produce serotonin or octopamine depending on how we're received by others. When there is no one in the room, how is social status gauged? We could say that Slack covers some of this, but it's the same pale imitator as Facebook is of real life interpersonal interaction, or what Tinder is to serious romantic propositioning. The brain can only be fooled for so long.

Lost small pleasures

  • Being somewhere other than your house once in a while.

  • Drinks after work in the pub. We all need to celebrate, or commiserate together.

  • Dressing better. The novelty of light clothing soon wears off. But it seems pointless dressing well when no-one will notice. Yet, personal appearance effects self-esteem. This just adds to the sense of isolation and the cloud of gloom.

  • Seeing a busy city. It's an assurance that life is ongoing somewhere, at least a couple of thousand other passing strangers are having a go at it. Absolutely absent from the silent walls of home.

  • Spotting strange people behaving strangely from the office window.

  • Paying someone else to make your sandwich.

  • Having lots of work-facilitating equipment in the same room as your work. Even just having it around helped inculcate a work mindset, just as trinkets help create a home environment.

One can attempt to replicate these around the home if creative enough, but as I've said before, the brain is not long fooled.