Wed 4 Feb 2009
Last week I wrote about the perils of working from home. I’ve been working from home for over three years; I wasn’t trying to seal a verdict on working from home, but to recognize and explore what can make it difficult. Now I’m going to look at what makes it rewarding and worthwhile, despite those difficulties.
Most of the benefits of working from home are obvious: no commuting, no cubicle, improved control of your schedule and diet, and, hallelujah, fewer pointless meetings. Everybody sees the benefit to these things, so I won’t dwell on them here.
One slightly less obvious benefit of working from home is increasing your “concentration span.” This is the amount of time you can spend totally focused on your work– time in the zone when you’re working without interruption or distraction.
To programmers, increasing the concentration span is like widening the Panama Canal. Even a small increase can enable tremendous gains. If your concentration span is 15 minutes, you can’t even start to code anything remotely complex; at an hour, you can get some work done; at two hours, you can get deep enough to fix a fairly complex bug or implement something novel. One of the major appeals of hacking late at night is the availability of this deep focus, but if you look at a typical office, you’ll
find the opposite environment: frequent interruptions from coworkers, meetings breaking each day into tiny chunks, phones ringing, gossip in the next cube.
Here’s a hypothesis about this: if you looked at a standard cubicle-filled engineering office, and just measured what times of day each person was in their cubicle, you could identify the most critical team members simply by picking out those who tend to be at their desks when most of their coworkers
aren’t. Those are the folks who come in, find out where the build broke, and fix the bugs before the rest can come in and schedule a meeting about it.
Working from home is a way of reserving the privilege of focused concentration by default, without having to drive in at 6am or work late in the evening.* This is one major upside to reducing feedback — it gives you space to work on things without having to constantly explain or justify what you’re doing. As I wrote previously, this can be a liability– it’s way easier to veer off in an unproductive direction or miss out on useful advice– but it also makes astonishing productivity possible. If you want people to do unusually great things, you have to suspend the usual constraints from time to time.
The same reduction in feedback can also make possible a greater honesty within the team. Imagine a coworker proudly explaining a module they just wrote. About two minutes in, you realize they’re describing an amateurish implementation of Patricia trees. If you’re looking at them face-to-face in a meeting room, you might plant a quizzical expression on your face. And if they successfully ignore that expression until Q&A time, you can bet they’ll feel like idiots if you point out that they just spent all week reinventing the wheel. Most humans will see the potential for disappointment and hold back a comment that might hurt. But if you’re just a few lines into a IRC discussion, it’s natural to ask “isn't that a lot like http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patricia_tree ?” and recenter the conversation on using an existing, tested implementation. After all, we all screw up and reinvent the wheel sometimes; a team that can recognize, forgive, and resolve mistakes will do better in the long run than one that fights to cover them up.
So what’s the verdict, then? There are some strong upsides but also some strong downsides to working from home, and the way they affect a person depends on that person, what kind of work they’re doing, and whom they’re working with. Personally, I like a mix– working from home most of the time, but with a day or two each week at an office or coworking space. A lot more people are facing this choice, and the variety of work spaces and styles will only continue to increase. And whether you’re starting a company or just seeking a job, it’s worth thinking about what those options mean, and realizing that your own emotions, coworkers, and job requirements aren’t always best served by the default choice.