2020: a year spent remotely

Ah, a new year is upon us. Finally, after what seems like an eternity, we have been able to increment that damned zero to a one.

Without a doubt, 2020 was one of the most challenging years in recent memory for people from all walks of life, regardless of their location or socioeconomic situation. We were all affected. Even if the virus missed us and our loved ones, it was impossible to evade the side-effects that it had on society and the economy.

Companies that previously seemed so integrated in our daily lives to ever fail made unprecedented job cuts, ejecting talented employees into an unstable jobs market. Those who kept their jobs faced hours cuts, and the subsequent reduction in pay, in order to be able to cover their childcare. Who’d have previously imagined schools and nurseries closing for months at a time, and exams being cancelled? How many parents had ever had to think of a Plan B?

And it’s still not over. There was, and still is, less time, less money, and more stress.

Most, if not all, of us in the technology industry had to work from home for much of the year, often in environments that were far from ideal in a multitude of different ways. Few people had the money or space to immediately create dedicated places to work that were comfortable, ergonomic and free from distractions. Many people don’t own their home. Colleagues sharing houses navigated a shared pain. Some became councillors as well as housemates. Colleagues living alone became more isolated. Those in relationships felt the strain.

Stacks

These layers of change, challenge and unpredictability stacked together to heighten stress and anxiety: nothing seemed certain any more. If that wasn’t enough, there were bushfires, racial inequality and the never-ending doom scroll of politics continually inhabiting our mental space. And we still had to make money. We watched as our clients struggled. Retailers were unable to open their stores and sell their products. So why would they continue to buy ours? We saw our agency clients have their projects dry up as companies around the world tightened their purse strings in order to weather one of the most uncertain economic climates in recent history.

The dominoes wobbled precariously. Some fell.

But, somehow or another, we all muddled through. Occasionally, when the waves of stress broke for just a moment, some of us wondered what our lives could be like in the future once all of this was over. As offices began to reopen in the summer after the first wave of the pandemic subsided, not everyone was in as much of a rush as they had originally thought to get back in. Even the darkest moments have glimpses of light, and those glimpses were of a future where perhaps less time would need to be spent commuting; where working hours could be more flexible; where we could communicate more asynchronously, and most importantly, where we could see more of our family and loved ones every day.

A number of companies took a bold step to become fully remote, with many more promising an indefinite remote-first future. This meant that from that moment in time, remote working would become the default rather than office-based working. There are clear advantages to the bottom line of a business if office rent is no longer weighing on the income sheet. However, it wasn’t just money driving these decisions to lean into remote working. The mental gap between “those remote companies over there” that we read about on Hacker News or in books, and those of us working in office-based cultures that felt they could never change, was reduced because we had no choice but to become them ourselves. In fact, I guess you could say it even was a matter of life and death to do so.

And what happened after we all went remote? Nothing blew up. Absolutely nothing.

Even the most hardened and old-fashioned executives saw that even they too could have a positive experience whilst stationed at home. Perhaps for the first time they understood what it was like to be employed in a different location to the company’s headquarters; to not be, for once, the magnetic geographical center of power and decision making. They felt the pain — but also the liberation — of being part of a truly distributed company.

Putting the tools to use

From where we currently sit, it seems that the future is more distributed. We’ve experienced that it is possible to do our jobs in technology whilst sitting at a desk somewhere other than an office. After all, we’ve had the tools to do so for many years but we’ve never had to put them to full use. This doesn’t suit everyone. But I believe it suits enough of us to make it impossible to exclude remote workers from the technology workforce of the future. Doing so will have a significant impact on the talent that we can attract.

However, breaking away from the norm of synchronous, in-person interactions has highlighted a major skills gap. Working as part of a remote workforce isn’t a simple matter of simulating the way in which we’d work together if we were physically colocated via digital means, such as endless hours of video calls to simulate the ad-hoc conversations we were having at our desks. Instead, there are new communication skills to learn and a different mindset to adapt in order to work remotely effectively, efficiently and, most importantly, healthily.

Learning these skills gives us a chance to be optimistic about the future. There can be a new normal. By being able to be an effective, productive, and healthy remote worker, we increase the opportunity of finding interesting and rewarding work no matter where we are located in the world, all whilst being able to spend more time with those who are closest to us. We get more flexibility in where we choose to live. Perhaps we could live that house, rather than that city studio apartment.

I believe the skills to be an effective remote worker are equally as applicable in the office environment too. After all, your colleague may be remote, even if they are just in another office. It’s the same deal. It doesn’t matter if you’re a manager or an individual contributor. We can work better no matter where we are, and still build amazing software.

And here’s one of the most exciting parts: a distributed future can further increase diversity in our industry. Not everybody can uproot and live near a major city, just as not everybody can uproot and attend a prestigious university. Despite a person’s potential, the traditional way of learning and working is biased towards those with money and mobility. But this can change. You don’t need a computer science degree to be an excellent programmer. There is more material available for free online and via reasonably priced online courses than has ever existed in our collective history, especially for those getting into software.

This, coupled with the prospect of an industry that I’m sure will increasingly embrace remote work, presents us with the opportunity to bring those that have been previously disadvantaged into a lifelong career that is rewarding and well paid. We can make a gigantic impact on society through our industry. I think that’s something that we can all get behind, especially those of us who are in a position to hire and elevate others in organizations.

I want to enable a future where your location and background is truly no barrier of entry to our industry, because all you need is a computer and an internet connection.

So let’s make it happen.

What’s coming up

I spent 2020 reading, discussing and experiencing what it’s like to be a remote worker, and I’d like to turn that into a series of articles on this site. If you’re interested in being notified when a new article becomes available, then come and join the Engineering Manager mailing list. I only post when there’s something new for you to read.

I’ve got a big list of content I’d like to cover, from remote onboarding to synchronousness, but if there’s anything specific you’d like covered, just let me know.

(Oh, and we liked remote working so much, we moved quite a long way away. Have a look at my location on my Twitter bio.)

See you soon.

Originally published at https://www.theengineeringmanager.com on January 10, 2021.

VP Engineering @brandwatch. Writing things that interest me. Hopefully they'll interest you as well.

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