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Why Showing Your Face at Work Matters (mit.edu)
161 points by dougbright 1814 days ago | hide | past | web | 93 comments | favorite

Working from home is a popular topic for us engineers. Generally speaking there are two broad camps in this argument:

1. Those who want to work from home and argue largely from that position. They say they'll be just as productive, you can write code from anywhere, having a more flexible schedule will make them happier and more productive and so on; and

2. Those that think there is more to your job than the lines of code you write. In even small companies (maybe even especially small companies?) culture is important. Culture transmits largely by physical proximity. Osmosis if you will. There is value in team camaraderie, whiteboard sessions, going to lunch with colleagues, sometimes just sitting around and shooting the breeze about whatever.

I fall very firmly into camp (2). This also applies to splitting teams geographically (common within Google) and, all other things being equal, you're better off having your organization in N locations versus N+1 locations.

Raises and promotions are more a function of relationships than anything else. Not being there decreases visibility and diminishes relationships. Or perhaps it's just that those who basically just want to write code see no value in and/or spend no time on building relationships?

So I think if you found a group of likeminded people that just wanted to put their heads down and write code then they could probably work together as an effective distributed team but as soon as you're in the minority in that situation you're losing out and (IMHO) it's not what's best for a colocated team anyway.

"Those that think there is more to your job than the lines of code you write. In even small companies (maybe even especially small companies?) culture is important. Culture transmits largely by physical proximity. Osmosis if you will. There is value in team camaraderie, whiteboard sessions, going to lunch with colleagues, sometimes just sitting around and shooting the breeze about whatever."

You're waiving your hands here; flailing, even. None of this is quantifiable, it's all your based on your gut feeling. There are plenty of ways culture can transmit online, but I'm afraid my examples would involve just as much conjecture as yours do.

I telecommute, but also make a trip to be on location every couple of months. I agree that face to face contact is important to some degree, but not in any way I could accurately measure. I'm FAR more productive when I'm telecommuting because I don't have colleagues interrupting me with questions ever 10 minutes, I don't feel the temptation to "shoot the shit", I can work through lunch, and I waste no time commuting. As a result I'm more productive than the average non-telecommuting worker.

Raises and promotions may be a function of relationships, but perhaps they shouldn't be? Perhaps they should be based on performance.

> You're waiving your hands here; flailing, even. None of this is quantifiable

Just because it is not easy to quantify does not mean there isn't some truth to it. 'Flailing' and 'hand waving' seem exaggerated.

Oh if only social interations were that easy quantifiable. Life would be a lot easier. We could avoid all wars, be full of love and full of love and happiness, developing only the most successful products without ever failing to understand the (irr)ationality of our clients. Social data is so subjective, as it is almost impossible to control externalities, and something like the (un)importance of "facetime" is in my opinion always circumstantial. Therefore I would agree with the gut feeling comment, as it comes really down to the individual employee to evaluate his intentions/priorities/relationships and what works best for that situation.

As a result I'm more productive than the average non-telecommuting worker.

Although sometimes optimising somebody's individual productivity gets in the way of optimising the productivity of the company as a whole.

You need to figure out where the bottlenecks are before you know the right place to optimise :-)

Although sometimes optimising somebody's individual productivity gets in the way of optimising the productivity of the company as a whole.

That's the real rub. It's entirely possible that the Right Thing To Do - from the perspective of the firm - is the do something other than what is most optimal for the individual. Sp, as a lot of us geeks tend to be fairly individualistic, and because it can be hard to isolate the variables when you're talking about team productivity, a lot of us fall on the side of "optimize for the individual."

As somebody who's radically individualistic, and who is also a startup founder, I find myself torn on the idea of whether or not it even makes sense to have an office, or whether it makes sense to push for a completely distributed team.

I'm getting a bit of a real-world experiment with these issues now, as my $DAYJOB has me in Chicago for a 6 month consulting gig and my co-founders are back in the RTP area. We use email and IM heavily now... but we had an in-person "hack day" last weekend when I was home, and there was definitely value in all 3 of us being in the same room, huddled up together.

I'm leaning towards thinking firms probably should have offices, and that most people should be in the office at least part of the time. But I would take a pretty laissez-faire approach towards it, I think. Provide offices, but give people fairly unlimited freedom to work remotely or come into the office as they see fit.

I'm leaning towards thinking firms probably should have offices, and that most people should be in the office at least part of the time. But I would take a pretty laissez-faire approach towards it, I think. Provide offices, but give people fairly unlimited freedom to work remotely or come into the office as they see fit.

That sounds like a good idea.

I'd maybe consider running some experiments too. See what happens when you have everybody work in the office for a month. See what happens if you have everybody working remotely for a month. I've had clients try things like that and be surprised by the results.

Raises and promotions may be a function of relationships, but perhaps they shouldn't be? Perhaps they should be based on performance.

Not saying you're wrong - performance is a great metric to use for gauging contribution to an organization. However, I find that proposals that begin with "people should" or "groups should" are often about as easy to implement as cat herding.

As someone else pointed out just because something is difficult to measure doesn't make it unimportant.

One part of your post intrigues me.

> don't have colleagues interrupting me with questions ever 10 minutes

Let's assume that your colleagues aren't idiots. That they need these questions answered. Either they are having to go away and ask someone else, or they are having to figure the answer out themselves (potentially taking a lot more time than if you had simply given the answer) or they are deciding to make do without the answer.

Each of those is potentially detrimental to the organisation's effectivenesses as a whole. Your "productiveness" is more than simply the sum of the code that you produce.

Moreover you're missing all those 'interesting little problems' that turn up, that you would know the answer to, if anyone only thought to ask you.

You're at risk of diminishing your total value.

(And yes, I primarily teleworked for several years).

That makes sense on the surface, and there's certainly value to spreading knowledge, but when you're in the same room there's a much lower barrier, so the tendency is to ask questions first, rather than making a serious attempt at solving the problem on your own. Make no mistake, we still ask each other questions when we're in a bind, but this communication is asynchronous. We ping the other person over chat, but that person is free to respond in their own time. I can't count the number of times I've gotten an IM from a colleague asking a question, only to get a "nevermind, I figured it out :)" message 5 minutes later. To me, that's a much more productive workflow for both individuals and the organization as a whole.

It was clear which camp you fell into just by the way you defined the two.

We have a tester who lives in another city from us, and I've managed to build camaraderie with him using nothing but skype IM, including breeze shooting and other non-work based activities. I have done the same in previous jobs, with people on the other side of the world. I don't think you need to be in the same room.

In large companies that I've worked for, the uptake of IM and skype is slow and barring the occasional video conference when someone just couldn't travel for one reason or another, is almost frowned upon.

That kind of makes it difficult for remote working to take place effectively, because, whatever else we may think, work is more than just "give me my list of tasks and I'll give you the deliverables".....the social interaction and relationships between people can radically improve motivation and such.

It's funny that in the companies where working from home I think is more likely (big companies with policies about it and such), it would probably be less effective because those same companies probably have locked down computers and firewalls and the users wouldn't be as able to use what they might deem most effective (Google Docs? Skype? Dropbox?)

Whereas with smaller companies where you can pretty much do carte blanche ("install whatever software you need on your PC as long as it doesn't drain our Comcast business internet"), working from home would probably be looked down upon.

I was just going to say more or less the same thing. I think I have a better working relationship with one of my coworkers that lives 1500mi from me than the guy I sit next to. Now I'm sure that personality plays a part here, but it's clear that distance really isn't `that` much of a detractor.

This post is hilarious when read a bit more accurately. Basically, you have said that there are two broad categories, rational people and irrational people. I guess it's a nice technique for argument, but I suspect that most people do not fit nicely into either of your buckets.

I want to work from home, and do enjoy doing so. I also like working from the office and enjoy doing so. There's more to my job than lines of code that I write. Culture is important. Culture sometimes transmits via physical proximity, and sometimes other means (IM, Phone, etc). Sometimes one or two meetings a week (or even month) is more than adequate to cover the parts that don't communicate so easily remotely. Sometimes remote workers go to lunch (or dinner) with colleagues. Sometimes my whiteboard is a computer.

Your group 2 covers a broad range of people and needs, some of which may sometimes require (or significantly benefit from) close proximity, and some of which often won't.

Basically, people, personalities, and working style vary.

As is often the case, the best solution is a compromise. A policy of allowing 2 or 3 days/week of working from home would allow for "real" work to get done from home (not to mention the gas and time savings) while also having the advantages of physical proximity.

As is often the case, the best solution is a compromise

Nope - there isn't a best solution.

It depends on the company, the project, the team, etc. Sometimes everybody telecommuting is best. Sometimes a mixed model is best. Sometimes an everybody-onsite model is best. Sometimes flying everybody to a common location for a month is best. Sometimes...

>and, all other things being equal, you're better off having your organization in N locations versus N+1 locations.

All other things aren't equal, though. There can be less interuptions at home, there's less time wasted on commuting, and more flexibility - allowing (for instance) people with children to have a better work/life balance, which should hopefully make them more effective workers.

There's also things like the simple cost of the building - if 20% of your staff are typically at home on any given day, you need 20% less floorspace etc (I know it's not quite that simplisticaly linear, but you get the point).

For meetings, things like Facetime can be remarkably effective at getting someone "in the room" when they are physically at home. It's not quite as good as them actually being there, but it's remarkably close.

Obviously there's a balance. There are quite definitely upsides to having people in the building - a quick 2 minute chat at someone's desk with a piece of paper and a pencil can sometimes be as effective as a Visio diagram and an email that took an hour to write, and even more importantly having people sat right next to you can make working far more collaborative.

But depending on what your job is, having the flexibility to work for a day or more a week at home can be hugely valuable.

Reminds me of a conversation at my last job:

Manager: Working from home is a privilege, not a right Me: Having me work from home is a privilege not a right

You see it cuts both ways. If management wants more than the 9-5 with an hour for lunch that it stipulates in your contract, that is.

The truth is the technology for working remotely just isn't there yet. Sure you can just churn out simple code that way, might even be faster than in the office. But nothing beats the sheer mental bandwidth of a dozen engineers in a room with big whiteboards and an ample supply of coffee. Not even IRC!

Culture transmits largely by physical proximity. Osmosis if you will.

Culture transmits by communication, and nothing else. If you don't have a good (or equal) communication with your remotes, things are going to suck.

If you have a good communication with your remotes, they'll absorb culture faster than the most introvert people that are in the actual office.

Your post essentially lacks any base for the claims you make.

I think this is better served by saying that culture transmits by communication, in all it's forms, which include body language, physicality, etc.

It's not such a hard dichotomy. I think working from home occasionally makes good sense, if you treat it like what it is, a productive break.

Just the fact that so many request it, should show the benefit of releasing that pressure occasionally. I hate working with tired, overworked people on mental cruise control. The fact is, a big part of the workday is filled with social interaction, whiteboard sessions, etc. But all that is just as draining (if not more so for some) compared to the actual work tasks.

I'd also like to point out the huge time waste that is commuting.

>I'd also like to point out the huge time waste that is commuting.

It's also massively stress reducing. No daily traffic? It's awesome. I've been working from home for an out of state company for about 3 years now. I could make more money if I switched to a different job, but not having to commute has actually become a massive perk for me.

Having little stress, being able to relax at home, and still be very productive are worth more than monetary compensation to me.

I've got a family member that makes about 15k more than I do, but spends 3 hours commuting each day! That more of less eats up all of her leisure time through out the week. Then weekends are house chores. There is nothing about her job that couldn't be done from home. 3 hours in traffic each day is no way to live..

With no commute, I wake up, do some stretching and light exercise, drink some coffee, and then when I'm ready to begin, I just sit down at my desk and get started.

Worth every penny that I don't make.

>culture is important

I see this asserted a lot, but what exactly is meant by 'culture', and is it really true?

For example, if by 'culture' you mean having an office full of well-educated, capable, motivated engineers and problem-solvers vs not well-educated, capable, or motivated, then sure, I buy that.

Strong leadership that intimately knows the business? Sure, Intel and Apple being exhibits A & B.

But beyond that, what parts of culture should every business strive to replicate, and what parts are more likely overvalued in the zeitgeist due to survivorship bias and other cognitive mistakes?

Have you ever worked somewhere that was perhaps a decent job, but you dreaded coming in to work because of bosses/coworkers/distractions? That's culture, just bad culture. Everyone seems to be able to relate to bad culture. Company culture is a two way street, good culture seems harder to come by than bad. I can't even say I've even been somewhere with 'good' culture but it definitely exists and is really just the inverse of bad culture.

I'd say one of the things that draws people to telecommute most is too much exposure to bad company culture. Arguments in regards to productivity and environment are more responses to 'bad' culture than anything else.

Think of culture as cooking.

You can use the finest meats, freshest vegetables and highest quality herbs, and still produce an awful meal by assembling them wrong. But on the flip side, you CAN make a very good meal from mediocre ingredients by preparing them properly.

Two examples form my career:

Workplace A: full of smart, motivated problem solvers and "A players" who failed in key ways because a toxic culture just poisoned anything. People were nasty and busy protecting fiefs. The individual work efforts were great, but they couldn't come together.

Workplace B: A place where there was a fairly broad range of people from marginally skilled folks to the super-smart where the teams just got along and had leadership that promoted cross-training and cooperation. People were friendly & professional.

As a leader, doing the care & feeding to maintain good culture (aka making work a place where you want to work) is hard. I think that after you reach a certain size, 100% remote workers make it harder, at least for a core team. Also, your business requirements around security and other factors may force you to do things that will damage that remote culture.

The rule I am getting comfortable with for people I'm hiring: I don't care where or when you get work done, just get it done. If that means home, if that means office, if that means a cafe - go for it. If that means at 3am - awesome, be productive when you're in the state of mind, mood and place to be productive. I'm primarily a creative person, as most good engineers are - problem solvers, and this is how I end up being most productive.

Things cut both ways though.

On one hand transmission of ideas etc. in real time is important. On the other, face time means lots of additional distractions, so many employees may be more productive working from home.

Culture is important too but I don't see why that can't be done over remote aspects as well. Certainly the Linux project has a different culture than the PostgreSQL project, and these have different cultures than the LedgerSMB project, and in all of these you are dealing with geographically dispersed teams.

So the question is, how do people interact? How can you help them interact? How can you limit their interactions to productive ones? I think that remote and face-to-face environments just pose different challenges in these areas.

Generally speaking there are two broad camps in this argument

There's at least one more camp. Those who think that there's large body of evidence that, all other things being equal, a good co-located team will be much more productive than a distributed one.

And I say this as somebody who lives in a relatively rural part of the UK, runs their own company, and spends a pretty large chunk of my time telecommuting and working with other remote workers (because, often, all other things are not equal :-)

For example:


"It doesn't take much distance before a team feels the negative effects of distribution - the effectiveness of collaboration degrades rapidly with physical distance. People located closer in a building are more likely to collaborate (Kraut, Egido & Galegher 1990). Even at short distances, 3 feet vs. 20 feet, there is an effect (Sensenig & Reed 1972). A distance of 100 feet may be no better than several miles (Allen 1977). A field study of radically collocated software development teams,[...], showed significantly higher productivity and satisfaction than industry benchmarks and past projects within the firm (Teasley et al., 2002). Another field study compared interruptions in paired, radically-collocated and traditional, cube-dwelling software development teams, and found that in the former interruptions were greater in number but shorter in duration and more on-task (Chong and Siino 2006). Close proximity improves productivity in all cases."


"Based on the empirical evidence, we have constructed a model of how remote communication and knowledge management, cultural diversity and time differences negatively impact requirements gathering, negotiations and specifications. Findings reveal that aspects such as a lack of a common understanding of requirements, together with a reduced awareness of a working local context, a trust level and an ability to share work artefacts significantly challenge the effective collaboration of remote stakeholders in negotiating a set of requirements that satisfies geographically distributed customers"


"Our results show that, compared to same-site work, cross-site work takes much longer and requires more people for work of equal size and complexity. We also report a strong relationship between delay in cross-site work and the degree to which remote colleagues are perceived to help out when workloads are heavy"


"Our findings reveal that: software developers have different types of coordination needs; coordination across sites is more challenging than within a site; team knowledge helps members coordinate, but more so when they are separated by geographic distance; and the effect of different types of team knowledge on coordination effectiveness differs between co-located and geographically dispersed collaborators."


"One key finding is that distributed work items appear to take about two and one-half times as long to complete as similar items where all the work is colocated"


"Our study of six teams that experienced radical collocation showed that in this setting they produced remarkable productivity improvements. Although the teammates were not looking forward to working in close quarters, over time they realized the benefits of having people at hand, both for coordination, problem solving and learning.Teams in these warrooms showed a doubling of productivity"

I could go on....

There are certainly arguments for telecommuting being more productive if you have a bad onsite working environment. My ideal solution is to fix the bad environment if at all possible, rather than distribute the team.

I could go on....

Yes, I wouldn't argue against the notion that - in general - co-location is better for (at least short-term) productivity. The question, to me, is "what about the other effects?" Does forcing co-location decrease job satisfaction, for example, and what's the effect on turnover? Or what about morale, and it's impact on productivity over a longer period of time?

There are also issues like "what if the super talented developer I want to hire will only work remotely?" Am I better off forgoing his/her talents completely, or accepting a (perhaps less than optimal) remote work arrangement?

I don't think any of these issues have black and white answers; and I think that determining the ideal work environment is still a bit (art|black magic|luck|etc) and not yet a science.

Agreed. As I said "often, all other things are not equal" :)

That said - it's generally been my experience that people are happy when they're being most productive, and vice versa. The most productive, gelled and happy teams I've worked with have all been co-located (which does not mean I think distributed teams are unhappy or unproductive).

I think many folk see teleworking as a solution to a bad onsite working environment. Often those people are not in a position to "fix" their normal working environment and it's the only option they have to be happier and more productive. More power to them.

Unfortunately, since poor onsite working environments are common, when those people are in a position to build their own teams, working environments and businesses they often miss the opportunity to build a great productive onsite environment - and then miss out on the productivity (and general happyness IMHO) wins that can get you.

>Raises and promotions are more a function of relationships than anything else. Not being there decreases visibility and diminishes relationships.

Eh, while I agree that this is how it /is/ - this is certainly not how it should be. (I mean, management is a function of relationships, sure, but if you base Engineer pay on relationships, which many companies do, you are going to end up with a bunch of worthless sycophants.)

Based solely on my own experience, I believe that the benefits to be gained by physical proximity decrease according to an inverse square law. The benefits gained from sitting with the team you're currently working with can't be discounted, but as teams grow and your team overflows a single office, the synergies shared between team members in the same room far outweigh those with team members in the next room, to the point where they could be next door or across the country with little difference.

Embracing the distributed approach and realizing the cutoff point leads to building better tools for collaboration and integrating them into the work environment. Without this recognition, the mentality is that you can always talk to someone in person.

I've worked in multinational companies where collaborating with someone across continents, bar the time difference, was just as easy as working with someone down the hall. I currently work for a company that has not yet achieved this recognition, so working with anyone outside my immediate office takes hard work and determination.

While I agree with what you say and also put myself in camp (2), the one advantage about splitting teams geographically is that it puts you geographically closer to more customers. Depending on the nature of your business it can be very handy to meet customers, both current and potential, face to face from time to time, and having people in the same cities as your main customers makes that a lot easier.

You also have a camp of people who wish to practice their craft, period.

If your goal is to move up the organization, being a remote worker is similar to working in the Iowa field office -- you're not making the personal connections with the bigshots that you need to make to get the promotions. Being in the right place at the right time and luck are big success factors, imo.

Working from home reduces visibility, you don't work from home to make more and get promoted, you work from home to avoid the retardation of a commute, busy work, excessive meetings, etc.

You work from home so you can put in 2 hours work, accomplish as much as anyone else did and spend the remaining 6 enjoying your life.

I'm pretty sure that everyone who decides to work from home did so for quality of life reasons rather than climbing the corporate ladder reasons.

Thank you, I'm glad I'm not the only one who sees the benefits.

It's true, some jobs are soul-crushing enough that you'd rather not be there. You might have family and/or financial responsibilities that make you have to keep such a job. You may be bootstrapping a business on the side so you can escape from such a job, but in the meantime, you still need your regular paycheck.

Not every job has you working with self-motivated co-workers and great bosses. Some jobs put you in a cube farm in a room where everyone fights over the thermostat. Sometimes you have to head a weekly meeting where you have to explain to other programmers why you get NullPointerExceptions on line 5 when line 4 initializes the variable to null. Some jobs still make you use CVS. The office talk at some jobs is never about learning anything, but it sure is loud and distracting.

If you were offered a chance to work from home and avoid a lot of that, I'm sure you'd also jump at the opportunity. Getting a promotion in such a job isn't worth it.

That can actually turn into a good thing. When you're not facing the other person, you should become better and better at communicating what exactly is the issue. At the very worse this leaves a paper trail that can indicate "see I worked on this"

Absolutely agree with this. Two sides of the spectrum:

1) I've noticed that of all the remote positions in various departments, marketing is the one that is almost always co-lo. They tend to have the most say in product direction (duh) and in turn strategic, company-wide policy changes.

2) Sales is the counter-example here. I've seen talented remote sales people rapidly and deservedly climb the corporate ladder. However, the catch is that they tend to have brutal travel schedules (which they'd probably have anyway if they were in corporate HQ), so it's arguable whether they are reaping the same benefits of working from home as other remote workers.

Note that sales people are usually trivial to measure. Look at their quota and their sales and you are pretty much done. With other departments it is considerably harder.

I agree with your basic premise that it's harder to objectively measure other departments as easily as sales quotas and top-line revenues.

However, I'd like to provide some additional metrics that I know other field organizations [have] use[d] (including ours):

Services - Professional Services (PS) margin, bookings, customer satisfaction scores, normalized mean project completions, budget ($ or hrs) actuals vs. estimates

Support - mean time ticket resolution, ticket volume, Maintenance & Support (M&S) margin, cust sat scores, # feature enhancements

You and every other HN reader know that all metrics are flawed in some way, but I'd still like to point out that although Sales quotas are easily judged, many organizations struggle to quickly/easily quantify the frequency with which sales people sacrifice longer-term sales for short-term quarterly wins.

"You work from home so you can put in 2 hours work, accomplish as much as anyone else did"

Agreed. I'm the only technical person in the company - if I went into the office every day I would spend half my time being asked to fix printers, 'can you just take a quick look at this?' etc. which would kill my productivity.

The other problem for me with 'being seen' is that I spend a lot of my time planning relative to writing code - e.g. for a major project I might spend half the time thinking about how to break down the problem into chunks which can be dealt with individually, then chaining them together for the final result. From an outsider's point of view, it would look like I was just sitting at a desk doodling all day. So it's actually better for me to announce a new feature every so often, because that output looks productive, whereas the process of producing it doesn't.

Having done home and in-office working, I've found that if it's a company of engineers (including managers with that background) then I prefer working the office, because I get to converse with like-minded people, and they understand that sometimes days can go by without churning out vast quantities of code. If I'm working for a company where the technical side is less central, then working from home tends to win out.

Yes. I love being able to sleep in and avoid meetings.

It takes me an 1 1/2 hours to commute into work. By that time, I'm exhausted from dealing with traffic. Next, you have to deal with coworkers and their noise noise noise. Everyone wants to small chat at my job. That's fine, but don't hang around my desk and try to get my attention while I'm staring down a bug (death stare). Its rude and I can't concentrate.

As a software engineer, I try to avoid as many meetings as possible. I just want to build the things that are needed to be built. Avoiding meetings helps with that for two reasons... 1) You have more time to work on a task 2) You don't have to break your thought pattern to fixing a bug/solving a problem

As you said, with telecommuting you get more done with less time. Its basically a daily mini hack-a-thon in your living room/Starbucks. I normally get in about 2-5 hours of solid developing. It really depends on the task and when I can review the changes to my boss for the final push. The rest of the time I can relax and think out the problems.

At work, I just can't concentrate that well. You're stuck at one location for 8 hours. At the same time, you just want to go home. With telecommuting, I can wake up later (which makes me more alert), work for a few hours, relax, and come back to the problem when I have those occasional "eureka!" moments.

Now, I like to say that working at home is the be all end all. I still need to show up to push code to production. I still occasionally need to talk to staff about what projects should be next on the list. But, if your main job requires you to just be imaginative and churn out code, then being isolated is where its at.

You're stuck at one location for 8 hours. At the same time, you just want to go home.

I think this is a big deal. You feel stuck. You want to go home. When you're already home, there's not usually an urge to go to the office, you're already where you want to be. Also, if you do feel an urge to go somewhere, if you're at home already it's much less guilt inducing to head to Starbucks for an hour or two than it is to leave work to go to Starbucks for some time.

Agreed. The topic of a more liberal teleworking schedule came up at work recently. It seemed widely agreed upon that working from home would be for those people who are happy where they are on the ladder already and don't intend to move up.

Unless you have a unique culture that was founded by remote workers (admittedly rare), or you have a large enough company that needs to have a sizable field organization.

I guess this is why living close to work combined with a flexible teleworking schedule would be the best of both worlds. You'd at least get the option of dialing up the social hobnobbing on an 'as needed' basis.

> I'm pretty sure that everyone who decides to work from home did so for quality of life reasons rather than climbing the corporate ladder reasons.

Which alone might cause the observed penalty: by opting for telecommuting, you are indicating you are a slacker and disloyal.

If these tactics work, you are working for a shitty company and need to find a better employer.

The original post got edited, so now my comment doesn't make sense - apologies.

The article does a good job of going over a few (seemingly obvious) biases, but I also expected an honest discussion of job duties (implicit or explicit) that get missed when one works from home. I'm disappointed that part of the topic was skipped.

I know the HN crowd is fairly pro- working from home, and I am too, but I was wondering if some of the more experienced (than myself) people here could chime in with examples of implicit/explicit things that are "missed" when team members work from home.

The only major one I can think of is mentoring, of new hires and interns, which seems to be done much better in person than over email. I would think that mentoring these two groups is an implicit duty in most companies, but it would seemingly always fall on the backs of those who are not working from home.

I would also think that actually being there in person for new hires and interns also helps shape company culture for those people, or otherwise make them feel like more of a team. I suppose that all of this could be mitigated by not working from home for the first month+ of interns/new hires starting.

Personally, I overwhelmingly dislike working from home, although it is nice to have the option to do so occasionally when I'm sick, waiting for something to be delivered to my house, the weather is poor, etc..

The main ways I think it is harder for you to contribute remotely are:

1) Whiteboard sessions

I've spent a lot of time sitting around a whiteboard, talking out a (software) design for something and collaboratively working it out on the board. I've yet to see software that can come close to this, and even those that sort of do involve a bit of overhead vs just walking into an empty conference room.

2) Debugging/working through things on someone else's machine

Sometimes you can solve a problem or work through some design much more quickly by just sitting down at a computer with someone and walking through the code. This is certainly possible to do remotely, but it always feels a lot more clunky, and I tend to avoid it.

3) Office talk

Not office gossip, but simply overhearing co-workers talking about something and either learning something or offering them a better way to do it. This adds happens fairly frequently in my experience, and it is hard to duplicate remotely.

Sure, if you have everyone working remotely, you can invest time to figure out ways to mitigate these losses, but if it is just one or two people working from home full-time, I think either way you are adding less net value than if you were there in person, all else being equal.

Agreed so far.

What's wrong with working from home?

When the CEO brings guests to the office so that they can "meet the team", you're never there. When the guests ask about your project, someone else on your team will represent you.

When your manager is muttering jokes to the team during the design meeting, you won't hear those jokes. Some of the jokes may involve the projects that are already being discussed in other parts of the company but which haven't yet officially arrived on your team's radar: You will tend to be the last to find out about those projects.

When one of your direct reports is fighting back tears, you won't see those tears.

When the VIP, whose schedule is booked so tightly that you can't get a meeting, is hanging out in the kitchen at the end of the day, you're not there to talk to her for five minutes.

Every time you present something, you'll be unable to see your audience's reactions in real-time, you won't see their raised hands, the remote slideshow software will take five minutes to launch, and the high-latency phone connection will drop at least once.

Now, I've worked at a company with a lot of remote employees, and a good company and a good manager who are conscious of these difficulties can compensate for a lot of this. But you're still playing at a higher difficulty level than everyone else.

The two parent comments from suresk and mechanical_fish are exactly right about the real, though unquantifiable benefits of being in close proximity to peers and bosses.

I work for a large organization with a big head office and dozens of smaller offices around the world.

I've received more than my fair share of promotions. However, of twenty two years in the same organization I've worked in eight different cities in three countries, eighteen years out of and four years in head office. Despite being consistently ambitious, every single one of my promotions was from my two stints in head office. And my organization prides itself in believing it has an uncompromisingly objective and merit based promotion process.

At best, rigorous reward systems will dampen the natural human bias toward the people you see every day. Humans are wired to be tribal and to coalese into groups. Plus, as the parent comments illustrate, there are actual benefits to being in close proximity that can't be replicated remotely. Were it not so, urban real estate would be no more expensive than rural and there would be no cities.

This is not necessarily a bug that needs to be fixed. Rather, it is a feature of the system to understand and use.

If ambition/money is high on your list of priorities, then work in close physical proximity to your peers and bosses.

If other things in life are higher on your list of priorities, accept that you are making a trade-off that is right for you. Work remotely and don't be surprised that the physical rewards fall disproportionately on those who work in court around the king. You have chosen different rewards.

> If other things in life are higher on your list of priorities, accept that you are making a trade-off that is right for you. [...] You have chosen different rewards.

Yes! I used to work with someone who, when someone suggested, "That's a career-limiting move", would say, "I don't want a career, I want a job." (He is a brilliant engineer, by the way.) His point was that he had other goals than promotions. Having that job was simply his way of having enough money to fund the toys that made his life fun.

Years ago I made a choice to move to a rural area; there are no decent tech jobs within a 1 hour commute. On occasion I've had to work away from home for extended periods, but for the most part I've been a full-time telecommuter. I drive a couple of hours to an office to spend a day every other week, or once a month, depending on the organization. I'm "missing out" on advancing my career, but the money is still decent, I get to put my kids to bed every night, I can water the garden at lunchtime -- and pick a fresh salad, etc.

Everything you just wrote applies to working from home when other people don't. Very little of it applies to working from home along with everyone else.

If most of your company/team goes to work in person at the same site, you'll miss out on some things by not doing so. If most of your company/team works in a distributed fashion, you can do the same without missing out. Prisoner's dilemma. :)

Everything you just wrote applies to working from home when other people don't. Very little of it applies to working from home along with everyone else.

It still applies - it just applies to everybody. The disadvantages are still there if everybody has 'em :-)

I guess working from home, you miss the 'Human Network'.

Painters, mathematicians, writers, programmers all need the 'Human Network'. But when they actually work on their 'real work', they crave and long for isolation. Undisturbed time(Tuits: Uninterrupted stretches of time), devoid of any distractions, disturbance- time all alone for themselves to produce something awesome.

You need both time alone to work, and time with other people.

There's also something to be said for doing both at once. My term for that is ambient sociability: Sit in the corner of the coffeeshop or the library, where there are people around, but not too noisy, and none of them focused on you, and none of them likely to disturb you.

There's certainly a trade-off between having the convenience to talk to someone next to you and having a distraction-free environment. Working from home I enjoy hours of coding in the zone that makes me much more productive than in the office. On the other hand, in the office I enjoy hearing about the latest trends in technology and being able to rack brains with someone else on a tough problem. But working in an open office where others can similarly interrupt you is not ideal, so I advocate having personal offices along with shared spaces.

Mentoring is a funny one. It's much easier to mentor somebody who is local to the city, especially where the article implies a scenario where workers who telecommute are the exception rather than the rule.

However, I find that within field organizations (Sales, Services and Support), where working remotely is the norm, mentoring is easily achievable by spending quality, productive time in-your-virtual-face. Personal (i.e. non-intimate but beyond strictly professional) relationships can still be formed (and often do) but simply take longer.

Also, mentoring shouldn't be done over email, but over the phone and via WebEx/GoInstant. As you point out, email is the worst possible medium to mentor somebody. In our organization, if you attempt to pass off emails as 'mentoring' then you're in for bummer ratings during your quarterly calibration and review sessions.

To answer your original question, a few things that may be missed by team members who occasionally telecommute:

1) Sense of time and punctuality: The sense of time is important because people aren't generally wired to think about different timezones or lunchtimes when scheduling meetings or dialing out. And punctuality usually suffers when you don't make a conscious effort to always heed your 10-15 reminder warnings.

2) Picking up the phone: Onsite staff never seem to have a problem picking up the phone and talking to somebody (even for 10seconds). Maybe it's the close proximity and the option of being able to saunter over in case the phone call doesn't work out. Or the proximity of the lunch room or water cooler. But once these occasional telecommuters are home, it's as if they go into hermit mode and default to pure email. The irony should be obvious -- when you're working remotely, you should usually rely MORE on ad hoc phone calls vs. IM/emails to maintain the sense your sense of connectedness.

3) Productivity: This is the least reliable and is more tightly correlated with how social somebody's job needs to be in the office, but I often find that productivity drops for occasional telecommuters because they haven't been conditioned to fight against the usual distractions at home, such as losing track of time while in the zone (#1), napping & surfing (tied at #2), television/movies (#3), chores (#4), etc. You'd think that somebody would be MORE productive when they're in the zone and not answering IM/email/phone, and I'd answer that for a narrow subset of jobs this is true; but the majority of tasks often involve interaction with other parts of the organization or with customers, in which case all-day zone marathons are a net productivity killer when more than 2 people wasted their time waiting/pinging/fretting/bottlenecked by you.

The above 3 problems typically only happen to staff that only occasionally work from home. Regular remote workers typically don't exhibit the behaviours above because these slip-ups are more noticeable to other staff (both remote and onsite) when they happen on a regular basis.

EDIT: grammar

Let me explain this to you in simple terms.

If your manager appreciates 'blow your trumpet' culture where 'making noise' is more important than work, then Working from home might be disastrous to you. But if your manager understands the wastage of time during travel/commute. The troubles faced by programmers due to frequent meetings and interruptions, the need for solitary isolation to think and work on tough problems. He won't have problems, and will rather appreciate you for taking more time to be productive and get work done.

People who stay late are thought to be productive, and doing more work. Unfortunately this is the problem with our Industry. And unless your manager has done some real work himself he won't understand most of this. And trust me expecting a technically sound manager is asking for too much.

Your ordinary corporate middle level manager, is totally incapable of understanding this. Because he despises any form of extreme nerd/tech/geek culture. He perceives that as a threat to his own kingdom, he is afraid that your success will overshadow his noise making. He will do everything in his power to keep people mediocre, to make himself look good to his bosses. In all of this a ferevrishly hacking geek churning features, coding by the minute, his way of work, culture and cult is a threat/disease that can destroy the managers career.

Working from home, will not work with those kind of managers.

>Your ordinary corporate middle level manager, is totally incapable of understanding this. Because he despises any form of extreme nerd/tech/geek culture. He perceives that as a threat to his own kingdom, he is afraid that your success will overshadow his noise making. He will do everything in his power to keep people mediocre, to make himself look good to his bosses. In all of this a ferevrishly hacking geek churning features, coding by the minute, his way of work, culture and cult is a threat/disease that can destroy the managers career.

Why would you continue to work for such a shit manager? My manager is is all about interacting with customers, prioritizing tasks, and shielding us from the bullshit.

I suspect that a lot of the difference is in companies where the managers are devs vs MBAs

Indeed. In fact I would say "management usually gets in the way more than it helps."

However, this isn't the only issue and it's not the only reason to work face-to-face. There are many cases where face-to-face communications are just better. These include design sessions and the like where more and better real time feedback can be given by a group than in any other approach. For this reason I think periodic get-togethers are important even for teams which work remotely.

Where do the managers (and team members for that matter) fit in who have tried telecommuting experiments, seen productivity drop, moved back to co-located teams, and seen productivity rise back to previous levels again?

Well, it works for some, so either the team of this theoretical person or manager was a unique snowflake or there were people problems causing this distinction (e.g. people who abuse it, crappy manager who was using stupid metrics that prove their biases).

Wasn't trying to say that "telecommuting doesn't work". It obviously can - and there are often good reasons for it (hell - I do it myself most of the time).

I was just pointing out that people choosing not to telecommute isn't necessarily caused by management idiocy. There is, indeed, a lot of evidence (see http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4207309) that the optimum for productivity is a radically co-located team.

Of course there are other issues. Telecommuting is a great option to have and solves some problems. Sometimes the best folk cannot co-locate. Sometimes quality of life issues are more important. Sometimes the on-site work environment can't be made effective due to issues outside the relevant people's control.

However, a lot of geek folk seem to automatically assume that telecommuting == always more productive, and management that prefer co-location == always idiots. This isn't backed up by the facts.

Many of the comments are focused on how workers should be evaluated. The article is discussing how workers are evaluated. In fact, the authors emphasize:

"Managers may not be aware they are making evaluations based on face time."

You can argue that managers should be aware of a bias in this area and strive to minimize its effect. However, workers need to simply be realistic about the effect of working remotely - regardless of whether it seems fair to them. Personally, I prefer to work remotely - but I have always been wary about not spending enough time in the office because of the tendencies described in the article. Physical presence is a powerful thing, and difficult to ignore. Email, IM, Skype, and phone calls are much easier to ignore.

We have been experimenting in work-from-home recently, switching from a work-in-office only setup.

Work from home has a lot of ambiguity unless you are doing support (which you can do from anywhere). When you are working on long term projects its important for everyone to know what you are up-to, else people might thing you are goofing off.

To fix this, we sync up once a month where everyone demos what they have been doing for the month. So short term activity is evaluated by responses to customer, commits, chatrooms and long term activity is evaluated on "demo day".

We just had our first "demo day": http://erpnext.com/demo-day---june.html

(disclaimer: we are a really small team of 3 devs + 1 support + 1 admin)

That seems like it only applies to WidgetFactories and not FilmCrews.

Read more here; http://programmers.stackexchange.com/a/45814

I wouldn't make my career in a WidgetFactory anyway.

That seems like it only applies to WidgetFactories and not FilmCrews.


This is the advice I recieved from an old supervisor who was known around the world for the quality and depth of her research.

1. It doesn't matter how hard you work but how hard people think you're working. If the door is shut and you're working all night you're only hurting yourself as people will fail to give you the recognition you deserve. Work hard, but make your hard work known.

2. You don't have to be intelligent to create great research. You can buy intelligence (and equipment etc) etc. What you need is imagination, organisation, motivation and an ability to network.

I think it all depends on the overall setup of the company/team. If you are the odd one out telecommuting, then yes, issues arise.

But, anecdotal evidence to the rescue, here is my personal experience:

I work for a US-headquartered software company. I live in Austria. I lead a product team. My team members live in France and Germany. We all telecommute. We see each other in front of clients or at organized internal events. The rest is done through various online solutions.

Everyone is on equal footing. I, as a manager, am a telecommuter myself. I can relate, understand how to measure performance as I am measured this way myself.

Do I have a disadvantage against the colleagues in the US HQ? Absolutely, but they cannot do my job as I cover Europe. Which is fine. My team has no drawback.

And yes, by now, I am a strong advocate of tele-work for knowledge workers. A lot of reasons, but often overlooked is the ecological one. I actually use my home more. I don't have a separate office that sits around empty (still heated/ac'ed) for non-working hours. I don't waste energy hauling my physical presence back and forth to work. And yes, my company saves a metric ton of money on office space savings.

This reminds me of an incident I had with a former employer. It was xmas break and I was at home the final week (xmas to new years). I spent about 75% of my time working.

When I got back I was accused of taking "10 days off." He counted the Saturday I left to the Sunday before I got back. By that logic, I often took 2 days off a week.

Anyway, even after I told him I was working during that time he still said "this wasn't the end of it." When I told him he was overly sensitive to face time he seemed to want to just deny reality.

Sounds like your boss is just an asshole, really.

It's not an either / or situation - it can be 'and'. I work from home 2-3 days a week, and I'm in the office the other days (and that includes days I do for 'credibility', i.e. I go in, say hi to everyone, work all day in my office, then say bye again when I leave - might as well be at home those days, but I realise sometimes it's necessary just to turn up for the sake of it). If there is 'pure' technical work to be done, it's more efficient working from home. For one, you save time on the commute. My manager gets check-in updates (via Assembla), and we can talk via the phone or via email. I can provide updated staging builds for him to download and test too, if necessary. If you have a reasonable manager, a reasonable employee, good tools, and can balance in / out of office days, then the situation can be a big 'win' for everybody. More work gets done, there's enough 'face time', and it's far less stressful.

I believe this article is missing the point. When you're physically present at the office, you get plenty of opportunities to have conversations with different people and voice your opinion, revealing your thought patterns, values and abilities. These often complement and boost people's observations of you during actual assigned work.

This effect is not about "passive face time" or merely people seeing that you're there from a distance. It is about plugging into the whole environment in the office - which is what you need your leaders to be good at.

Taking it further, a bunch of great happenstance opportunities really come up by being in the right place at the right time talking to the right people hitting the right chords. You will never stumble upon these opportunities if you're constantly away, chucking away at your "assigned" duties.

There's nothing magical about proximity. It's all just a question of sufficiently high-bandwidth, low-friction communication.

There's no getting around our monkey brains' desire to see other people's faces and bond with them. But that's just a technical problem: high quality video that starts instantly, or that is always on, provides the same stimulus. The fact that most remote workers don't have that kind of setup just shows why we're not quite there yet.

So the problems with remote work that people discuss endless are not problems with remote work per se. They're problems with our nascent, not-quite-good-enough-yet tools for remote work. But the tools are getting better really fast.

I guess it depends what sort of track you're trying to get promoted in. If you're trying to get a raise and continue to be an individual contributor (i.e. not manage anyone) then I don't think WFH should really be an issue.

However, if you do want to become a lead and have reports then I think it makes perfect sense to promote those that go into the office. I personally would never want to report to someone who consistently works from home if I'm going into the office.

There's a difference between kissing ass and having a good relationship with your boss. A human relationship flourishes with actual proximity.

I work remotely, but make it into the office every couple of weeks. I had already worked with this team for two years prior to making this arrangement, so the managers and I know each other well. However, it does seem the new folks on the team (and one or two of the old ones) treat me with some suspicion. I'm the sole developer on this project, so the "12 engineers in front of a whiteboard" thing does not apply.

Anyway, I'm happier for not having to spend three hours commuting each day, and if Lines of Code is any judge (I know, I know), I'm an order of magnitude more productive.

I guess it depends on the company.

If you telework only part of the week, I think you have a clear advantage since the telework days are when you actually get stuff done!

If you telework full-time but you still have colleagues that show-up then there may be some bias as the article shows and people need to be aware of it.

Another solution to this problem is to have the entire company work remotely. Not sure how well this scales, but for a small company such as ours it seems to be the best solution.

Working from home limits your opportunities to kiss ass

So this applies if your manager/team is in another city/timezone? Ironically, I got my first promotion and biggest bonus as the only NY member of a London-based team. However, I certainly wondered whether being the lone wolf in my region was good for my career in the long run.

I can't speak of other jobs, but developers shouldn't care about raises and promotions, because if they are in an organization where those matter, there are going to be non-technical ladder climbers who will promote each other and take all the money allocated for raises. The only real choices for developers are a) start a business b) job hop c) work at valve. 360-degree evaluations are a farce because these evaluations just go directly to one or more non-technical manager to 'help' with their decisions on advancement and raises. It's lip service. If you don't have a budget and hiring authority, all you really have is the ability to quit, and the wealthiest developers hop often. In instances where developers become too powerful and high up on the tech ladder they are going to be given fancy titles and isolated anyways, so why not work from home?

This has to be one of the more ridiculous things I've read on HN recently. I (or any other developer) shouldn't be care about getting raises? Why exactly? There are lots of plenty of good places to work not called Valve that don't suffer over-politicalization

I think I made it very clear why you shouldn't care. If developers don't have any power in deciding who gets raises, developers are not likely to get raises. Are you going to work 80 hour a week in the office hoping for a promotion like an idiot year after year so you can get 3% instead of 1%? No, you're going to go across town and get 15%. If you disagree that's fine, but by and large this is my experience.

Some companies give real raises (15% or more) to their developers.

All this assuming the majority of other employees or managers don't work remotely too.

I was going to go on this tangent as well, but the article and the comments are focusing on teams that do mostly work in offices.

Signal is signal and noise is noise. A bias towards passive face time is embracing noise and will reduce the ability to execute.

Forget this. I'm not reading this hogwash.

Look, make working outside a practical consideration. I need the sun, not shoddy impressionist artwork, not another goddamn water cooler. I want to pull my drink from a nearby stream and then commit my bug.

Get out of my face with your goddamn ugly buildings and their ugly interiors. My code is ugly enough without having to deal with in-building noise and 'in-office' politics.

I just do not understand. We're at the point now where all of our commit messages are on display. How could anyone seriously argue:

"Our findings suggest that remote workers might be further handicapped by perceptions that they are not as responsible or committed as other employees. To avoid such unfair perceptions, managers who implement telecommuting and flexible hours should revise their performance appraisals to measure mostly objective outputs, such as number and type of projects completed or expert evaluations of project quality."

Rather, we're _already_ doing this. Check the commit logs. Obviously one can make trait-inferences based on commit logs. If one can infer a "life story model" from a Facebook profile, one can infer a "worker commitment model" from a github profile.

And "... remote workers might be ..."? Seriously? This is the kind of argument coming from MIT? Look, I'm not going to argue the difference between a theory-might-be-true and a theory-is-probably-true. Nor will I argue that they're _just_ working with theories, the just-theory argument. I don't want to bore you to death, but you obviously don't need _evidence_ to corroborate a claim that _might_ be true. I mean, c'mon... A lot of "findings" might be true. That said, who's to say their explanation establishes any causal connection at all. All sorts of things lead to the perception of lack of commitment, but most notably, that someone fails to perform unit tests, or doesn't document, etc. -- but "hallway conversations"? This presupposes that the content of the conversation is even contextualized by the work itself that is to be done. I mean, with such a "finding" there are an infinite number of provisional assumptions which can be thrown in, when there's already a perfect focal point for determining commitment, etc. -- again, the commit(ment) logs.

Is this just bad writing, or am I missing something?

Gotta love how the comments here have datapoints than the whole study the article mentions

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