The Remote Worker

It's great to be able to work from home. The Internet gives us a great deal of flexibility to do that. What with webcams, voice over IP, email and IM, we're almost as connected as when we work in the company office. In fact, even in an office, we usually just IM'd each other anyways. No need to get up from your desk to see if something is done.

And yet, many companies are reluctant to allow their employees work from home on a regular or semi-regular basis. I was quite surprised to see a job posting for Happy Cog, headed by Jeffrey Zeldman, require the person to be able to work on-site.

Some say that working in an office is more efficient but is that true or simply perception? A study over six years ago, before many of the conveniences that we have today, showed 87 percent of employees had a positive or very positive impact on the quality of work.

As a freelancer, I rarely see my clients face-to-face and while it hasn't been without its own challenges, it's worked out extremely well. Very few of my clients are here within the city and those that are, I've only seen them a couple times.

With well-defined requirements and the slew of technology at our fingertips, is there a need to be able to work on-site anymore?

Published March 22, 2007
Categorized as Business
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Chris Huff said on March 22, 2007

I used to think that meeting face-to-face with clients was actually a waste of time. I thought that if you could do all your correspondence via email, IM, or phone, you had to potential to be much more efficient. I was wrong.

I think that while the face-to-face meeting isn't essential, it is helpful. Getting to know your client (and possibly more important for them to trust you, letting them get to know you) is essential. If you can do that over the Internet, great. I think most people can't. So for them, the face-to-face meet probably is essential.

As far as home vs. office productivity, it probably varies from person to person. I personally don't work well at all until I've gotten all my 'play' out of my system.

Kevin Marino said on March 22, 2007

The thought that your are more productive in the office is most likely a fallacy for most. Myself, I enjoy my coworkers, but the chatter and other stuff take time away.

Recently I read a study that said it usually takes 5 minutes or more to get back on track when interupted. I find that true when I am in deep thought over a complex programming issue.

At this point I think most of the arguments for on-site are not valid, that said being highly available during operation hours and being willing to travel at a moments notice are paramount.

Meeting client face to face once in a while is also a good thing as it increases the bond especially during those times when stress is high (deadlines, comptetion trying to get your client).

The thing is we need more non-empirical evidence to show employers it is ok.

Peter Baker said on March 22, 2007

I think it depends. Visual designing can benefit greatly from face to face collaboration; sketching things out, hand gestures, etc. Programming and design production, the heads-down part of the job, I'd say is best done with as few interuptions as possible.

I've been fully home-based for almost two years and I wouldn't think of going back, even with the "Shining" effect, where you start talking to dead bartenders and drinking invisible bourbon, which can definitely effect the productivity level.

J Phill said on March 22, 2007

I am definitely more productive when I'm in my own environment. I often IM my co-workers more than I talk to them face to face. As far as meeting, there's nothing that a conference canll can't handle.

It might be different for creative groups doing all design work, but as a developer, it's not essential to me to be in an office environment.

Jonathan E said on March 22, 2007

I don't work from home very often, but I've found that when I do I can usually get more done in a shorter amount of time than if I was in the office. Part of it depends on your home-office 'setup," but working from home almost eliminates the day-to-day office distractions that can really slow productivity.

Unfortunately though, not being in the office presents its own issues altogether. I think your last paragraph states it perfectly though:

With well-defined requirements and the slew of technology at our fingertips, is there a need to be able to work on-site anymore?

I would say that there isn't really a need, as long as (and I strongly emphasize) the requirements are well-defined.

Philip Arthur Moore said on March 22, 2007

I believe it's a case-by-case basis when it comes to different people. Requirements or no requirements, if someone isn't able to work "unmonitored", in their own environment, then working in an office is probably better for them.

On the other hand, I do my best work when I am alone in my own home. IM's, telephone calls, and Skype are just seconds away from my fingertips. Why would I want to waste the time showering, getting dressed, and driving to a remote location to meet with a client if we can do all of that by telecommunications?

It seems like there are tons of web designers, developers, and programmers who just don't want to be bothered with when there is work to be done. I understand the need for group meetings but 99% of what gets discussed in meetings can be handled through email. And the other 1% isn't anything that a phone call or a fax can't handle.

Thomas Messier said on March 22, 2007

I work from home and I think that I'm at least equally as productive, and probably more. Face-to-face meetings can be helpful depending on the project, but I think you can usually get away with not having any.

Ian said on March 22, 2007

Hehe, all of the comments posted here are from people who have/are working from home (myself included).

I agree that yes it's good but like J mentioned, it's not without it's issues.

I also know of a few people that just couldn't work from home. They don't have the (for lack of a better term) self control to get up, sit down for x hours and finish for the day.

Personally, I wouldn't trade it for anything. In fact I turned down a job the other day for about 3x the amount I'm earning now because I didn't want to work from an office.

Dave said on March 22, 2007

A good balance of working at home, even keeping your own hours, providing you have the discipline to get the work done, and showing your face in the office once in a while is ideal and think/hope it will become an increasing trend in the industry.

As has been already mentioned, a lot of it is down to being able to convince employers that it is good for all involved. I personally think it adds to morale and gives me a feeling of trust from my employer which in tern makes me want to be trustworthy, Fewer distractions from everything that goes on in an office on a daily basis including general socialising and chatting, makes me way more productive. It is nice to see other humans once in a while too, you can only talk to the dog for so long! I suppose it depends on each individuals values/philosophy and whether or not management is prepared to buy into "employment 2.0" ...sorry ;)

Dan Mall said on March 22, 2007

I'll politely disagree with the majority of comments here. While I definitely see the value in uninterrupted production work, I feel like conceptual brainstorming is a dish best served collaboratively. Designing a layout or programming some JavaScript is easily a one-person task, but creative direction is much tougher to nail down by yourself. Not to bash freelancing, but I feel like that's a big part of what's missing from the independent designer's/developer's skillset, my own freelance work being at the top of that list. At Happy Cog, that's a huge part of what makes our work unique amidst a wealth of talented web folks.

Jermayn Parker said on March 22, 2007

Benefits of working at an office is that you can leave the work behind for the day which is handy when you have a problem that is causing some gray hairs.

I personally prefer to work at home for a number of reasons as you stated plus also the fact that you can choose your own hours, wear your pjs, have lunch/ eat when ever and also if you have kids/ wife spend some time with them.

I find that normally I am more effective at home but that required discipline and time management skills as a lot of the time you can get caught up playing. Like someone else mentioned, I play first (btw this is personal emails etc) and then get into work.

I think it all depends on the person as I know some people that require the boss looking over their shoulder all the time.

George said on March 23, 2007

I agree but I like to try and meet client and people if possible. They say that a large percentage of human communication is non-verbal so even if you can meet them once I think it is worth it.

Olly said on March 23, 2007

I struggle with this one.

I'd love to be able to work at home. Thing is, on the rare opportunities I get to do so, I really struggle to focus. There's just too many distractions. I think I'd also find it quite a lonely experience (and I know others who have).

Peter Flaschner said on March 23, 2007

I think it comes down to the management style of the business owner. It's less about how much work you can do working remotely, and more about can your manager comfortably perform his/her duties without you physically in his/her space

Jonathan Snook said on March 23, 2007

@Dan Mall: the question is not collaboration vs isolation but rather in person vs online. Considering all the technology that we have available like Skype and screen sharing, can collaboration happen just as effectively?

Patrick said on March 23, 2007

Face-to-face collaboration is essential for creating remarkable work. It's even more essential with right-brain driven work and work that doesn't simply consist of a to-do list. Not all communication is written or verbal, and if we are simply reduced to phone or IM we are missing a great deal of information that can be received when everyone is in the mix.

There are times when working from home is acceptable and will not take away from the quality of the work. If there is no need for a rapid fire exchange of ideas, or if one is simply running through a list of tasks that needs to be completed, then that's fine.

Bottom line the face-to-face group collaborative is essential when it comes to creation and invention. People get more done, and come up with things they wouldn't be able to do with IM, phone, et. al.

Josh said on March 23, 2007

I couldn't disagree more with Patrick. Or rather couldn't disagree more with his "all or nothing" mentality on creativity.

I did my time at an interactive agency where coworkers and collaboration abounded.

Since then, I've spent the last year and a half working at home with no coworkers and rarely even meeting clients face-to-face. In that time I've done some of my most creative work...ever.

To say that creation and invention can only exist in face-to-face, group collaboration environment is just plain ignorant.

Patrick said on March 23, 2007

Went working in a open and productive environment, however, the project will almost always benefit. Knew ideas are expressed, and answers revealed that simply can't come across otherwise.

When working as the sole person on a project as you've described in your post, there really is no need for the face-to-face encounter. Everything is coming from you own head.

Of course people can be creative and inventive on their own. In fact, an individual's own brainstorming process is key to the creative process. It's coming to the table when other ideas can spark.

But, Josh, calling someone ignorant because of their point-of-view is very harsh. It sheds some light on why you probably didn't achieve much in a collaborative effort. I doubt people would even want you in the building.

Dan Mall said on March 23, 2007

Jonathan Snook: I think a similar conclusion can be drawn. I don't believe that collaboration is only what a person says. Inspiration can come from seeing how people react, how they look, their body language, which are all things that can't currently happen in virtual collaboration.

Josh: You're right: creativity in regards to collaboration is certainly not an "all or nothing" requirement. However, in isolation, you're basically drawing upon your own experiences to shape your work. In a group, others' experiences can influence or inspire you to create something that you may not have been capable of on your own.

Josh said on March 23, 2007

Patrick: You hit the nail on the head. People hate me...absolutely hate me and I have no friends. That's exactly why I "didn't achieve much." /end sarcasm

Spare me.

Dan: That's what I think people aren't taking into consideration. "Group" doesn't necessarily mean an office full of desks. "Group" can be a portfolio online, an IM, an email...a billion different things.

I completely agree that being in a room with other people is quite beneficial and I certainly miss it from a social aspect as well as a "hey come take a look at this" aspect. But I'll stand my ground against comments like "face-to-face group collaborative is essential when it comes to creation and invention"...implying that those things can't happen if you aren't with other people in a room.

Jack Keller said on March 23, 2007

I tried once to help my employer realize my potential for productivity while working at home. Gave them a week at my cube, then a week at my home. I even figured up the productivity and put it to a pie chart, as they so loved. My offsite work was 37% more productive, and costing less in overhead than me sitting at my desk there. When all was said and done, they just liked me being where they could keep an eye on me... Sometimes logic and business will never cross paths.

Johan said on March 24, 2007

Some people work alone better than in company (no pun intended). And vice versa.

Working in seperate rooms can offer less distraction. Your co-worker is just around the corner, when you need to know something.

It depends also on the sort of people you have to work with, and the number of people. And project managers looking cosntantly over your shoulder, it can be distracting as well.

Johan said on March 24, 2007

In my 1st remark I also did emphasize the *solo vs working with many* issue. It certainly influences the way we work, thus also remote work.

To answer Jon' Snook:

Technology is no answer to all project management issues. It depends whether you are coding or creating visual stuff for sure. And how well the tech stuff is designed to what you need to communicate with clients and co-workers.

The productivity of both programmer and designer cannot be measured equally in time.

It is a consensus between both and the overall project milestones achieved.

Mark said on March 24, 2007

>>>With well-defined requirements and the slew of technology at our fingertips, is there a need to be able to work on-site anymore?

There's no reason to plan 5 days of every week of your life around planting yourself in a seat for 9 hours a day. Well-defined, purposeful meetings are a good idea, as is personal space that is conducive to your best efforts and the ability to work when inspired.

Of course, if your workplace includes people who can't be trusted with that degree of freedom, you're subject to policy based on that, or getting special treatment. In either case, it doesn't sound like your team is all that cohesive.

There are parts of the process that are collaborative; there are roles that require being available when something comes up. When it comes to technology, there's a reason we use source control: coding is typically an independent process. Review, planning, analysis can be collaborative, but it's really hard to sit and get a module working when bombarded with overhead conversation and requests and emerging priorities. I'd argue that when it comes time to sit and actually produce meaningful comps or layouts, the same applies.

The biggest determining factor is process. Do you have a process that supports people having time to do the work in an environment that works best for them? Or do you expect people to magically produce the best results while sitting outside your office door, on hand for you to shift priorities or interrupt their efforts with one-offs.

WD Milner said on March 24, 2007

A big factor is also the type of work under discussion. Some professions and areas of endeavour are more efficiently done in an office and/or group environment others that require little or only occasional input can easily be accomodated by a solitary worker with the right tools.

Office or business workplace also offers a place for social interaction with other people, even if minimal in many cases.

At the same time, it is always nice to have one's home and personal life seperate from one's business and professional life - though that is a concept that seems to be rapidly disappearing expecially in North American society where work is becoming an end in and of itself, rather than a process to a particular goal.

That said I have done both, and persoanlly prefer a mix of home-based and office based. Done right it can provide the best of both worlds.

Patrick said on March 25, 2007

Excellent point Jason... a lot of companies will micromanage and simply have a hard time trusting the people on their team.. it's such a backwards mentality, IMHO.

At our company the management backs off, but in turn it shifts a lot of the responsibility back to the designers and developers to manage their time. Deadlines are what's emphasized and nobody HAS to work in the office all the time. There are those mandatory in-house moment for creative meetings, kickoffs, and other major milestones, weekly progress meetings... more like a touch stone. They won't even take from vacation if you just don't feel like being there all day. All they'll ask is, "Are you on track? Can you hit the deadline without hurting the quality if you leave." If we say yes then their cool with it - no other questions.

Plenty of people here choose to split their time in and out of the office depending on where they feel they'll be most productive at the time.

People in our company have left because at the end of the day they simply didn't want that kind of responsibility. Overall, however, our experience has been very positive.

Patrick said on March 25, 2007

Sorry not Jason.. Jack Keller. :)

anon said on March 25, 2007

I look forward to the day where web 2.0 "developers" realize that there's already a rich body of information available on software engineering.

Telecommuting makes it very hard to create a "jelled team" as does it make it hard to leverage agile methodologies, which clearly state:

"The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation"

It's funny that you (a) quote a study written at the height of the internet bubble, (b) write about this without mentioning the effect on the TEAM and (c) actually think such a thing as "well-defined requirements" exist.

You obviously aren't very agile.

Jonathan Snook said on March 25, 2007

@anon (don't be afraid to stand up for your comments, btw): I think there's a distinction between the production teams behind the majority of the web sites built today and large-scale software development. Face-to-face is certainly a huge factor in the latter (where multiple developers work on interdependent code) but I'd say less of a factor in the former (where in my experience, much of the development is fairly isolated).

Now to address the points you found so amusing:

a) I specifically chose something that was older because it's interesting that after 6 years and the advancements in technology, that this is still a large concern for so many people.

b) You raise an interesting point here (and would have been great to hear you expand on it instead of being snarky, although I inferred some thoughts). Certainly in a team that is already well established in a central office, the idea of one person working from home might throw off that team dynamic. In situations where the team is spread out to begin with, I'd suspect this to be a non-issue.

c) Again, "well-defined" is relative, especially in comparison to the size of the project. I sense that you come from a software development background with large teams and large projects which certainly makes "well-defined" harder to hit. Also, what's well-defined at the start may quickly change mid-way through the project depending on the client's needs.

You say I'm not agile like it's an insult of the highest order. But working remotely doesn't negate the other factors of agile development and I don't believe it prevents face-to-face communication (even if it's literally face-to-face with a webcam).

Erin Kissane said on March 27, 2007

I see I'm a bit late to this party, but here's my tuppence: it's all about the people involved. Some teams thrive on face-to-face contact, and a lot of people just aren't as happy working by themselves in a room, even with Skype, et cetera. Other teams hang together extremely well despite the fact that they're in different places.

As an example, the Happy Cog New York crew works as a virtual office and we work together beautifully despite the fact that some of us (me, for one) are 2,000 miles from NYC. For us, face-to-face collaboration really isn't essential because of the individuals involved and the way our communication styles mesh. The Philly Cogs, on the other hand, work on-site and do great work and seem to really enjoy working together. I can't imagine them working any other way. A List Apart is produced and edited and illustrated by people in New York, Philly, Portland, and Boston -- not to mention Canada and Australia.

It depends on the people.

Adenrele said on April 13, 2007

In my part of the world (I live and work in Nigeria), working from Home is not a big part of the culture yet. I have always thought that I would be more efficient working at home, but I guess one of the reasons given is that proper expectations or deliverables are not set out.
However, I also know that I cannot conclude so easily that everyone would work best from home. I have worked with some chaps who, given that opportunity to work from home will not deliver anything to the company.... so I guess it depends on the people, maybe even the type of work.

Digital Street said on June 16, 2007

It depends: on the person and the kind of work you actually do.
You have to be a person with self control and the hability to be productive at home.

Music Man said on June 18, 2007


well i work at home, and at the beginning was very difficult to be productive, i mean i was 16 when i started on internet, and i had all kinds of distraction around (starting with my bed behind me and a lot of hours to sleep).

But then i commit myself with my work, what was the key?, well actually i like the job, i think that's the key to be productive.

Artem said on August 07, 2007

Absolutely agree with your thoughts. Internet is giving us a magin opportunity to be independent from anyone except yourself.

Sorry, comments are closed for this post. If you have any further questions or comments, feel free to send them to me directly.