Don’t call it a comeback (working remotely)
Remote working has existed for centuries. And now is the perfect time for it’s comeback.
Before and after the Revolution
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, goods were manufactured by contracting individual craftsmen who worked out of their homes. The merchant would drum up sales, and would coordinate the production with at-home sub-contractors.
Even back then, home working was popular because it gave people more freedom:
The domestic system was suited to pre-urban times because workers did not have to travel from home to work which was quite impracticable due to the state of roads and footpaths. Workers had some flexibility to balance farm and household chores with [this other] work.
– Wikipedia, Putting-out system, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Putting-out_system
This all changed with the Industrial Revolution: production was centralized in factories and cities. For merchant capitalists, this made sense: it was cheaper and more efficient to produce goods in one place, with machinery.
The Information Age came, but work didn’t change
We’ve been in the Information Age for at least 25 years. We’ve made huge leaps in technology. Many of us would describe ourselves as Knowledge Workers: we don’t work in factories, we work at desks in front of glowing screens. We don’t make goods with physical materials, but rather things made out of bits. The great thing about bits + the internet is that the materials and means needed for production aren’t dependent on location.
But here’s the funny thing: the way work is organized hasn’t changed. Despite all these advances, most of us still work in central offices. Employees leave their computer-equipped homes, and drive long distrances to work at computer-equipped offices.
It’s management that’s broken
CEOs, like Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer and Apple’s Steve Jobs, think that a central office fosters more innovation and productivity. I think they’re wrong. We’re still early in the research, but recent studies seem to dispute their claim.
Studies and data aside, we know, at least anecdotally, that distributed teams can create tremendous innovation. Automattic created the world’s most popular publishing platform. 37signals helped create a programming framework that powers “tens of thousands of applications”. At both companies, the majority of their employees work remotely (or have the option to do so).
It’s not remote working that’s broken, it’s management habits that needs to change.
Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.
– Jackie Reses, Head of HR, Yahoo
Managers have developed centuries worth of habits based on the central workplace. The hallmarks of office work (meetings, cubicle workstations, colocation) need to be seen for what they are: traditions we’ve kept alive since the Industrial Revolution. We need to question these institutions: are they really more innovative and efficient?
To succeed, we’ll need some practice
To give remote working an honest chance, there needs to be a paradigm shift. Managers need to practice new ways of organizing people, and producing results. Individual employees need a chance to practice self-management, taking initiative, and collaborating online. Developing new habits takes time and commitment.
What does success look like? Taking millions of cars off the road, because people no longer need to commute. Reducing stress and improving the mental health of employees. And ultimately, increasing innovation and producing better products (as shown by platforms like WordPress and Ruby on Rails).
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Telecommuting Creates Happier and More Productive Employees
Why remote workers are more engaged
Inside AutomatticPublished on February 23, 2013
A VIKA BYSKE standing desk
It’s been almost 2 years since I built my standing desk at work. I built it with parts available from IKEA:
- VIKA AMON tabletop – $49 (you could also use the VIKA BYSKE tabletop)
- VIKA BYSKE adjustable legs – $20 x 4 (these go to a maximum height of 42 inches. I’m 5’8″ and I keep mine at 41 inches)
- HUGO bar stool – $119 (no longer available. The GLENN bar stool is similar and cheaper)
- From Amazon: Anti-fatigue mat $25 (a rubber mat for standing on to reduce fatigue)
Why I switched to a standing desk
I didn’t switch to this setup because I wanted to stand all day; rather I wanted to avoid sitting all day. With my standing desk, I can choose multiple working positions: standing, leaning, sitting, standing with one foot up, etc… When you sit, you’re limited to one posture; when you stand, you have more flexibility.
Furthermore, there are health benefits to a standing desk: studies have shown that sitting at a desk all day causes a number of health problems, and that folks who use standing desks burn more calories.
A review of my experience; 2 years after switching to a standing desk
It’s been great, and I’m not going back. I genuinely have more energy with this set-up. I find I’m able to maintain my focus throughout a full workday.
I also feel less stuck. When I was sitting, I would continue sitting, even if I wasn’t accomplishing anything productive. Now, if I find myself stagnating, I can step away and do something else: I go make a pot of coffee, or do some stretches.
The VIKA BYSKE set-up is not for everyone. First: you’ll have to be fairly short to use the legs (they have a max length of 42″). Second: the table can be quite wobbly if it’s not anchored to the wall (see a video of me shaking my desk here).
Why some people quit; and how you can avoid it
I know a lot of people that made the switch, but quit shortly after. If you’re going to switch: be prepared for a transition period. There are 3 keys to success at the beginning:
- Purchase an anti-fatigue mat and a bar stool. Don’t skip this step!
- Take it easy: don’t try to stand the whole day! Use the bar stool to sit and lean on, and give your legs a break.
- Raise your monitor off the desk. Again: I’m 5’8 tall. My desk is 42 1/4″ high. I raise my monitors an additional 6-7 inches off my desk. Here’s a good diagram.
Things I’ve quit doing at my desk
We need to think of our desks as workstations.
In reality, we do all sorts of things at our desks that aren’t real work (or affect our ability to produce our best work).
Here are things I’m trying to quit doing at my desk:
- Thinking: Nobody does their best thinking sitting at their desk. When you reflect on your biggest “Ah-Ha!” moments, how many of them occurred while you were staring at a screen? If you’re like me, your best thinking happens when you’re not at your desk: taking a walk, going and asking another person for help, drinking a coffee, in the shower. Your desk is for executing; do your thinking elsewhere.
- Socializing: When I sit down at my desk, I want to be in work mode. I want to prioritize my most important tasks, and then complete them with the fastest velocity possible. Socializing while I’m at my desk sullies the purity of the workstation. This is why the water cooler is actually a brilliant social construct: when you want to hang out, you can get up from your workstation and go to the socialstation. I think every office should have a socialstation, a place (or time in the morning) where team members can hang out, and talk informally.
- Procrastinating: Check Facebook, check Twitter, go on YouTube, check email, mindlessly read blog posts. I think that breaks, and downtime, are important in a work day. But again: I think maintaing the purity of my desk as a place where I work is important. If I need some “mindless” time, I think it’s better to walk away from my desk and have a place and time limit where I do that. It’s also important that we catch ourselves when procrastinating and ask ourselves: “Why?” Are we procrastinating because we’re tired? Hungry? Bored? Are we stuck on a problem? Are we just feeling lethargic and need to get up and move around? Figure out what’s at the source of your mindless net browsing, and deal with the problem.
- Sitting: for the past 18 months I’ve been using a standing desk. I’ve realized that the best part isn’t that I’m standing all day; it’s that I’m not sitting. A standing desk allows you to stand, sit, lean, and put one leg up while you’re at your workstation. Even better, I’ve felt more freedom to just walk away when I’m faced with a problem and need to do some thinking (or when I’m tired and need a break).
Many writers maintain a private writing hut. The hut has one purpose: it’s the place they go to write. They don’t do anything else there. Once they can’t write any more, they go do something else. I think we need to think of our desks in the same way: these are places where we get work done.
What do you think?
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Discuss this post on Designer News.Published on September 16, 2012
Where would you rather work: 37signals or Zappos?
I took both of these shots: the photo of 37signals was taken when I visited in 2010, and the picture at Zappos from my recent visit in early 2012.
My latest visit reminded me of Ryan Carson’s post that compared photos he’d seen from both offices. He wondered which approach was better, in terms of developing happy employees. Here are my thoughts, having spent an entire day at both companies.
(more…)Published on February 17, 2012
I worked a day at 37signals, and I liked it
Recently 37signals opened their new office. It’s beautiful and functional… [but] I now believe Zappos’ chaotic and messy offices are much more effective at promoting happiness and innovation. – Ryan Carson, Think Vitamin blog post
In February, Ryan Carson of Carsonified wrote a post that compared photos from two offices: 37signals and Zappos. His conclusion was that the flamboyant Zappos office produced happier employees.
This was timely for me; in November I was in Chicago and was invited to spend the day at the 37signals office. Jason Fried gave me a tour, I spent time hanging out with the team, and I had the opportunity to do some of my own work in the office.
(more…)Published on June 5, 2011