Teleworking, the ups and downs.

I started teleworking in September 2003. I live in Edinburgh, and the startup which I joined was 400 miles away in Bristol. I accepted the job despite the geographical difficulties because it meant I could work in an area which really interests me – making better developer tools.

Three months later and I’ve left the job. These three months have given me a pretty good lesson in the good and bad aspects of teleworking. Three months ago I had lots of questions, like “will this work?”. Three months later, I have some of the answers. If you’re considering a teleworking job then I hope this article will provide some things to think about.

There’s lots of details below, but if there’s one big lesson which I’ve taken away from this experience, it’s that it’s better to regret something you did, than to regret something you didn’t do. Carpe diem. I am glad I had the opportunity to try this. To try it was the the right thing and, in the end, I did the right things by leaving the job.

I left my job at Voxar after five years to join a small developer tools company based in Bristol. If they’d been based nearby in Edinburgh, I wouldn’t have hesitated to take the job. However, they were at the other side of the country 400 miles away. While large parts of the job could be done remotely, it was clear that I’d need to travel to the office every two weeks for a couple of days of design meetings and general “team stuff”. I was nervous about taking this on because I didn’t know how it’d work out in the long-term. However, trying it was the only way to find out the answer!

Having worked in a hot stuffy office for five years, I was excited by the prospect of working from home. I could sit out in my back garden when it was sunny. When it was cold and rainy, I didn’t have to go out and travel to work. I could play thundering music if I felt like it, and I’d have quiet to concentrate when I wanted. I could wander out to coffee shops and work from there for a bit. Maybe this was the way of the future! Imagine an end to commuting and traffic jams. Imagine a future where people can flexibly schedule their work life and their home life so that they can spend more time with their children, or cook meals rather than reheating takeaway. I think that our societies’ way of working need to be reappraised. Surely we can produce basic goods more efficiently than a century ago? Why am I reading news reports which say that the average person in the UK is working longer hours than ever? Maybe teleworking and homeworking was a step into a Brave New World.

Having occasionally homeworked whilst at Voxar, I knew that I could motivate myself easily. Lots of people said if they worked from home, they’d “never get out of bed”. It was never a problem for me. I was going to be working in an area which really interested me. Also, when things are going well, I enjoy working hard. When things are not going so well, I usually notice quickly and take steps to remedy whatever is causing me problems.

But, on the other hand, I would be working on my own for long periods of time. Voxar was a very sociable place to work, and a lot of the best ideas emerged during informal discussions by the kettle. The idea of being on my own all day long wasn’t very attractive. I was aware that this was a potential problem area, and resolved to make a conscious effort to avoid becoming a hermit.

Finally, I knew that I’d have to travel up and down to Bristol. When I worked at Voxar, it took about 30 minutes to travel between my flat and the office. That added up to about 10 hours travelling every fortnight. The distances were greater at the new job, but I only had to travel once a fortnight. Getting to Bristol takes about 5 hours. So, on paper it looked like I wasn’t actually spending much more time travelling that I had been doing already.

Enough of the narrative. Here’s the big list of lessons.

1. Your home is your office. Your office is your home.

My partner and I have a one-bedroom flat. It’s a lovely flat, but the living room is the only credible “office space”. At first I didn’t think this would be much of a problem. I planned to work from coffee shops at least some of the time, and my other half is studying at University and is out at lectures or studying much of the time.

It wasn’t a very good theory though – it was too simplistic. In practise, “home = office” turned out to be a problem. It didn’t actually cause arguments, but I often felt that I was imposing on her by turning the “relaxing area” of our flat into an office. If she had a day off, or came home early, it wasn’t easy to just veg on front of the TV or blast some music, since I was still trying to concentrate in the same room.

If you’re away working in office all day, you’re probably not very aware of how your home is used during the day. And remember that there’s “typical” days, and “atypical” days such as holidays and days where people are ill, or you have visitors for a few days. If you’re going to be working from home, you’ll have to eventually deal with all these eventualities.

- Where will you work area be?
- How is your work area affected if other people are on holiday? Or ill?

2. You’re not in the same room as your workmates

Some of the hardest problems I know are those caused by communication between humans. Working on your own is very different from working in an office environment. Again, it’s not just the obvious things such as “you can’t talk to people so easily”. In a way, the obvious things are easiest to deal with because you expect them. The unexpected things are harder, because you only notice them when things start going wrong.

It is important to maintain a feeling of being part of a team. I found that using IRC to stay in contact with other developers was a big help. Email isn’t so good because there can be big delays in the conversation, and you don’t have any “are you there?” feedback like on IRC or IM. IRC also provides the background chatter which is a surprisingly useful flow of information. You get to know what people are working on and thinking about without requiring any formal “What is everyone working on?” meetings.

I really enjoyed the random conversations which I had with people when I was working in an office. You get thrown together with a bunch of people with fairly different backgrounds, and you can learn so much from them. When you’re on your own, you risk losing that whole storytelling side of things. Again, IRC helps a bit.

The biggest problem I encountered was one of “social roles”. We were basically a new development team who’d never worked together. If we’d been in the same room, we’d have gradually worked out who was the jokey one, who was the serious one, who only spoke when they were very sure, and who tended to just think aloud. Instead, we communicated mainly by emails and chatrooms and it was hard to establish these kind of roles. When you read an email from someone, you take into account what you know about them before you decide on the meaning of the email. If you don’t know them very well, you’re likely to misinterpret the intended meaning of emails, which leads to social disasters.

I think my Voxar team (who’d worked together for years) could’ve easily started teleworking without problems, because we’d already established these social roles. But, if you start teleworking without resolving these social roles, you’re in for a rocky ride.

If you’re the only teleworker, you need to ensure that your collegues know to make an extra effort to stay in touch and include you in discussions. There’s nothing more annoying than being left out of design discussions simply because you’re teleworking. A speakerphone in the office can work wonders.

Socially, I made a conscious effort to get out and see people more. When you’re in an office with people you like, then spontaneous trips to the pub are the order of the day. When you’re working from home, these things involve a bit more planning and coordination. In the end, I actually quite enjoyed getting kicked out of my usual habits, and got in touch with people who I hadn’t seen for a while.

3. Eep, it’s broken!

When you are working from home at a startup, you are your own IT manager. Your internet connection is your connection to the outside world. The reliability and security of your “office” network is your responsibility. If you have hardware or software problems, you’re going to have to sort it out yourself. This means that having a background doing sysadmin and network tasks is a big plus. When things go wrong, you’re on your own.

You will almost certainly need to set up and maintain a decent firewall and VPN connection to the office. If you’ve previously only had a single PC at home, you’ll need to get a router and set up a more complicated network to allow you to use a work laptop too.

For example, I discovered that I couldn’t send big emails to people at work. Noone else had encountered the problem, but I was the only person with a Linux laptop who was working remotely. It turned out to be a problem with IP packet fragmentation. Some router between me and work wasn’t passing “packet too big” ICMP messages back to me, so occasionally packets were just getting dropped. It took me a day to find and fix this, during which time I couldn’t use email properly.

4. Are you at work or not?

When I started working from my flat, I worried about losing my home/work distinction. Actually, this wasn’t a problem at all. I decided from day one that if I was using the work laptop, I was at work. When I finished for the day, I put the laptop away in the cupboard where I couldn’t see it, and it didn’t come out again until the next working day. I didn’t use it for random web-surfing, or any non-work stuff at all.

This worked really well. I think I actually maintained a better work/home distinction that I had done whilst at Voxar (where I often thought about work stuff outside hours).

5. Travelling here, travelling there.

Travelling was the big killer for me. Once every two weeks, my timetable looked like this:

Mon 0:00: Finish band practise at midnight (regular commitment)
Tue 1:00: Get to bed
Tue 2:00: Wake up with "slept in and missed my flight" dreams
Tue 4:00: Wake up with "slept in and missed my flight" dreams
Tue 6:00: Alarm clock goes off, I think "I'm not built to get up this early"
Tue 6:40: Walk 20 minutes to the airport bus stop.
Tue 7:00: Bus ride to the airport
Tue 7:30: Arrive at airport, checkin is packed full of people.  Stand 
          in queue for 25 minutes shuffling forward like a zombie.
Tue 8:00: Go through security and wait in departures.
Tue 8:20: Announcement that flight has been delayed for 30 minutes.
Tue 9:00: Board flight and squeeze into seat (I'm 6' 4" tall)
Tue 10:00: Arrive Bristol, wait for airport bus to arrive.
Tue 10:20: Bus starts the winding journey into Bristol.
Tue 10:50: Arrive in Bristol and walk 10 minutes to the office.

Then I’d work a full day until about 6pm, go to the youth hostel where I stayed to check in, and then head out for food. I’d chosen to stay in a youth hostel because I thought it’d be a good way to meet other random people and have something to do in the evening. In the end, I was always so tired in the evening that I’d have been better off in a hotel. I’d be exhausted by 9pm, but hostels aren’t good places to stay if you’re looking for a sound night of sleep. Next morning, I’d work another day at the office and then have another five hour journey before I was back in Edinburgh, flights permitting.

So, basically:

- It is really tiring. There’s a huge difference between a 30 minute daily commute and a ten hours of travelling, even if it is only once a fortnight. Besides, I used to quite enjoy my cycle to work, and sitting in airports and planes sucked out my will to live! When your journey is more complex, there’s more things to go wrong. My old 30 minute commute always took 30 minutes. My five hour journey wasn’t so reliable.

- If you’re travelling long-term, you will have to put up with roadworks, strikes, buses breaking down, and other such events. I always made sure I had a spare 30 minutes at the airport on my return journey since if I missed my flight I would be stuck in Bristol overnight. The fourth time I did the journey, the bus to the airport went bang and ground to a halt in a haze of smoke. The replacement bus took a while to arrive, and I only just made my flight home. I wasn’t looking forward to flying through the UK’s winter weather. If you’re flying weekly, you’ll eventually be be bumping around in gale force winds and sleet. No thanks.

- I was in Bristol for Tue/Wed every second week. This mean I couldn’t arrange any weekly event on Tue/Wed, since I’d only be there half the time. It also impacted on Monday night fun, and left me tired on Thursday too. I didn’t realise before that I didn’t actually like travelling very much.

- When in Bristol Tuesday night, I was stuck in a city where I didn’t know anyone. After a few trips down, I started treating myself and going out to nice resturants. Then I’d sit in a nice pub, have a drink and read a book for a few hours. Or go to the cinema. In the end, it was quite pleasant but you definitely need to have a plan otherwise you’ll just resent a “wasted” evening.

- I was now using the most polluting form of transport known to man. I’m normally a cyclist, and fairly environmentally conscious, but now I was a regular flyer! Eep, this wasn’t consistent with my lefty mildly-tree-hugging political views. I was glad when I stopped flying.

Well, that’s pretty much all that occurs to me about teleworking.