On the merits of working from home, in a distributed virtual team

Posted on Thu 06 December 2012 in blog • 4 min read

During lunch at the EMEA OpenStack day in London this week, I had a brief but excellent conversation with fellow OpenStacker Adam Spiers from SUSE. Our chat turned to the merits of working from home, and he encouraged me to write up a blog post about some of the ideas of mine and of my co-founders’ which we have since made hastexo policy, however informal or unwritten.

Note that much of what follows aren’t necessarily original ideas of ours. Many of my thoughts I owe to some very insightful chats I’ve had over the past few months with the delightful Sarah Novotny, original co-founder of Blue Gecko, seasoned OSCON conference chair and now CIO at Meteor Entertainment. If you get a chance to talk to Sarah at a conference and poll her views on this, I can highly recommend you seize that chance.

It all starts with the observation that the separation of the place you live in, and the place you work at, is a fairly recent concept in human history. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, which originated in late 18th century England and steamrolled first Europe and then the rest of the world, no such separation was common: the blacksmith would live upstairs in his shop, so would the bakerman or the butcher. The teacher would dwell, with his family, in the local school. The farmer, and the farmhands, would live on that farm. In such a setting it follows naturally that the work day spans essentially your entire waking time: you would start your day’s work as soon as you got up, and finished it when you retired for the night. It would be equally natural to close the shop and interrupt your work for perhaps an hour at a time, in order to consume a meal with your family or run an errand, or to hold the siesta common in the Mediterranean to pass the hottest hours of the day.

Then with the Industrial Revolution, everything changed. In the name of efficiency and progress, we decided that we had to pool workers in one place — called a factory, or perhaps a shipyard — because now we needed collaboration: one person could no longer fulfill the task alone, so we had to get many people to one place to fulfill it together. And as a natural continuation of our pre-industrial routine, people would work ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week — until we realized that it started messing up our lives, inflicting misery on our families and social ties. And we invented a new concept called spare time: time we could spend by ourselves, or with our families and friends, something we didn’t have to ask for in the pre-industrial age when our work and life would naturally have been integrated. And we gradually got to “advances” like first the 10-hour workday, then the 8-hour workday, then the 40-hour work week when we decided it would be better to have a rest of two days a week rather than one.

Then we invented white-collar, office jobs, and we gradually moved from an industry-dominated to a service-dominated economy. And because by this time we were all well trained in the rules of industrial life, and because it had brought us progress and prosperity, we applied the same concepts to offices that we previously had applied to factories and shipyards: we would gather everyone in the same place, removed from home and families, and we would get everyone to accept fixed “office hours” when all hands would have to be present. Of course, we still needed to collaborate, it’s just that the tasks differed from the ones we faced in factories and shipyards.

Fast forward to the early 21st century, where we are suddenly endowed with an abundance of readily available, cheap technology that allows us to communicate and collaborate instantly, from almost anywhere. And it is at this point that the unnatural split between work and non-work life, which we inflicted upon ourselves during the Industrial Revolution and which we have managed to rationalize with the brainwash that a “clean separation” of “work and private life” is “essential” to well-being — that has become a complete anachronism. It is no longer vital for the people making up a company to physically be in the same place to collaborate, to serve customers, and to be productive and make a difference to communities. In fact, I consider it counterproductive. We’ve finally arrived in a position where we can restore the very natural way for humans to live and work, namely integrated with our families, from home, connected through technology that enables us to communicate just as effectively as sitting at the same desk. It also enables us to live healthier, better lives.

I’m fully aware that this style of work is probably not for everyone. But if you’re thinking it’s not for you (and I was one of those, until a little over a year ago) it’s worth asking yourself why you’re thinking that. Is it really because you want to work in an office, or because everyone has told you for most of your career that you want to work in an office?

Here at hastexo, it took us some time — several months — to figure out all-electronic collaboration, but the machinery is working extremely well now. The Google Apps stack has been enormously useful for us in that regard. We practically live in Google Hangouts and documents shared on Google Drive. We jot down ideas in Google Docs and sketch architectures in Google Drawings. We do our weekly standups that way, and increasingly customer meetings, too. We collaboratively draft and edit slide decks for training. And we rehearse conference talks via video call. It just works, and it’s huge fun that way. And it enables us to close our laptops and go read bedtime stories to our kids when we’re done.

This article originally appeared on my blog on the hastexo.com website (now defunct).