Working from your sofa

Lots of folks want to work from home, but is it right for you?

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

I’ve been meaning to cover this topic for a bit. And now that Covid-19’s forced remote work upon a lot of us what better time to visit this topic?

As I lurk on Reddit, I frequently run across posts from folks asking how they can work from home. With some people, the desire to work from home is so strong that it’s the deciding factor (rather than income, type of work, career progression, or general life fulfillment.)

But you’re not the type of person who’d be happy to put stamps on envelopes from home for minimum wage for eight hours a day, which is why you’re following this blog. So let’s talk about you for a second. Where do you fall on the social axis: are you an introvert or an extrovert?

That should be the first question anyone asks themselves before seeking to work from home. If you’re an extrovert, you’ll probably hate working remotely. You’ll miss the social interactions, the stimulation, the challenges of interacting with other humans. You’ll go stir crazy! A few weeks into it (if you make it that long,) you’ll start working from a Starbucks or paying to rent a desk in a shared office just to be near people again. When you get to the point when you’re paying to work in someone else’s office, you’ll probably ask yourself why you left your office in the first place.

Unless there’s a strong reason to work from home (such as having to move to another city to take care of an ailing parent but not wanting to leave your work) an extrovert should probably avoid remote work like the Corona Virus.

Introverts, on the other hand, probably read the preceding few paragraphs with a big smile on their face. No social interactions may be your idea of heaven!

If that’s you, hold on a minute before you get too excited! You should take a look at where you are on the career axis: are you just starting out or do you have years of solid experience?

That question really matters. Your ability to learn and to grow your career will be hampered if you choose to work from home too early on. To illustrate this, let’s look at two twins, Jack and John. They both get their first IT job on the same day, are at the same company, and both are IT Support Specialists. The only difference is that Jack will be working remotely while John will be working in the office.

At first, Jack’s feeling pretty smug about it. While John has to leave the house at 8am and sit through an hour of traffic to get to work each day, Jack rolls out of bed at 8:55am and is ready to go! Jack can cook lunch at home while John spends money for lunch. No one swings by Jack’s cubicle and interrupts his work. Did I say cubicle? Jack actually works in pajamas while sitting on his bed!

A few months in, however, the picture looks a bit different. While Jack and John are theoretically invited to the same meetings, John seems to be more “in the know” than Jack. That’s because at the end of every meeting conversations will organically start up in the hallway. Those five minute informal conversations are when a lot of decisions are made and alliances forged.

Jack’s also missing all the “water cooler” talks – while everyone knows John’s face, Jack’s just a disembodied voice that no one’s ever met live. Jack finds that some of his emails get ignored, but when he asks John to follow up, John can get Jack’s issue resolved by walking over to the right person’s desk. John also seems to always know who the right person is when something needs to get done. Jack doesn’t even always know who to reach out to; they’re all just voices to him too, after all.  

Jack also notices that John’s learning a lot faster. Jack gets a lot of the same tier 1 requests coming in by phone, but John gets tossed a few interesting projects here and there. A year in, Jack’s still resetting passwords while John’s starting to do stuff that sounds a lot like systems administration. By the two year mark, that gap has widened enough that John gets promoted to a Systems Administrator. Jack, meanwhile, has stagnated. In two years, he hasn’t learned two years’ worth of knowledge. He still knows the same things he did when he was six months in.

Sometimes, you win just by showing up.

So, does this mean that I think remote work is never suitable? No, but only if you do it right. Take another set of twins, Jill and Jane. They have both been at the same company for ten years. Jill decides to ask to work remotely while Jane continues to come in in person. The differences here will be quite small compared to our previous example. Jill already has ten years of solid knowledge. She’s already known to her coworkers and has alliances in place. People pick up her calls and answer her emails. And most importantly, she knows enough by now that she can continue to grow her career and knowledge without mentorship, which is so important in the early years.

Jill will still miss out on the hallway conversations and she’ll still be somewhat out of the loop on the daily goings-on in the office, though. Working remotely will still have some costs, but they’ll be a lot more bearable at this stage in her career and they’ll be offset by the gains she gets in other parts of her life: no commute, more time to work since she won’t have to spend time just getting to work, less expenses, and all the other benefits of remote work.

So if remote work is something you want to do, here’s my recommendation: make sure you spend the first five years of your career working in an office. Use that time to learn and grow. Then, once you’re on solid footing it’ll be the right time to think about remote work.

With each post, I cover a new topic to help you get your start (or keep progressing) in your IT career. If it’s your first time visiting this blog, start here. Or, see all my posts about interview questions you should be able to answer.