Workplace Flexibility

There’s a risk with this post that I’m going to shoot myself in the foot, but I believe in being as open and honest as possible, so I’m going to share my thoughts on good working environments, particularly remote ones.

This comes about because I’m trying to find some flexible, part-time, and remote work. I’ll come to each of these in turn during this post, but to start with, why am I looking?

I’ve been working as the technical partner in a small self-funded team developing a new product, and the level of product development required fluctuates. At present we’re going through a cycle of taking what we’ve learned, realizing our existing strategy isn’t going to work, and changing direction to suit. This is healthy – it takes time to: learn from the market what is really needed, especially with large prospective customers where it’s often a month from scheduling to having a meeting; and understand the costs, risks, and rewards of different commercial options. While I think it’s fair to say we haven’t done a good job of ‘failing fast’ so far, we continue to figure out what we can sell to the market and target the product to suit.

The end result is that I need to periodically attend meetings in another city and push forward with product development, but ultimately have time on my hands that I’d like to put to use somewhere. So I’ve been looking for flexible, part-time, remote work.

Silicon Valley Culture

Nothing turns me off in a job ad more than the term “Silicon Valley Culture”. Silicon Valley is very exciting in terms of getting VC money, but I remain unconvinced it’s a good place to work. If there is one word I’d use to describe what I’ve seen and heard about working in Silicon Valley as a developer, it’s insular.

Insular

What! How could it be insular to be working with so many great technical minds!

When birds of a feather are working together there’s a strong chance they will create a nest to suit their flock. The Silicon Valley stereotype is the cloistered geek. How can someone so insular understand real-world-problems, since being at the office 12 hours a day means they hardly experience the real world? Where do they: cross paths with tradespeople, nurses, children, (non-IT) engineers; or have experiences requiring empathy; or have a multi-faceted political discussion that doesn’t end up with people not speaking to each other (i.e. the real world equivalent of unfriending)?

Face Time

Which brings me to my next point: Silicon Valley Culture values hours in the office – free lunches, and dinners, and we’ll bring a masseuse on site, and… – basically we’ll do anything cheap (relative to your salary) to keep you in the office because (we assume) that if you’re in the office then you’re making progress, and we don’t pay any extra for that.

If you’re a twenty-something with no partner, family, or life, that’s great. If you’re anything else, forget it. Silicon Valley Culture is a big red flag that says “you may not have a family”, “you may not have a life (outside work)”. I’ve already addressed how this makes you an insular person, but it’s also terrible for productivity.

Productivity

Anyone who has done 6 hours of serious development in a day – by which I mean uninterrupted, building or debugging of some significant chunk of code twisting its way through layers of the application – knows that afterwards your brain will be dead. Development was once described to me as sitting two three-hour exams a day, and there have been plenty of days where I’d agree with that. Encouraging (or worse, measuring) time in the office leads means that hours beyond that six are a waste of my time and the organizations, and we both resent having our time wasted. And the more overtime goes on, the more it flows into people’s personal life, and into the next day, and so on until the developer is just burnt-out. I’ve been there – multiple times, and it’s not always easy to swing back from.

Don’t believe me? Then go and read chapter nine of Slack, or search the index of Peopleware for overtime. We’ve known for generations the hours people can repeatedly handle without it being detrimental. I’m not sure why Silicon Valley Culture hasn’t figured it out.

Consequent Demographics

Developers have an average age of 30-32. Assuming a constant working age population between 20 and 70, the average should be 45. Certainly some developers will become managers or analysts, and this is still a new industry so we’d expect to undershoot the average, but by 15 years (60%)? Is it possible that Silicon Valley Culture makes being an ‘old’ developer a problem? The culture is certainly incompatible with having a family. It’s also incompatible with people with more life experience – people who have reached that point where their bottom four levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy are met and realize there’s an awful more to life than work, especially if work isn’t able to allow them to fulfill their potential.

Silicon Valley Culture also implies a boys’ club. Look at the developers in the Silicon Valley TV program: young single guys. There have also been long-standing issues with sexism. So it’s not surprising that the earlier-referenced survey put the percentage of female developers at around 10%. Given the stereotypes, the sexism, the family-unfriendliness (at the risk of being lambasted, mums are still more likely to stay at home with the kids than dads), we shouldn’t be surprised at that figure.

In short, Silicon Valley Culture is a terrible culture. If that’s how you describe your organization you are not going to get wise or mature developers.

P1020378
Here’s a picture of a baby to break up the text. It in no way reflects how Silicon Valley Culture treats developers.

Part-Time

Why does everyone want full-time staff?

My gut reply to thinking as an employer is that I want commitment. But I’m going to step deeper into this and ask: why do I want commitment? What does being committed mean in an organization?

Commitment

The first commitment given by an employee comes when they sign an agreement saying “I’m committing this much time into your organization in return for compensation which reflects that commitment”.

Hiring someone comes with an on-boarding cost and to maximize their return the organization wants the employee to be useful as quickly as possible, which can only be achieved through time experience. In that scenario being full-time will reach this goal faster (in terms of calendar days), although the cost to reach a certain experience level won’t change. Depending on the role this ‘calendar time to usefulness’ may or may not be a factor. For instance, domain-knowledge intensive roles like architecture and product management often have much longer on-boarding periods than development, making the additional time delay of part-time too big an opportunity cost for the organization.

From another perspective, most new hires describe their early weeks as “drinking from the fire-hose”. I imagine if less is drunk per day, because a part-time day is shorter, more of it will be retained.

The second commitment is level of energy or zeal the employee chooses to bring to their job. This commitment is a function of finding a personality which can engage with the organization and then providing them the environment that makes them want to engage (rather than just turn-up). I imagine that once hours drop considerably the employee may find it hard to really engage; but conversely, working fewer hours they may have more energy to engage with. So I conclude that being part-time (say in the 20+ hours/week range) wouldn’t have a significant impact on this kind of commitment.

Focus Time

Earlier I mentioned that development can be brain-intensive, and that beyond a certain level the productivity of each extra hour diminishes quickly. So why pay for those? My experience has been that people working shorter days tend to plan better and be more focused, and I estimate that someone working 5-hour days probably gets 7 hours worth of work done i.e. you’re paying 25 hours worth of time per week for 35 hours worth of productivity (all else being equal).

At this point hiring full-time by default seems like a tradition more than anything, a tradition that is worth re-examining.

Flexibility

The concept of a two-parent family where only one parent works is history. The rise of day-care and after-school-care have made that quite clear (I’m not entirely comfortable with this concept from a sociological perspective, but each to their own, and I digress…). This means there are an awful lot of experienced workers out there who have to juggle family and work. If you make that juggling difficult for people then they can’t work for you because, like it or not, family ultimately comes first.

For my part, I have pre- and school age children, so between my wife and me someone needs to be home by 1430 to pick them up and look after them. Once we’re home and they’re fed, I can typically resume whatever I was doing earlier. Sometimes they’re sick and someone needs to be home with them, but usually they’re just quietly sleeping and there is little to impede working. A strict “X-hours a week in the office” contract doesn’t cope with these scenarios. It is, like default-to-full-time, a hangover from bygone days. The 21st century workplace requires flexibility, and full credit to New Zealand which does enshrine this concept in law. But regardless of legislation, flexibility is something organizations should do because it’s better for them.

Being flexible with hours:

  • increases the talent pool available to you;
  • tends to result in breaking up the workday, which makes for fresher and more productive minds;
  • allows staff to manage their creativity, meaning you’re not paying for mental downtime;
  • creates a feeling of mutual respect and reciprocity, which means asking for a little urgent work outside of hours is a fair exchange, rather that leaving the employee feeling that they gave their time for free.

When combined with remote work it opens up opportunities to access the global talent pool. For instance I’ve applied for several jobs in the EU, despite being in New Zealand. This would work out nicely for me because my wife is home in the evenings and I can be available from 7pm-midnight three nights a week. That’s 15 hours of overlap a week (give or take daylight saving). Equally if I applied in the Americas then I can work early mornings or Saturday (American Friday) because it’s outside standard NZ working hours.

P1010486
Babies are flexible. Is your organization better than a baby?

Remote

Have you ever worked in an open plan office that nobody complained about? Depending on who you ask they are too hot, cold, noisy, distracting, constrained, or impersonal. What they are is cheap, and they allow poor managers to sit watch upon their domain (micromanagement). It has been clear for years that working environment affects productivity, a result which continues to be reinforced.

If you’re like me and need quiet and a means to control distractions then working remotely is bliss. I recall when I first started working remotely, my productivity immediately doubled. Thankfully that was in an organization with a good remote culture, because having remote staff requires a level of organizational discipline. Having remote staff requires inclusive communication and decision making processes, something that makes everyone happier. For this to work leaders must ensure communication is only happening in public forums and decisions are being reached by an inclusive process. This is good business practice, but with remote people it is more important because it is harder for them to see when they are being left out.

Essentially a remote organization must revolve around a text/audio/video chat application like Slack or Hipchat. People share their thoughts in writing for everyone to think about and provide feedback on. In this shared space, all voices can be heard so people are informed decisions are made inclusively. These tools can also be controlled so that people are not disturbed when they don’t need to be and can thus focus on the task at hand.

Agile Software Development talks about the importance of information ‘convection currents’ i.e. the information accidentally shared by people in proximity hearing each other. This is something that is lost with remote workers. They also talk about ‘drafts’ – the information that wafts about which is completely irrelevant or distracting, and in my experience the drafts tend to outweigh useful information. The beauty of a remote work culture is that the information sharing is recorded in text and available for anyone who is interested, and crucially is searchable. As a result that information is available to everybody, not just those who happened to be in earshot and paying attention at that time.

One concern with a remote team is that remote workers might be slacking around on company time. I don’t buy this excuse: it’s usually pretty obvious if a developer is contributing to the level expected simply by looking at their commits and documentation.

So yes, remote workers require a culture shift, but it’s a positive one, and it opens up huge benefits of being able to access talent pools well beyond your current city.

Conclusion

Despite acknowledging that the nature of work is changing our workplaces seem very slow to catch up, especially given the benefits of wider talent pools and increased staff happiness and productivity that part-time, flexible, and remote work (both independently and together) create.

So if you are interested… I’m flexible if you’re flexible. I can legally work in New Zealand, Australia, United Kingdom, and Europe (at least until Brexit goes through, if it goes through), and I’m sure contract terms can be worked out elsewhere. You can get an approximation of my expertise from this blog and the about page, and I will say I’m a generalist and proud of it! 🙂

You can contact me through the contact page.