Saturday, January 9, 2021

Thoughts on Working from Home

Lots of people have suggested that working from home is not such a good idea, because you need to collaborate with colleagues to achieve innovation, etc.

Firstly, this argument ignores the fact that the vast majority of jobs are procedural, requiring nearly no innovation. Secondly, it ignores the fact that most employers don't want to hear anyone's "great ideas", especially if they are actually great. The innovation problem of working from home does not line up with the real world, at least not the one I know.

But then, there is the nature of innovation itself which I am well familiar with. It doesn't come from brainstorming (or hardly so). It comes from being comfortable, usually alone, and being allowed to lose yourself to your own thoughts...a scenario much more likely to happen at home than work.

However, developmental design does require collaboration. That's not the question though. The question is, can developmental design be facilitated online? Yes, absolutely it can. 

For example, when my brother comes up with a house design he gets me to look at it for criticism and suggestion. I know that if I can see his simulation on my screen, remotely control my mouse over the screen (as a communication pointer), and talk to him via hands-free intercom, then that wouldn't be as good as being with him in person - it would actually be better. We both get an excellent view of the project and we can communicate comprehensively. One click of an icon, and I can also turn on the video-intercom so I can express myself with my face and hands, for when that would be useful.

Frankly it's bollocks to say that you need to be there 'in person' for design work, considering nearly all design is now done on a computer as a base [and note, I mean 'design' in the broadest terms. Writing a sensitive email is an example of design in the sense that I mean it]. You just need to be able to share the view of your screen in real-time with select others, with those others maybe being able to directly edit your work in real time as well. The technology supporting this exists.

The idea that everyone needs to be at work in-person, sounds to me like something managers might want to believe possibly to keep themselves relevant, or at worst because they think they need to intimidate staff with their presence to keep them in line. That's a mistake. Making staff uncomfortable does not make them work well. "Oppressive" tension undermines proficiency; it slows learning and working, rigidifies thinking and induces silly mistakes. There's nothing like a given level of anxiety to knock 10 or 20 points off your operational IQ.

Also, if employers are worried about their staff slacking off at home, then all they need to do is insist that their staff make a low-grade screencast video of their days work, in turn providing transparency if an employer feels they ever need to review a given staff members operation.

So when do we need to be at work in-person? 

I think there's a lot to be said for basic orientation. It can be wise, depending on the job, to bring staff in to work for the first week or say first month to get a feel for the company and the people. Remote communications are more effective with people we personally know - it gives your mind 'context'. But after that, I would argue that physically going in to work represents a massive cost for only a negligible gain.

The social need.

This is real of course, but as the workplace is mostly a forced-association environment, the social context can be as easily toxic as beneficial. Secondly, the basic social need can obviously be gratified with people outside of work. Homeworkers can buddy-up or work at a retro-fitted local café, etc, or whatever.

However, when things go a bit sour at work, as they always can and will, people need to have others around, who understand their situation, that they can speak freely to. I would suggest making sure you've got approachable managers in your company that staff can have down-to-earth chats with when they need to, over skype or the phone. I believe this concern can be solved easily enough if it's maturely understood.

Lost local protectionism.

The better we master working from home, and the more broadly it becomes culturalised, the more employers will be incentivised to outsource their operations to cheaper labour pools - from anywhere. 

...bring someone in from India for a couple of months to learn your company and the job, then send them back home to work for you online, for say $3 per-hour? 

Well I don't have a problem with that. Some people will earn less, but they will also need less as the cost of living drops. It's not a real problem. Productivity is always the only real problem for mastering prosperity, at the end of the day.

And how far can homeworking go? Currently about 50% of jobs can be done entirely online. With technology and flexible robotics, this number will certainly grow. So, it looks like we might have our full-blown economic globalisation whether we want it or not. I for one am happy with that.


The primary reason why people pay big money for a very average home, when they do, is because they need to get to their well-paid job in an affluent city. The live-anywhere economy is already starting to have a real impact on the property market, making small towns more attractive... 

This can go all the way to an international housing market where hundreds of millions of people, working online, start to migrate all over the world to locations that are most attractive to them, and for any reason other than access to a job. This will drive housing affordability over the long term as people can easily escape over-inflated markets, and it will probably drive strong global migration to the beaches and the sun. If your town can't support a nice climate and lifestyle, it might be in trouble.

-Andrew Atkin

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