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Working from home: from lonely stranger to holy grail?

Six months ago, working from home was still a topic for discussion. Does this suit our company? Are employees at home just as concentrated as at the office? Are you not too distracted at home by parcel deliverers (for the neighbors), full washing machines, partner or children? Home workers were rare, the strangers in our midst. How times change …

Remote software development was also by no means common. Can you function at all if you don’t have one-on-one contact with your colleagues and your manager? Does it work if you don’t meet at the same desk or conference table several times a day? And most important, when you can’t look at each other to make sure what anyone means exactly?

But suddenly we all had to work from home every day because of the intelligent Corona lockdown. Guess what? After a few weeks it wasn’t bad at all. The productivity of employees did not fall into the abyss. On the contrary, it often went up because the meeting time decreased and people saved time to travel to the office.

What does the world of the holy grail look like now?

There were, of course, legitimate concerns, especially due to the immediate effect of the lockdown. Companies were by no means prepared for this. Everything had to be arranged for processes that had been the most normal thing within the office space for years. Just think of security and cyber risks, online in the cloud and the reliability of data and documents. And, for communications in the teams, the cooperation between the specialists had to be arranged differently overnight. That, of cause, influenced the management of software development projects. In addition, terms of employment, expense allowances and working hours had to be overhauled in a short time.

It’s amazing how quickly the IT world addressed these challenges. At most you can ask why this didn’t happen years before. In that case, working from home had become much earlier a widely accepted option that is better suited to the current flexible world. Moreover, considerable costs could have been saved for years. I’ll tell you more about it in this article.

Perils of working from home: then, now and in the future

Employers in particular used to be skeptical about working from home. Employees, especially those with young children, viewed this very differently. If both partners work 4-5 days each, of which 1-2 days at home and 3 days at the office, then the logistical nightmare of bringing and collecting children to school is solved. The employer often had critical questions such as: how can you work efficiently at home? Do you manage to get to your 8 hours of work with everything you need to do for the children, shopping and housekeeping? Is everything possible online and how does communication with your colleagues go?

Since March we look at this very differently. We no longer go to the office together, but sit at home in the dining room or work at our desk. Meetings have been replaced by Teams calls and Zoom meetings. Communication with colleagues suddenly goes via Slack. All in all, that goes quite smoothly. Employers have let go out of their initial skepticism and realized that online collaboration can be here to stay beyond the lockdown.

Communication moments are always important

Collaboration within the teams is undeniably different: people can’t speak briefly about non-working issues alive anymore. And it turns to be important that people within a company (even within a big corporation) manage to find each other quickly and a chat is easily made. For sure, first of all to speak about the progress of the project and technical issues, but also seemingly trivial matters (read important ones) such as Champions League draw. Do not underestimate the latter. These social contact moments are an important part of the collaboration for colleagues. And a corporate online pub quiz is a great idea to strengthen social communications. As well as it’s nice to discuss ideas for a future corporate event.

Now when the social aspect has been arranged, the team can fully focus on communication around the projects. It’s best to leave it up to the team how they approach that in practice. As a manager, try not to interfere too much into it. That works best on their own today.

What you can really do is to set up temporary corona-proof work in the office with all the requirements like distancing and etc. for those who really need it. Even if it’s 1 or 2 days per week only, for some employees it still can be important.

Critical project management is even more important at a distance than in the office

With remote work you need to strive your process to ideal. In order to do it follow Agile and overall development principals in life:

  • Plan and implement the Sprints (usually 2 weeks): the development tasks are only included in a sprint if they are clear, transparent and ready for implementation without additional arguments;
  • All tasks are entered into project management and task tracking tool like Jira: well-specified, clearly described and prioritized;
  • Don’t forget about team stand-ups, preferably daily, about backlog refinement and retro meetings;
  • In addition to teamwork, there can be also meetings of the so-called competence centers. For example, front-end developers once a month meet to discuss some working moments and technological aspects;
  • Don’t skip setting a code review process. The code is preferable to be assessed by at least 2 people, they can be even from a different team;
  • Bringing parts of developed software together into one working whole is an important moment. Now is the time to test whether everything works according to specifications;
  • Is the solution ready for production? Then implement a change management process and stick to it. Especially when it comes to DevOps or the renewal of applications. In the change management process, take into account communications to the stakeholders. You check whether there is a fallback scenario and you look at the impact on business processes and risks of data loss.

When it comes to remote collaboration, there is a number of useful apps such as Teams, SfB, Zoom and WebEx to help you with this. Keep in mind some practical points for attention:

  • Keep the teams as small as possible, then conference-calls in Teams, SfB, Zoom or WebEx are efficient.
  • Calls with larger teams are less effective. Here it is important to appoint a moderator and to switch off microphones by default.

In short: expertise, process and communication are crucial success factors in project management, especially when everything is done remotely.

Security risks that you may not have considered

We often already had secure access to all the systems that we need for our work via a VPN connection. But there are also other security risks now that we work from home, some very obvious. Strategic plans, personal databases or profit and loss accounts may be seen by roommates on a break. And what about quick children’s hands that remove an entire document with one click or USB sticks lying around with privacy-sensitive information? Locking a computer if it is not used for more than a minute can prevent this. It certainly does not hurt if the entire security, which has been in order within the walls of a company for years, is also applied by the security specialists to the home workplaces.

Does working from home solve the recruitment problem of IT workers?

Because working from home is now fully accepted, you can now also hire specialists who live further than cycling distance from the office, especially in megalopolises. After all, even if they live 100 kilometers away, traveling to the office once a week is still fine. And for the rest, they can continue to enjoy their beautiful house with garden, beautiful nature and the pleasant village life. The pond for fishing ICT workers then turns from a small pool into a considerably large lake.

The ergonomic issues of working from home

Still, some people enjoy working back in the office. These are mainly people who do not have a good workplace at home. As an employer, you can easily solve this by placing a desk, chair and second screen at the employee’s home. Meeting employees with a good workplace also has an ergonomic reason. Often the workplaces in the office are ergonomically fine, better than the dining room table and chairs and a laptop. By providing your employees with a good home workplace, you may prevent a lot of RSI and back complaints (and the associated dropout as a result)!

The consequences of working from home for the real estate industry

Does the foregoing mean that no one comes into the office anymore? Can we throw the number of m2 for the IT department overboard? Work is now being done in the office again, but the occupancy in the office is only 20% on average.

At the big Dutch insurance company Achmea (14,000 employees), more than 70% of the employees indicated that they also wanted to work from home more after the crisis. Furthermore, most companies have found that software developers can work from home very well. This will have a huge impact on the vacancy rate in the office market. In addition to the problems that already existed with the vacancy of shops, there will also be a considerable demolition in the rental of properties, and therefore also their value. And that will never change. At this high time the Dutch government, for example, came up with a solid plan to transform the vacant offices and shops into (affordable) homes.

Working from home: here to stay

In short: working from home can no longer be ignored in our current and future world. The efficiency and cost savings it brings to organizations cannot be denied. So, why not take the plunge and also outsource part of your software development to a foreign company? You pay a third to half of the Dutch rates. And you no longer have to worry about online collaboration, it will all go smoothly!

Author: Hans Peeters, Sales Director E‑ngineers
Thanks to my relations Michel Koning from Gek van Software, Bart Sondermeijer from Felton and Egbert Ellenkamp from Copernicus who shared their experiences with working from home during these exciting Corona months.

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