Remote work, in good times and in bad

I began working from home in 1993, from Italy, for a California company. You can read all about that and a subsequent remote work experience, in Long-Distance Working – A Tale of Two Companies. Other experiences have included working in San Jose for Ericsson, (headquartered in Sweden), and working for AWS (HQ in Seattle) from my home in San Jose, and now from Australia. 

In some ways, I wish I had spent more of my working years in  a “normal” office routine. Working intensely side by side every day, with people you like and respect, is a fantastic feeling, and in some phases of my life I had that and enjoyed it. But there were also times when workplaces went toxic, and going into the office every day became a torment to be dreaded. I’ve also had working from home situations go bad, and at those times I dreaded getting up to face my computer every day, even if I didn’t have to directly face the people who were making my life hell.

Often, remote work was the best option available to me. When my Italian employer moved most of the company to the US and then sold out to a US company, continuing in that job was the best paid and most interesting work I could have while still living with my family in Milan. 

“Working” on the P&O ferry to Dover during a family vacation

At times, remote work has literally been a lifesaver. When I began working for Ericsson in mid 2014, I expected to go into a San Jose office most days, with quarterly trips to Stockholm as well as other travel. I was fine with all that – I liked the people, loved the travel, was excited about the work, and didn’t mind the commute. Then I was diagnosed with cancer. I had been in the job for less than six months, so I couldn’t take medical leave without losing all of my income (yes, the American health system is seriously fucked up), and I didn’t have the kind of savings that would allow me to take a year off without pay. But I didn’t even want to stop working – I could think of nothing worse than sitting at home with nothing better to do than think about dying. Fortunately, my employers were willing to be flexible (where the insurance company wasn’t), and I was able to work as much as I wanted to, and not work on the days when it simply wasn’t physically possible. From home, of course – for my own safety, I wasn’t going into an office while undergoing chemotherapy! 

Post-chemo, I frequently have respiratory and sinus infections. I was already prone to them, thanks to the selective IgA deficiency that I probably inherited from my father, but chemo seems to have made me even more vulnerable. But I had already established a pattern of managing my life and work around chronic illness. Being ill is very boring – I’m not the sort who can watch TV for hours, and I get tired even of reading after a while. So I generally prefer to stay busy even when I’m too tired and sick to leave the house. I might as well be doing work as anything else – I usually enjoy my work and find it a pleasant distraction from physical miseries. A lot of the time, the people around me (physically and virtually) have no idea how ill I actually am, and I try to ignore it myself.

Working at my in-laws’ dining table during a family Christmas in Roseto degli Abruzzi, late 1990s

I started working mostly from home soon after beginning my current job in 2017. The team I joined at AWS traveled so much that it was hard to be in the office at the same time, and not all of us particularly wanted to see each other anyway. I’d make specific plans to have lunch with colleagues I liked, or for occasional meetings, otherwise I was doing everything online even before the pandemic hit. The sudden shift to remote work for everybody held no terrors and few surprises for me.

The number of meetings I had to attend online increased, especially after I changed roles last July and had to deal with a multitude of new people and teams. Six or more hours a day of video meetings got exhausting. If I’m attending a meeting by phone, I walk around and do small household chores like dusting – I can focus better on what someone is saying when my hands are occupied than if I’m required to sit still and try to look attentive. This has been true since my school days, when I doodled all the time during lectures. (The smarter teachers realized that this meant I was actually listening to them.)

I have known for years that remote attendees are at a disadvantage in video/phone meetings with people who are together in a room. Even with the best video conferencing systems, human beings interact more naturally with those who are physically present. Having everyone attend via video can level the playing field, giving all a better chance to participate equally (yes, there are other factors that get in the way of equal attention and interaction).

I have also long known that a remote employee is at a disadvantage when others are in the office together. Facetime with colleagues is important, and if you can’t get it every day or every week, you should at least have it every quarter. To meet this need, I used to travel from Milan to Milpitas four times a year for extended stays, and later from San Jose to Stockholm for a week or two at a time (yes, even in the dreadful Stockholm winter). 

Ross’ classmate Elisa and Deirdré working in a beautiful cottage in Landour, 2007

In a pandemic, that kind of travel isn’t wise even if it were possible. It’s not legal for me to leave Australia right now and I don’t know when it will be. In particular, I suspect that travel to and from the US will not be easy anytime soon. The UK, for example, has introduced a three-tier “traffic-light” system. With the anti-vaxxers, covidiots, and recurring surges so prevalent in the US, I don’t imagine US travelers will be universally welcomed – it’s on the amber list for the UK.

Given the failures of governments and human behaviors, and the success of the virus, this pandemic is far from over. And it likely won’t be the last – the conditions that created this one have not changed, and it was and will be only a matter of time until a(nother) pathogen breaks out to conquer the world.

I therefore believe that the companies who imagine they will soon bring employees back to “the way things were” in the office are indulging in wishful thinking. Things will never again be exactly the way they were, for a host of reasons. We’d be wiser to direct our energies and attention to how to make the best of the way things actually are, and are likely to remain.

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