Distractions, Productivity, and Working from Home

Posted on December 20, 2017

I have been working from home more than usual recently, thanks to my employer, who understands that five days a week in an open office aren’t the ideal environment for everyone. After mentioning that I noticed a perceived increase in productivity, I was asked to find out what it is that makes me so much more productive at home. The obvious answer is that there are fewer distracting factors at home than at the officeThis can be coworkers directly, but also just things like background chatter, the coffee machine, or even just visual distractions in the form of people walking in your field of vision all the time.

, which of course is true, but it is not necessarily the truth.

The reason I feel more productive when working from home, and thus better in general, is my ability to easily get into the Zone™, the state of mind where focus on the task at hand trumps everything else. My objectively measured output in the form of commits can be easily gauged by just having a look at the Github activity histogram of my account, which shows that over the last month, the days I worked from home have seen almost a doubling of activity. This seems like a pretty obvious gain no one should be able to deny, but I am going to argue at this point that there is more to my job than just pumping out code.

What makes a great engineer?

Sure, one part of my just is producing features and fixing bugs, but software engineering has a huge social component many tend to forget about. During the days I am in the office, I talk to developers from other teams, catch up on the latest developments, discuss design decisions for upcoming features and projects, help out in situations that are not strictly my responsibility, and generally just trade in some of my personal productivity to bring up company productivity. I think it is important to make this division, because on some days I personally do not write a single line of code, but I enable others to sometimes save hours of their time, which arguably is the greater gain for the company. Building a Fortress of Solitude can be tempting to boost personal output, but it is not what makes a great engineer.

But why?

Even after coming to the conclusion that the gain in personal productivity might not be worth it when looking at the big picture, I still maintain that I want to work from home some of the time. Why is that? The gain here is personal happiness for me. My happiness is, at least to some degree, bound to my (perceived) personal productivity. When I track time in the evening, write my work journalSomething I have been experimenting with. More on that in a future post. But it’s basically just writing down what I did by the end of the day.

or talk about yesterday in the daily standup, I feel pressured to have produced something more or less tangible. But on some days, I do not really have anything I can say I produced. I do not think anyone actually minds, because I just say “I spent eight hours yesterday helping someone unbreak the builds”, but somewhere deep down it still feels wrong.

Another thought I had was that I am not nearly as closely monitored when working from home compared to the days I am coming in. This allows me to just wander off to the kitchen, the toilet, or the supermarket if I feel like I need a couple of minutes to think something over. This is considerably harder to do in the office, even though our open office is not quite an Orwellian surveillance state. Instead of taking these small breaks, or sometimes even power naps, I just try to soldier through while I am at the office, because that is what I am there for.

Finding a compromise

So what should you be doing? First of all, every situation is unique, and I cannot give any blanket advice. If you get the chance, I think you should definitely try working from home at some point. It does require some discipline, more if your home is actually busy with family or flat-mates. But do not take this opportunity for granted, and if your employer says that this is not working out from their perspective, you have no real alternative to accepting that fact.

Even when working from home, I make an effort to stay connected, which today means having Slack on all my devicesThis is in general a terrible idea, don’t do this. I will write about information diets at some point.

and being transparent about what I am doing. This is an important step when building trust so your employer does not feel like you are just abusing this privilege to catch up on Westworld. I also only work from home when I know I am not required in any meetings, and I make a point of talking to everyone I need to talk to the day before, so I can tie up all loose ends.