Blue Bottle Coffee House, founded in 1686 in Vienna, Austria

Don’t “work from home”

The desire to work from home has been all the rage, especially in the tech sector. Usually this is restricted to a day/week but can extend beyond. While a blue-collar point of view might hastily dispel this notion as being “lazy” or “unethical” or a modern tech worker might lean on “autonomy” & “freedom” to favor this notion, I think it deserves deeper reflection.

Nature of work

Work for most of us is solving problems that require creativity & collaboration. Very little of what we do goes from conception to concrete reality, based solely on individual pursuit. Yes, we spend quite a bit of time coding or doing solitary activities, and yes, that’s when rubber meets the road, the difference between being successful & failing is often deciding what problems to solve, or what approaches to take.

Work today is about decisions we make, and the seemingly disparate dots we connect.

This was a big reason why coffeehouses in Oxford in 16th & 17th century were a hotbed of innovation.

Why collaborate?

Most of us are fairly smart, and capable of independent thinking. So why collaborate when making decisions? Several studies have shown that problem solving capabilities of a diverse group (eng, PMs, designers, analysts) is greater than a non-diverse group (eng, eng, eng), & far greater than individuals (eng). This n-dimensionality of diverse groups results in the best ideas, which are almost always emergent in nature, i.e. they emerge from a collection of independent individual ideas.

Importance of diversity in decision-making

Beyond Productivity

The value of great ideas follows a power law distribution, i.e. most ideas are destined to fail & some ideas have disproportionate pay off. Working collaboratively doesn’t just make us more “productive”, it increases the likelihood that, collectively, we will have the next breakthrough idea.

But we have Slack now, so I can work from home right?

Many argue that our communication tools are very sophisticated. I think they are right. Unfortunately(sorry, remote work lovers), as human beings we have evolved to understand physical cues & in person communication.

Face to face communication with a white board, is not only a richer channel (conveys a wider spectrum of information), it is also a more efficient channel (less effort to convey same amount of information). This adds up to an exponentially greater likelihood of arriving at a better solution to a problem, or more importantly, arriving at a better understanding of the problem, & prioritizing the right problem

We have evolved to understand in person cues with greater ease & fidelity (credit to Scott Galloway)

When is working from home desirable?

There are problems where one needs uninterrupted hours to arrive at a solution. I remember trying to write my own code for occlusion culling for a solar insolation calculator. It is fair to say that I lost track of time, and needed a lot of uninterrupted time to think through the math & code. I’ve seen other programmers take time off and work from home, when working on problems that require uninterrupted time.

On this note, I think using quiet spaces in the office is the right way to go, so you can be face to face when you need a team mate to discuss something.

You also don’t know where your next great idea will come from, so you should maximize your likelihood of chance encounters that give you that breakthrough.

You might not need your team but your team needs you

On many occasions, you decide that working from home will allow you to get more work done. However, we need to remember that our team depends on us for discussion, ideation, complex pattern matching, & thinking through ideas. Given the nature of work, we must lean towards optimizing for the team instead of optimizing of individual productivity.

In summary, I will say that the “commute” & “interruptions” might seem less optimal on surface, the benefits of collaboration & serendipitous connections result in more breakthroughs and greater responsiveness to the needs of the world.