Three lessons after three months of working from home as a graduate

This globalised crisis has affected everyone differently. In these times of mind-consuming uncertainty, focusing on what we can’t control has become the most popular form of procrastination. Whilst I struggled with the persistent worrying and really missed my loved ones, I was also very lucky to keep on working Monday to Friday and having other things to think about other than a global pandemic.

But working from home was not so easy to begin with especially so, I think, if you were not working from the office that long ago!

I started working as a Software Engineer in October. In a team where, on average, people had been working for the company for 5 years or so. When we were told we were going to work from home, naively, I wasn’t so concerned about the implications. After all, what I work on can easily be done at home. But what I didn’t realise was that a lot of how I work is dependent on the people around me.

Supervision

This was perhaps the first thing that hit me, and perhaps what pushed the other key changes too. I hadn’t realised how much I relied on quick questions to the other engineers in my team, until suddenly it was just me and my two monitors on my own. And yes, I can drop an email or send a Skype message for anything I need but the inertia to do that is ever so slightly higher than it was in a physical space. So, I just had to start doing a lot more things by myself. The smallest things, those that I already knew how to do but would ask just to make sure, those where the first things to disappear. But very quickly, I started taking on tasks and solving problems with barely no supervision. I would be told to get started with something and ask for help when I hit a blocker. Before I knew it I was resolving a conflict from start to end without anyone else’s involvement and not really asking for approval until it was done.

The supervising method had to change from “ask-then-do” to a “do-then-ask”. Which turned work into a much more complex and demanding experience. This could have gone horribly wrong if I wasn’t prepared. But after chatting with my manager a couple of days after lockdown began, I realised he also appreciated my self-sufficiency. He reckoned that working at a distance should not, by any means, translate into more limited work. But on the contrary, into a type of work where I acquired more responsibilities at a quicker pace.

“Being thrown in at the deep end” is how my manager describes it sometimes. And whilst this saying could have a negative connotation, it’s really satisfying to realise that I am exceeding the expectations with regards to the tasks and responsibilites I’ve taken.

So, lesson number 1: Taking on a self-sufficient role during lockdown and learning how to do more on my own has massively propelled me into more interesting work.

Sense of productivity

This was the second big issue to hit me and interestingly, it came only a month or so after lockdown. I suppose at this time, I was taking in a bit more work than I was before, and was reaping the benefits from the reduced time wasters of remote working: meetings were less chatty, no colleagues distracting or people asking for help, etc.

After some productive weeks, I had a couple of days where work was feeling really frustrating. I kept on having to go back on things I had done before, tweaking a few things, correcting a few mistakes, then waiting for people to review these changes, etc. So my sense of accomplishment hit a new low. In normal circumstances, I would have perhaps taken a look around the office and realise that maybe it wasn’t just me. Or that, actually it was only since yesterday that it had been like this and in fact, other people have had a much worse week than me. But, with Skype meetings and ad-hoc emails, it’s not quite the same.

So, I had to come to terms with myself. I had to refer back to the self-inspection I developed from university and adapt it to the circumstances I was going through. I realised when working from home, one bad day feels like a horrible week. On top of this, I had to come to terms with myself that working from home did not have to be a synonym for “having productive days everyday”. I concluded that not having distractions from the office does not imply that all work can be done flawlessly, at a first try, without any impediments.

Lesson number 2: Some jobs take time, even when working from home…

Learning and socialising

These have remained as obstacles for longer than the two previous issues. As several journalists have shared on LinkedIn; remote working is depriving young people of key learning opportunities. Since I stopped sharing office space with colleagues whose experience is triple my age (or more ?), I have not been able to take in a lot of their knowledge in its rawest format. Up until now, I thought I had been doing fairly well at adapting and not missing on much by working from home. But that isn’t completely true. When sharing an office, there are simpler forms of socialising and learning from those around you. The short talks over tea breaks, the discussions over lunch, or the random nudges of information that are shared in long morning meetings. These are the true gems of wisdom that are so crucial for younger adults. And this really is much more than just specific learning on technical matters. It’s the anecdotes and the experiences of others in different positions and different fields, that give me a better idea on how I fit in the company and how the company fits in the world. Overall, in a social setting there’s always someone to learn from and unfortunately that setting is gone when working remotely.

I do believe that I am still getting a lot of learning by distance. Most of our meetings keep a casual tone and we get to share a lot of information that is perhaps not relevant, but quite useful to know. And of course, we have not stopped code reviews, document reviews, etc. (if anything they have increased, as these are much more measurable ways of evaluating progress). And we have not stopped talking about our mistakes and the lessons made from these. It is just that now, I value these a whole lot more. Whenever someone brings up something from a couple of years ago, I tune in my ears and make sure to write it down and try to hold on that piece of information. And when there are discussions happening that I don’t follow, I no longer assume that I will simply ask about it during a break or some other time (because the next time it may come in email format!).

So, lesson number 3: Paying attention to the “out of scope” information shared by other colleagues is critical now more than ever.

I am still trying to mitigate for this loss of social contact. But it will remain nevertheless a loss, and I think it’s the one reason why I stand for a flexible working arrangement; with some time working in the office and some other days from home.

Personally, I believe remote working presents more advatanges than disadvantages and I do hope it does not disappear as quickly as it appeared. On an individual level, we get to save a lot of time and money in commuting and we can spend that in healthier habits such as exercising, preparing balanced meals, and spending time with loved ones. On a collective level, we are sparing the planet from vasts amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, and improving the ways of connecting different regions and timezones (virtual conferences, though not as exciting, are enabling many more attendees and increasing the spread of information). So, all in all, it’s worth making the most of remote working and focusing on changing what we can control.