After an unusual set of circumstances, my company has shifted its IT and software development staff into a distributed workforce even though all of us are within a local drive of the office.  Previously other terms were used for this type of work, like working from home or working remotely.  But it is so much more than that.

The distributed workforce is becoming a common buzzword now, describing people who rarely or never come to a physical office.  It’s a new world for me, but not for my wife.  She worked for a company in Pittsburgh for a year, before we decided to move back to Florida.  She had proved herself to be quite an asset, and the company allowed her to take the company laptop and other equipment with her and give it a try.  It has worked quite well for her.

Matt Mullenweg, the co-creator of WordPress blogging/content management software, has produced a video on the distributed workforce here. His new company is 100% distributed workforce.  Ironically, my wife has been working for over 18 months in Florida and there were 14 people in the office when she left Pittsburgh for Florida.  There is now only one person in Pittsburgh who goes into the office, so the idea has even caught on with her company.

So after about two months in the distributed workforce, here’s what I have found:

The Good

You get a certain part of your life back by losing the commute to the workplace. Another part of this is lowering the stress from rush hours, overly assertive drivers (aggressive is a label), accident delays and other negatives to a regular commute.  There is also a savings in fuel costs, toll road costs, and maintenance (less wear and tear), although those costs won’t totally go away.

You can choose where you work, at pretty much anytime.  The terms “working from home” and “working remotely” are too narrow, so the distributed workplace implies any place other than a fixed location:

  • You can decide to spend sometime in another location and just work from there.  My wife and I recently went to Kansas City, where our daughter goes to school, to have some time with her and take care of some chores at the house.  Some of my coworkers have or will shortly be working from out of country–just to have a change of pace.  I often see distributed workers just hanging out for an hour or two at a Starbucks or other place with free WiFi.
  • A group of your co-workers can decide to work in a public area for several hours to collaborate in person. I recently did this with some coworkers to coordinate the final stages of a project for deployment.  It was a newer marketplace with a microbrewery and food shops, and we went in the middle of the week when the volume of shoppers was low.  The merchants were happy to see us and others with laptops showed up in the marketplace.  This gave me a fresh perspective on the value of the buy local movement.
  • Your home office is your own environment, which gives you a lot of control. Being a software developer, immersion is a key aspect of developing code.  I worked for 8 years in a Microsoft-like environment, which was private offices with a door.  Closing the door was only done to block out the rest of the office for some immersion time.  This gets really good in a home office, because people can’t just walk up to you and disrupt you when you are immersing.  Also, in areas where there is no office, it is amusing to see the 50/50 split among the workers who want overhead lights on or off while working at their workstations.  The home office eliminates that debate.

The Bad

Initializing social contact becomes a proactive effort.  In the office environment, people often initiate conversations by simply coming into contact with another by chance. Because the distributed environment eliminates this chance contact, there has to be some initiative to create some chance contact.  At a minimum, companies generally plan some kind of team activity when everyone can relax together.  This is a good reason to set up a permanent video conference called “the water cooler” so that people can just check-in outside of scheduled meetings, say hi and chat with whoever is there.

It requires diligence to keep up with all the things happening on the team, and to report all the things through more formal channels in the team. Similar to chance conversations, being distributed also eliminates hearing about something from another conversation nearby which should have been communicated.  The “water cooler” open video conference can sometimes help with this, and can be a good measure of where documentation or communication is lacking.

It requires a high level of self-discipline.  While I list this under the bad part, it is only the adjusting or re-adjusting to the lack of immediate personal feedback.  It is not too difficult if you’ve worked independently before, but leaving the office environment where your team is physically present will require this shift.

If you are not in the habit of exercising, get started as soon as possible.  For some people who are not involved in regular exercising, working in the distributed workforce can actually remove the only form of exercise they have: walking to the office.  Where we live, we have a community pool and a nice 1.5 mile walk we can take daily.  Find whatever works for you and do it.  It helps to avoid feeling isolated when you are not often around your work team, and the exercise is always good for your health.

The Good or The Bad … Depending upon your situation

The home life can not interfere with the office time.  My wife and I are now empty-nesters in middle-age, so this is not a problem for us.  She has her office in the front of the house, I have mine in the back.  The only time we see each other when we are working is when we take a cappuccino break, or sometimes even lunch.  If my kids were still living at home (especially under the age of 5 or 6), this could be a challenge to manage.  Still, I’ve seen some people manage it amazingly well.

Some final thoughts on why this is growing into the norm for a lot of companies

The idea of work following the sun (as Electronic Data Systems used to refer to work transferring from one team to a team on the next continent on a near constant basis) has been around in some valid form since the 1990’s.  Remote working is not new.  But there have been several events in technology and culture which have made wide adoption of this work phenomena possible:

The switch to SaaS (Software as a Service) and the extensive adoption of the cloud.

As a software developer, it was difficult to envision, even just 5 to 10 years ago, being able to write code and manage build processes while outside of a secure office environment.  The build servers were generally in some restricted part of the company, and the development and testing process stayed on corporate owned and managed servers–often in the corporate facility itself.  The production servers, where the product was deployed and served the public, was the first place the code was operated outside of the corporate IT department.  Usually, this was on hosted servers in one or more data centers.

With the advent of the cloud, and Software as a Service impacting even the coding and build tools (Azure, Amazon S3, GitHub), source code and build processes now exist outside the company’s IT department hardware.  The IT and DevOps folks are just tenants of a larger system in the cloud.  In fact, in my current position, I don’t use a VPN except on rare occasions to directly access a server on Azure or a corporate server with legacy info which has not yet been transferred to a SaaS service.

So while distributed work was enabled by the tools software developers built, now even the development process itself is distributed work.

The incredible growth of high speed internet between continents

Back when the United States began military action in Afghanistan after the September 2001 attacks, I remember the almost comical transmission delays when a news agency (CNN, etc) did a live report from the scene.  Since the primary signal transmission went over a few satellites to transit over the continents, the delay was often 2-3 seconds.  Most inter-continental internet traffic still traveled over satellites at the time as well.  The delays were annoying, but I do remember it being fodder for a Saturday Night Live skit about two comics separated in Afghanistan and the United States were trying to do their routine over the “live” link.  It was more irony for me, in that the same timing disruptions they experienced in trying to do their routine in the skit, was something I was experiencing when talking to overseas teams in India at the time.

A signal travelling to a (geosynchronous) satellite has to travel 22,236 miles, and the round trip is 44,472 miles.  When you consider that the speed of electricity is 182,000 miles/sec, that’s almost a quarter of a second travel time.  If it has to travel over multiple satellites, it’s roughly 1/4 of a second per satellite.  And in a phone call or video call, that’s just the delay from the microphone on the far end to the speaker on your end.  That same delay occurs when you answer back.

About four months ago, the company I now work for contracted with a company in India to do some coding.  And as we did work with them over video links using Zoom, it was immediately clear that something had radically changed.  The timing delays were gone… all of them.  I was so pleased with how much the absence of timing delays made the conversations more natural.

Curious to what had caused this, I did some quick research.  The reason it has improved so much is that today 97% of all intercontinental internet traffic is carried by an undersea fiber optic cable.  97 percent !  How far we have come in just over a decade.  Undersea cables (copper) have been around for many decades, and were designed for telegraph and telephonic transmission across continents.  There has been a substantial amount of effort to lay undersea fiber optic cable to increase the speed and capacity between land masses.

When the undersea fiber optic cable is used, the travel distance from Florida to India is about 10,000 miles.  In addition, when the signal changes cables during its route, it does so at a junction box right in the cable. This increases the travel distance only by yards or feet–not by multiples of the entire distance.  This cuts the one-way time for the signal to travel down to between 5/100ths to 10/100ths of a second, making the response time difference very noticeable.

To get an idea of the extent of underwater intercontinental fiber-optic connections, check out this map. The cables represented by a grey color are not yet operational and have the planned date of launch next to their name.

In conclusion

The distributed workforce is one of the gems of the global village envisioned long ago, and should be embraced.  It opens up a world of possibilities.  And I really like it.

A side note: My wife and I worked (not distributed) for the same company from 2007-2015.  We are now both distributed workers working from home, but for different companies.  We’ve kinda come full-circle.