Long Distance Call

Where is Our WFH Workspace Empathy?

Let’s be honest, we are already getting tired of hearing about COVID-19. It dominates our media headlines. It is leading to the cancellation of many events and conferences. Company policies are invading our mailboxes. The resulting panic is emptying our supermarket shelves. As much as we want to ignore it, this disease is having a significant impact on our lives as it moves throughout the world.

This week it has escalated in Europe to the point where many are beginning to work from home for significant periods of time. Suddenly, vast numbers of people used to the daily commute are stuck in the confines of their homes. Many will not have a comparable home setup to support a productive working day. Myself and colleagues are facing ongoing challenges in adjusting to self isolation. For those with no home setup such as myself, we are scrambling to invest in home workspaces to continue to be meet deadlines. Yet when challenges arise, many struggle to remediate the resulting issues.

I have previously discussed workspace effects on developer productivity and the practice of pair programming, as well as the impact on non-permanent stakeholders. In these tough times of self-isolation remote workspace support should be a paramount concern. Here I discuss some of the challenges of poor remote workspace support, and how a consistent lack of tooling focus impacts our capacity to work in times of hardship. Furthermore, I will emphasise the importance of workspace empathy, and how true leaders can support their teams.

The Only One

If we consider the usual WFH setup, casual remote workers have a far less sophisticated setup than they utilise in the office. Numerous tweets coupled with my own experiences over the years point to the lonely laptop and mobile phone. The vast multi-screen office setup with high specification PC and fixed phone definitely pales in comparison. While in my university days working with a single screen was comfortable, the reality is it is far easier to scale up monitor use than it is to scale down. Nowadays, context switching on a single monitor for me is immensely infuriating. I’ve been spoiled by having multiple screens.

Some organisations are providing additional monitors and headsets to help support their people in adjusting to regular remote working. This support must continue to ensure colleagues are able to carry out their daily responsibilities. We must ask ourselves if this is the only mechanism to help our workforce remain productive.

Your New Twin Size Bed

The expectation that all team members have a dedicated workspace at home needs to be rapidly corrected. Lacking a space to work at home has a massively detrimental impact on productivity.

There are many life factors that result in people having a lack of dedicated space to work outside the office. Perhaps their proximity to the office means it’s not worth the effort. Perhaps living in a single room in a flat share means they are short of space or struggle to share a poor common WiFi connection. Perhaps you have noisy neighbours or temporarily high noise levels at home due to construction work being undertaken by yourself or neighbours. Perhaps the cost implication in comparison to other needs and desires is rather low. It may even be as simple as a preference to work in the office as it is a space your mind associates with work tasks.

This phenomenon does not just affect developers. Yet it is the junior developer population who are more likely to be impacted. I am in a different situation still where I had to dismantle my office to provide a bedroom for my infant son. My circumstance primarily arise from different reasons than those cited above.

Irrespectively, we now face the mutual challenge of scrambling to provide ourselves with the necessary space to work effectively. Often with little support. Providing headsets and monitors as described previously is a fantastic step forward. Yet support for helping individuals with a dedicated setup often falls short. That’s were help with items such as furniture should be considered.

Video Phone

Connectivity software and collaboration tooling is imperative in our quest for remote working productivity. Yet historical investment in such software is often an afterthought.

Despite working from home being actively encouraged this week, I actively sought refuge in the office. Partly for workspace reasons discussed throughout. But also due to the state performance of collaboration tooling used by many organisations. Certain messaging and screen sharing products have been the bane of my office setup for some time. One particular piece of software freezes and crashes several times a day due to poor scaling support. You have to complete numerous steps to enable video as it’s disabled by default. The strain of a remote connection exacerbates these problems.

Although these issues impact the entire workforce, we keep calm and carry on with this particular tool. It is only now that we are required to remote work for a considerable period of time that the surge of requests for a comparable tools are appearing. The video calling issues can no longer be remediated by meeting people directly in other floors or buildings.

There is an element of personal preference at play here. It is my opinion that these tools should be made available to all in times of normality. This should be done in anticipation that these products will help to eliminate the shock of remote working isolation in times of strife.

Bad Connection

The world right now exhibits a strong and ignorant it works for me attitude. We have all shared a laugh or two at those stockpiling tinned food, pasta, hand wash a toilet paper, but to name a few. On the day I write this we have been unable to secure the nappies and formula we need for our infant son. We are clearly part of the minority group that only purchase what they need. Warnings to take what you need to ensure others can also obtain what they need are definitely being ignored. How people have the time to try numerous shops every day to find new stock of items to pilfer is beyond me.

Remote workspace attitudes are exhibiting the same selfish side effects. The age old joke of it works on my machine leaves a rather bitter taste in the mouth of those who are expected to be productive using connections that lock up for half the day. True leadership on remote workspace requires ensuring all have the tools they need. Leaders must provide support to expedite issues quickly. To do that they must listen to the concerns people are raising in the first place.

Anybody Seen My Baby?

Over the next few months our work and personal lives are going to collide together into an ugly mess of inactivity. Conference calls will be interrupted by family members and neighbours. With my quintessential self-deprecating humour, I joke about my infant son and husband joining the stand up. However, the reality is that a baby’s cry breaking through in the middle of a planning call leaves me feeling very raw and exposed to colleagues. Until I take the financial hit and sort out a dedicated space this will continue to be a problem. Even once a dedicated space is found, I will continue to battle to be heard through the noise of my neighbours ongoing construction work.

As the world progresses through this period of social isolation, I am struck by a disappointing realisation that support will be hard to find. Having gone through a reduced element of isolation for 6 months while on maternity leave, I know first hand the emotional toll it can take. As many petition for us to think of others and stop panic buying, the same must apply to our colleagues. Think of those who live alone and may appreciate a video coffee break. Consider the opposing exposure of family and how invaded it can feel. Expressing kindness and empathy to others situation is paramount to making it through this tough time. Good luck all!

Thanks for reading! Claps, comments and sharing of your own remote working challenges is very much appreciated.

Lead software engineer with a strong interest in UI, UX, Usability and Agility. Lover of cooking, tea, photography and gin! All views expressed are my own.

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