The monkey remote desktop experiment

The waste of being present

From time to time I work from home - nothing unusual here, I'm actually surprised that this practice isn't more common. After all - unless you're working manually, chances are you are working remotely anyway. Your email, instant messaging - you might be reading them locally on your computer, but they are all stored, transferred and received by server somewhere in datacentre. All your applications are moving to your browser, all your files are moving to cloud. The point is this: A lot of people are working remotely even while sitting at their office chair. Whole companies are like that.

Yet, every morning, there are traffic jams and the public transport is overloaded.. And it seems like a huge waste to move all these people around, just to have them working somewhere virtual anyway.

The other waste that I've observed is, that compared to working from home, I seem to be noticeably less productive in the office. And that's despite all the limitations the home office might have - starting from very limited access (sometimes literally just a remote desktop), slower connection to company servers or just a fact that at home you might have single laptop screen while having three large screens in the office.

No matter what the limitations are, I generally find my self being more productive when not in the office. In fact thinking back about the technologies that I've developed or deployed, and that ended up being crucial for the company - most of them started as a small project during home office.

We have our best monkeys on it

Chances you haven't heard about this monkeys and ladder experiment, that probably never was, are pretty slim, so I'll just describe it briefly:

  1. Put 4 monkeys in a cage
  2. Add a water sprinkler
  3. Add banana wired to the sprinkler, so that every time they try to get the banana, they get soaked with the cold water
  4. Let them learn the lesson the hard way until they stop trying to get the banana
  5. Swap one monkey with a new one, that has no idea about the sprinkler. Watch how the other monkeys stop the poor guy from grabbing the banana until he learns that banana is a no-no.
  6. Swap the rest of the monkeys one-by-one giving them enough time to teach the newcomer the no-banana rule.
  7. End up wit 4 monkeys, that have never been soaked by the sprinkler, but know that for some reason the banana is forbidden.
  8. Remove the sprinkler and watch the monkeys still observe the no-banana rule.

Now I'm not sure the monkeys would behave like that in real experiment - and after all that's not exactly the point anyway. It might be made up, but if you swap monkeys with humans and swap banana with something more abstract like conformity you'll end up with very similar results.

The promiscuous telecommuter

In fact, swap the cage with a company, the ladder with remote access and the banana with working from home and it feels remarkably similar. Instead of cold water sprinkler, that was removed as we moved to cloud, there are these worries. Like how do you form a team? How do you keep up the team spirit? What if it breaks the company culture?

These are all valid question but to me it feels like most of the companies just see that as a deal-breaker rather than obstacle to overcome. Despite the fact, that there are companies where home office is either only or primary way of working, there seems to be some prejudice, that makes the telecommuting a taboo topic. Almost like sex, that most people do (At least from time to time, right? Right? Hello?), enjoy, yet won't speak about it openly. And if you do it too much, the rumors start to spread: "Look at Betty, she's been working from home three days in a row!"

The little things

The other thing is, that most of the worries are valid even for the classic 9-5 office job. You can kill the culture there just as easily. Companies jumping on the Agile bandwagon rarely consider culture they currently have as if it is something that can be impacted by it. Surprise, surprise! Sometimes it does, if you're not careful. And sure, Agile is great, but as with all things the dose makes the poison - especially in the beginning before people learn how to digest it.

I've even seen monitoring tool killing the culture of a team. Completely overloaded with (mostly false) alarm messages on every possible communication channel, it made the causal banter almost impossible. Now how often do you ask "Will this tool fit our culture?" It feels stupid to ask such stuff during a meeting. It sounds like "Can I get this icon in corn flower blue?".

The causal talk during lunch is another example. In my opinion, this is something that can really bring people together, yet somehow many companies don't make effort to encourage such informal meetings. Quite the opposite actually, you can see small canteens, where people only meet in front of the microwave and then just eat their lunch at their desk. They say that free lunch is an illusion, but I've never seen meeting as effective as lunch with another team. The conflicts are resolved between the sips of soup - it almost makes you wonder where did the seemingly unsolvable issue go. Paid lunch sometimes is investment worth making. Sometimes just making the effort to organize eating out is enough - and that's almost free. (How I miss regular Steak Fridays - at its peak almost an religious event.)

Oh and informal chat - there's a ton of applications: HipChat, Slack, Rocket.Chat,.. Sharing animated gifs of cats might sound like waste of time, but let me tell you something: When I left any company with such causal chat culture, leaving the conversation was almost like canceling your Facebook account. It's where the bonds are formed. It was easier to shake the hands and say goodbye, than to close the channel knowing, that you'll never join it again. Even years later, I sometimes think to my self "Man I wish I could share this thing with the guys!". I'm still in touch with many of them, but the single point of sharing is gone. I don't think I've ever thought about the causal banter at the microwave or water-cooler the same way.

Perhaps not everybody is like that, but I've seen Hipchat making DevOps out of Dev and Ops, I've seen Jabber making a guy in different timezone my close colleague. Do you know how they celebrate Easter in Spain? Well I have an idea, and let me tell you - it took months to see this Spanish guy in person, but by that time, we were already close colleagues. That's when I realized, that his strong accent makes it really hard to understand what he's saying - something that wasn't an issue online, yet people often see chat as very limited form of communication..

On the other hand, I've also seen teams dying after more formal IM system was introduced. (looking at you, Lync)

I guess the point is this: Company culture is hard to create and preserve unless you really try. Telecommuting might make some things easier and some things harder. If anything, it at least makes you conscious, that there's something you need to be careful about. Yet many will look at home office as it was the ultimate culture killer, grabbing the people of the ladder before they even try touching the remote desktop banana - and in the meantime they might beat the team spirit to death just by not providing enough spoons in the canteen. (I wish I was joking)

And to me, that's the ultimate monkey experiment, that we did so many times, there's no point to bother with actual monkeys, ladders and bananas - we can already see the outcome. Instead, we should reach for the banana and if we do it right, everybody might benefit from it.

2016-05-14 00:00 Miroslav Prasil