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So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means - Immanuel Kant's Formula of Humanity

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Remote work insanity

 I am sitting in my office and looking around, I see most of my colleagues instead of being heads-down with work, are spending bulk of their day talking with their colleagues on Microsoft teams, our official communication app. They are interacting with people, who are "working from home". On the other side are people who are "working" but cannot make the physical presence in the office to do that. The conversations take hours, what should ideally be few minutes in-person. It is probably, an over-the-shoulder comment, followed by quick couple of questions & answers. The whole office looks like a BPO call-center. Coding is waiting for the calls, and calls are waiting for the coding to happen. Instead of people running ahead with full speed, they are grinding their way out slowly with high-level of operation lethargy. It makes me painful, this way of software development has become the new normal.

Someone told me a long time ago a big truth, that there is absolutely nothing called over-communication in software development. People need to be engaged constantly through the entire implementation phase. Ideas, code details, expectations, requirements, validations, user experience are constantly reinforced amongst the team members, so that the entire team is guided as they make progress. It's like giving a haircut, the team has to be at least in the vicinity. I have seen Projects succeed because that one-person successfully articulated the requirements and got the best out of the team by being with it all the time. This is what works. Now with some people working from office and some working from home, this communication coexistence is clearly broken leading to dilution in the software development models causing unwanted delays and additional stress on team members.

Working from home option existed prior to the pandemic as well. Occasionally you hear people, who says they are working from home, particular days of the week or few on all days. It used to be the resources who work from home on most of the days, are way smarter than the rest and provide an unique expertise to the team. They usually grow into that position. Their credibility is unquestionable within the team. They are always available. Bottom line - they sit at home and work lot harder & smarter, literally more than what they would have achieved if they came in to office every day. More importantly - they are available to come into office on short trips. They would fly in or commute to stay in an hotel for a day or two, they have really jam packed productive meetings, bunch of action items to all, have a game plan to execute in weeks and they go back home "to work" with lot of work in their plate. The visits cost the firm lot of money, but it would be worth it. While working my way as developer, I have seen how these people work. They are very industry experienced, usually super smart and are a pleasure to work. They gain respect of the team, even though they are not with the team. One quality they possess - they don't take leaves. They are available online 24x7. You need to be somebody disciplined and dedicated to be offering your service without leaving your home.

Then came the pandemic.

Once the lockdowns were mandated, everyone were forced to stay indoors. While employees of business who cannot execute their labor remotely, lost their jobs., people in the IT industry were lucky enough to hold on to their job, because they can contribute their labor with no difference sitting at home, what would they have did if they were in office. That was the expectations from the management. That is where it started. The assumption was every employee would sincerely execute his service. May be it was OK to work remotely for a month or two because of compulsions. But definitely it didn’t serve the original purpose and days went by. Employees resisted coming to work - citing genuine covid scare initially. It later turns out to be to avoid relocating to work place, avoid daily commute and more importantly in this part of the world - to save on the expenses. These additional savings in India created a demand for new cars, luxury vacations - those they wouldn't commit to, if they had to expense on the office visit daily. They save on the lunch cost, commute cost overall. Some of them have moved permanently to their native, so that they can save on the rent in the bigger cities. Even though these are good things for the individuals, it not a good deal for the employer (and eventually clients) as more number of people choose to be in their comfort zone rather than try to bring energy to work every single day. Employees with no or little experience were also sitting at home trying to work remotely. First-of-all they don't even have basic skills to work by themselves. The learning curve just got a lot longer. In IT, the start of your career is very important. You need to be in a dynamic, lively, hard-working, interesting work place. That is where you learn a lot. Having a bad start prolongs your learning curve by months. I see lot of them going through that. If you are working in your first job and have never been to an office - it shows up in the quality of the work.

Workplace became workhours. Workhours became beacon of boredom. No new ideas, just grinding the existing stuffs. The only reason the employer could afford this change of behavior, was the client was willing to pay. Finally when the clients run out of money themselves or patience in the team not doing anything creative anymore, they opt to reduce the number of people on the team or shelve new thoughts as there is nothing that is value promising.

I remember, in one of my product development jobs, I would walk-in to office and spend long hours working late with few dedicated team members. My manager would always ask if he needs to order lunch, dinner for us. We always ordered food to be delivered and ate a different cuisine every time, like Chinese, Italian, Thai. Only after a long time, did I realize is the food was being ordered because my manager wants us all to keep rushing the work and doesn't want us go out for lunch which takes an hour at least. Instead, when food is delivered in office, we just walk in to the cafeteria and have a lunch/dinner in 15 mins and back to the desk for work. That were those days, where we were truly productive as a team. We stayed together every day at work. When there is an urgent deliverable and lot of things to accomplish within a limited time-constrain, it makes sense to avoid the commute time and keep your heads down working long hours sitting at home. But when there is not enough to do for 8 hours for employees, laziness creeps in. They tend to avoid difficult & challenging tasks and get used to giving the regular tasks, which they assume can only be done by them. They go into a fully "manage your job" mode. Their tone in chat/voice calls changes because they need to pretend more than what they are actually doing. They need to show-off little bit to justify their contribution. In the process, they shame themselves more. It causes friction within the team members and a lot of moral hazards.

Once they realize they can "manage their pay-check" in their job, people start moonlighting. What used to done in weekends earlier, start to creep in into the weekdays, causing distractions at work. The more and more, they get distracted, the more and more they "manage their jobs". Once their attention on weekdays shifts completely to moonlighting tasks and not their full time jobs anymore, they are fully unmotivated. They navigate to a state, now often referred to as quite quitting. When in this state, they don't treat the job as an obligation. They already gave up on it. They don't want to do more than what they are actually doing now. They are OK, if the employer wants to cut them off. They already have other plans.   

Let's be frank. Except a very few, most IT workers in India, do not have enough infrastructure at home like what they have at office. That is why we have these huge glassy buildings with air-conditioning that cost lot of money to rent. It's a luxury for most people. They aspire to have jobs in these fine buildings. Most of working population outside the IT fields, have far less convenient work place. A lot of them don't even have an air-conditioned office space. In spite of all these, employees don't want to work from office. Lot of them don't have proper office desks and chairs similar to what they would find in a software office that will put them in a comfortable posture to sit and work long hours. On top of that, half of them don't even have enough skills to operate individually and contribute. What has software become now with most people still working remotely - they just manage. It's nature of work is just "housekeeping" tasks. They do stuff that they always did for years. They don't have to work for 8 hours a day to accomplish what is expected by their manager. They have worked on the project for really long time, they know enough to make a difference daily. This I call - Keeping the lights on, kind of work. Available for work remotely means different things for different people. Able to fix few critical things over a week is one, being available to answer project related questions is another, taking a 15 minute phone call with client late in the night is one-kind, rudely managing few juniors on the phone calls and getting things done is one kind, delegating all work to someone else in the team relaxing yourself, is also another kind, In all these activities, a lot of hot potatoes happen. Things are thrown to others, and holding on to bare minimum tasks for self. One real problem with this "managing" by most employees - you run of money, sympathy & patience from the person who is funding this activity.

There is a bad behavior by few people and then there is a mob behavior modeling around the few, by the rest of them. Eventually everyone gets to "know the game" and start playing around their personal agenda.

Somewhere during the last decade, for some weird reason, employees became more authoritative than employers. Employees by definition are not smart. If they were, they would run their own places instead of contributing their service to an employer for a pre-agreed fee. As always when less-smart people are in-charge, productivity falls.

You wake up every day and show up in office is an attitude setter work-ethic. People prosper because of it. Refusing to show up in office by some of the employees is a raw disrespect to the employees who show up in office daily. To me, if all of them are not in office, then all of them need to be working from home. At least there is no office rent expense or maintenance. That is a better option as the fall-out will happen sooner.  

The problems gets worse as you go west. In the US, the post-pandemic work culture ethics has hit new lows. We see them in productivity numbers. In year 2022, US has lost full-time jobs and created a lot of part-time jobs. By definition part-time jobs are "manage" jobs. You don't have to be fully involved or dedicated but keep a guard on something until the next part-time guy shows up. It's more about the time-factor rather than the work-factor actually. Usually the jobs are repetitive, mundane, uninteresting and will not be done by someone who are more ambitious. For the lack of better word - they are dull jobs done by dull people. I always thought, a family of 4 needs just one person working a full-time job and that should be enough. More than one job in a family - is a sign of weakness and not strength.

There is only one place to blame for this entire mal-function in the work force. It is the Western Central Banks, in the US Fed, ECB and BoE. At the time of pandemic, when the supply was less because of lockdowns, instead of reducing the demand proportionately, they stimulated demand by bring down the interest rate back to zero and the government providing welfare stimulus checks to people who are unemployed and provided PPP loans to businesses to make people employed during the pandemic season. In the US, the entire country was in welfare. It was to ensure people do not come out for the sake of money during a global pandemic. With most Americans devoid of savings, and living life, pay-check to pay-check, this was a humane thing to do. But what really precipitated was - the welfare programs ran for months. Nothing is permanent than a temporary government program. Evacuation moratorium was done which guaranteed people can stay in their houses without paying the rents. With the free money coming in - people earned more than what they earned while working in the jobs, didn't have to pay the rent, don't have the expense like gas to go to work, they spent all their money online on amazon while watching Netflix in their couches. It's all OK, except that no country can afford that. The pandemic exposed the hollowness in how the western economies operate. Lack of productivity was inherent over the last decade, the pandemic put a confirmation to it. Even before the pandemic there were more women workers than men in the labor force, underscoring the less-productive aspect of most jobs.

Human labor is scarce., like everything else in this finite world. Tying up a few people to do unproductive nature of work for a long time, irrespective of their monetary channels is a fraud on nature. If resources are not productively used., why does it matter if they are paid or not. Doing things in 2 months what ideally takes 2 weeks because of operational lethargy, is a disservice in my opinion, though it might be defined as unproductive labor in the law of economics.

The experience of going through this and not able to change anything about it in a meaningful way, is a new low to me personally. I get over this by thinking, after all - It's just a job! Only the market has to fix it. It definitely will. Unfortunately lot of damage would have already happened.

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