Working from home is a really relevant topic right now and I have some opinions on this based on the last ten years of trying various ways of running a modern engineering team. I believe that having the ability to work from home and work in person with your team is the best mix in many situations, and I’ll explain why a hybrid model works so well in this blog.
As I’ve said in previous blogs, at Cake we would try different things and sometimes they’d fail and sometimes they’d succeed. We’d always fine-tune and improve them and for us, the hybrid model of working is a result of trying things that didn’t quite work how we wanted them to, trying other things that worked well and then putting all of this experience together in a proper strategy. This hybrid model of working from home and in the office became part of the way we worked as an organisation and, on the whole, I think it worked well.
Of course, there are some people who evangelise working from home and want to work that way all the time. For some people that works, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true for the majority of us. Although there are absolutely benefits to working from home, there are also benefits to working as part of a team, face-to-face. As humans, we thrive on interaction and we do things better when we’re working with people. I’ll explain how we came to develop our hybrid working model at Cake and what benefits that brought.
In the early years at Cake, we hired purely remote workers for very good reasons. They were really good people who, for whatever reason, couldn’t work from the office. Some of them didn’t live in Manchester where we were based, or they moved away and we didn’t want to lose them, or for them to lose the opportunity of working for us.
We probably hired four or five people over a period when we started to think about having remote workers as well as a team in Manchester, but the reality is that none of the remote workers we hired worked with us for as long as the vast majority of people who worked out of the office.
Relationship building is key
When we looked at it, there were various reasons why retention among remote workers wasn’t as high as it was among our office-based team, and I’ll just say at this point that our retention rate was incredible.
One of the main challenges with purely remote working is building relationships. It’s very difficult, no matter how hard you try, to build as solid a relationship or camaraderie with fellow team members when you’re purely remote. Even if you have occasional visits to the office where you start to build those relationships, then you go back to working remotely and you lose that very human, natural interaction that most of us thrive off.
From a personal point of view, I believe that the team member misses out on certain things as well. Human interaction is one aspect, but I also think that when you’re purely remote you don’t learn as much. The best tool in the world is being able to turn around, tap somebody on the shoulder and ask them a question; or just grab a couple of people to take five minutes to look at a problem you just can’t solve and get their thoughts. It’s just harder to do those things when you have that barrier in front of you, albeit an ever decreasing barrier. When you’re not sitting next to somebody and you can’t see their body language or just be spontaneous, it makes things a bit more challenging and less natural than a tap on the shoulder and asking for five minutes of someone’s time.
We found that our retention rate from remote workers wasn’t anywhere near as successful as it was for people working from the office, despite our best attempts to reduce the risk of that happening. We tried lots of things to make working purely remotely work, but in the end, it was never quite as good as people working together in the same space. This was when we decided we weren’t going to have purely remote team members anymore.
Homeworking has its benefits…
While we wanted people to work in the office, we also recognised that it’s really important for people to have a work-life balance. Having the option to work from home allows people to be around for unplanned events, like a child being ill, or for deliveries where you have to wait at home all day. It also allows you to manage planned events like doctor or dentist appointments more easily. People need flexibility nowadays to do that kind of thing.
Another benefit to working from home is that you don’t have to commute. I, more than anyone, understand the benefits of not having to commute and the improvements that bring to your family and personal lives, having spent 15 years leaving the house for work at 6.40 am and getting home after 7 pm.
When you’re working at home it’s also just nice to go for a walk in a familiar environment at lunchtime. We understood that having the opportunity to do these things makes life better.
We wanted to find a way to give everyone the best of both worlds and that’s why we came up with this hybrid model.
The best of both worlds
This was why we developed our hybrid model, to allow our team to have all the benefits of working from home without losing the benefits of working in the office.
We didn’t want to make it overly officious or procedural though, so if someone wanted to work from home they didn’t have to get permission from any of the senior team. The way it worked was that they would go to their team leader and they would explain that they needed to work from home tomorrow because of a delivery, a dentist appointment, whatever it was.
We typically had teams of six or seven people and it would be up to the team to say, ‘Yes that’s fine’ or ‘Actually, that’s going to cause an issue could it be moved to the next day?’ However, 99% of the time, the team were fine with someone working from home as long as everyone from the team wasn’t away at the same time. One or two people missing and dialling in remotely at any one time didn’t cause the team any issues and it provided the flexibility that everyone needed to help them strike the right balance.
It meant that, on the whole, they wouldn’t have to commute for at least a couple of days a week and it meant they could deal with the things that modern life demands. Equally, when they were in the office they benefited from the learning opportunities you find in that kind of environment, whether that’s working with your peers, going to a lunch ‘n’ learn at lunchtime or going to a user group with some of your colleagues straight from the office.
We operated this hybrid policy where people could work from home and work from the office, and it was the team who made the decision about when working from home was appropriate, not senior management. In general, we found that everyone would naturally take into account the effect that them working from home would have on their team and that meant this hybrid approach worked well for everyone.