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The Benefits of Working Remotely in IT

When I was rewriting a student records system for my graduate college, I spent most of time in a tiny room with a keypunch and desk filled with old and new program printouts, plus the punched card versions of each. When I wrote code, it was an instruction per card (or more if putting an “X” in column 72 for a continuation card), and if I needed a new printout, I’d box up the relevant cards and hike halfway across campus to the computer room to have the code compiled and printed. Not exactly productive, but I loved my work, and getting paid besides! Time consuming, but a graduate assistant’s dream.
I moved on to IBM, initially spending most of my time in our office—as well as weeks in the Endicott training center—making my way through the training program. To a small degree, I spent time at a large insurance company that would become my primary workplace along with three IBM system engineers and a marketing representative. We were provided with client-supplied desks, filing cabinets, storage shelves and computer terminals, one connected to IBM’s network. I moved to my client’s city, spending my time with the client interspersed with specialist calls, having a desk at IBM, but rarely using it.
As I got more involved with this client, I effectively became part of the client’s staff, with the luxury to order all of the IBM manuals I wanted. I started to take manuals home with me, organizing them in binders and labeling them, browsing their contents before taking them to the client site and establishing a library. I’d worked evenings during college, and got a heavy dose during IBM training, and working from home became normal. I got the reputation of working around the clock, not unusual among us IBMers, and there were occasional times I did; working from home in addition to onsite was my workday.
I left IBM in the early 1990s, and by then I’d expanded my working from home, because by now IBM had produced the IBM Portable Computer (nicknamed “luggable” because its weight mandated a shoulder strap), which allowed me to go online from home or elsewhere. The Internet became a universal network that IBM and most businesses used to extend their reach, so my ability to access IBM’s manuals, Q&A and other help, plus file transfer and email, mushroomed. When I got my first independent contract, I had access to more technical facilities than I’d ever had.

Working Remotely, Responding Quickly

I’d evolved from mostly working at the worksite to mostly working from home, and I flourished in that environment. I was working independently, and while my experience with IBM had been good, being able to make my own decisions freed me to work on my own terms. A couple contracts later, I was able to log in to my client’s IT system and work directly, a capability my client was initially reluctant to provide. I had previous experience with this client while with IBM, and that familiarity won them over; the need to be onsite further lessened, mostly for meetings or testing.
Small projects became large ones, and despite my increased productivity, I needed help. Consequently my firm blossomed to eight consultants, every client providing us with online access. At project startup I made a point to have a kickoff meeting and found reasons for the team to be onsite, because people are more comfortable working with consultants they’ve met in informal settings, fostering teamwork, turning strangers into partners and kindred spirits. Thereafter most of our work was offsite, but we maintained regular contact, always assured them we were there to help, proving it with action.
There were some projects or activities—like disaster/recovery testing or hardware installations—that had to be onsite, but they were the exception. Conversely, and while it seems contradictory, one of the tasks that lent itself especially well to home-based work was on-call problem support, because response time was so quick. In fact, it was often instantaneous, because when an operator called with a problem, and once we calmed them (operators get excited easily), we could often talk them through the issue. If it was unclear, we got logged-on and working within minutes, calling in help as needed.

Objections to Working Remotely Still Exist

Some years later I joined a mail-order gift merchant who took a very different approach to remote access and support: They didn’t like or allow it. This brought me up short, but this company’s management had an archaic attitude toward their employees; they didn’t trust them and assumed their subordinates were underperforming unless closely supervised and regularly reminded they could be replaced. Like many of my peers, I lived over an hour’s drive away, and while I accepted the time and cost of my commute, banning remote access didn’t make sense.
It wasn’t that IT didn’t have the equipment and software to provide remote access, because they had one laptop that could dial in to their mainframe, which was provided to the on-call programmer. Since so many of us lived far from the computer room, response time for overnight problems was often between 30 and 70 minutes, so unacceptable that management had no choice but to offer remote access from that lone laptop that was passed from one programmer to another every week.
IT management had numerous objections to working from home:

  • No manager could assure the programmer was putting their full eight or nine hours
  • Programmers might watch TV or other activities while working, and code it as work time
  • Programmers couldn’t consult with each other remotely like onsite (even though they were a phone call away)
  • Programmers might use their laptops for personal use
  • If the programmer’s family was home, they’d be a distraction and degrade the employee’s productivity
  • Programmers would be harder to contact
  • Non-IT employees would expect the same privileges

When IT finally provided computer-accessible laptops in work-at-home scenarios, the driving factor was a rising number of problems that required multiple, differently-skilled programmers—meaning individuals in different locations had to work together—and management grudgingly conceded that working from home might have some benefits despite the cost and their distrust. So they approved laptops for all, a decision that engendered cheers and gave morale a huge lift. Management lorded over us, and numerous scoldings tempered our joy, but performance improved despite management’s skepticism and close oversight.

Motivation, Not Technology, Fuels Productivity

Just because progress may produce new forms of abuse doesn’t mean change is undesirable—the pros often outweigh the cons, and invariably provide new opportunities if used wisely. Maybe my last management had some sort of previous bad experience, but I never heard it, and the staff when I was there had a great work ethic and integrity. I don’t know why IT was so against innovation, but they abhorred change and refused to trust us. Their folly was starkly revealed in a recent engagement I took, a contract with a large financial enterprise which processed $13 billion of Wall Street transactions daily on an eight mainframe complex.
The client’s IT vice president asked our team to visit their site and remain onsite for the first two weeks. We readily agreed, because that’s a wonderful opportunity to know our comrades, so we flew to the East Coast and got settled. The next morning we went to the firm’s headquarters, greeted by our contact and given the tour, then directed to a conference room with speaker phone. Almost all participants worked from home! That was business as usual for them. Their IT floor was a ghost town, although everyone had a desk, but working from home was the norm. What a difference from that mail-order firm!
After those first two weeks onsite, I never returned to my client’s premises, but I participated in a dozen or so meetings per week, performed various detailed studies and made numerous recommendations. Working from home via phone and Internet enhanced my productivity, but I had to do the work; motivation, not technology, fuels productivity. My motivation came not only from within, but also my client’s appreciation and the great relationship we had. I created a successful career and thriving consulting firm through hard work; technology was only a tool.