Simon Emms

Software Engineer, Technical Leader, Solutions Designer

In Defence of Remote Working


I've been a software engineer for a long time - getting on for 15 years. In that time, I've spent a lot of that time working from company offices. Over the last few years, I've been attracted to remote working. Here are a few reasons why it's worth considering it, for both employers and employees.

Communication Problems

Let's get this one out of the way straight away. Every time I mention remote working to sceptical employers, I'm greeted with the same stock response.

We like all our developers to be on-site as we find this encourages better communication

I've worked in a lot of different companies over the years and with a lot of different developers. Some of these have been university educated, others self-taught. Some come from Britain, others from all four corners of the globe. Some are boys, some (far fewer than there should be) are girls. Some are cis-gendered, others are non-binary. I've worked with a whole joyous rainbow of people, but the one thing that links them all together is:


Really, we do. I've worked in offices and sat next to people who've become close friends and all we ever do is talk over Slack/instant messenger. And that's a good thing. It means that we can send code snippets to each other easily. It means that we've got a self-building wiki of ways of solving common problems. And it's a great thing for concentration.

Twenty years ago Joel Spolsky, one of the co-founders of Stack Overflow, wrote a blog post introducing the Joel Test. This is 12 questions to ask yourself about your team and point 8 is do programmers have quiet working conditions?

There have been many studies that have demonstrated that it takes time for a developer to get their mind in a state to properly concentrate - most studies put this around 15 minutes. So for every time you get an interruption, even if only for 1 minute, you're losing 15 minutes of productive developer time. Spolsky recommends having quiet working conditions for engineers, right up to having individual cubicles for engineers.

As I said above, I've worked in a lot of offices. Some are big companies with dedicated, beautiful offices. Others are co-working spaces. But in every single one, it's been an open-plan office. The reason being is that it costs a lot of money to get enough space for every developer to have their own cubicle.

So why not save that money and let them work remotely?

Offices Are Limiting

Imagine you're a startup. You have a brilliant idea, a great business plan and a marketing strategy that's almost certain to work. You go out and get funding. That funding is broken down into various categories - hiring costs, marketing costs, et cetera. Let's say you also want a nice office for all these people to work from - you want it to be light and airy, you want it near a major train station for ease of commute. All this costs money.

Once you've got your beautiful office, you start recruiting. Because you're in a major city, there's plenty of talent around. But there's also plenty of other companies recruiting for the skills you need, so you have to offer more money than you would ideally like to. Whilst idly looking on the job boards, you notice that the going-rate for the skills you're looking for as 30% cheaper in another city. So you start looking for people in that city and they want the same money as in your city if they're expected to work on-site.

This happens a lot. I regularly get phone calls from people asking me to work in London. "Oh, come work with us in London Simon. We'll pay you £700 a day Simon." That's all well and good, but I have a life in the Midlands - I do things in the evenings with my friends and family. I'd much rather receive less money and work from home.

One thing I've never understood is why there is a cachet involved in saying "we are a London agency". That doesn't mean you're any good - it just means that you've got an office in a city (that's incredibly overpriced).

Also, my office is better than yours. I have trees and birds that I can see from my desk and can go for a walk if I need to gather my thoughts. The tea and coffee are also better too. And I can microwave fish for my lunch and no one cares.

Commuting Is Exhausting

An hour's commute is not considered extreme. My nearest big city, Birmingham, is about an hour away from my home town of Telford. Telford was established to be a town that people lived in and then commuted to Birmingham for work. There is a motorway and a regular train service that takes you right into the city centre in 40 minutes.

However, once you factor in travelling to the station and between the station and the office, the journey is just over an hour. That's not taking into account delays or traffic jams. And then there's the cost. A pass between Telford and Birmingham is over £1,000 a year and that's one of the cheaper ones in the UK - I know people paying £5,000 to get between their home and central London.

You've then got your 8 hours in the office on top of that. Of course, no one really does anything in the first 30 minutes of their day - well, we do, but it's make tea and chat with your mates about last night's telly.

Whenever I've worked from home, I'm quite happy to work 9 hours a day because I'm still an hour up on what I would be doing if I was in the office. It's literally the definition of a win-win situation - employer gets an extra hour's work out of me, I'm in "non-work" mode an hour sooner than I would have been.

Commuting Is Environmentally Unsustainable

Unless everyone commutes on an electric train, powered by solar energy, you are adding to your carbon footprint. The reality of life over the next 20 years is we need to address things like this - the sooner we start, the better for everyone.

I Want To Make Sure My Team Are Working

You don't deserve to work with competent professionals then. Don't judge other people on your own standards.

Granted, remote working isn't for all. There are businesses that legitimately need people on-site - I can't really imagine bus drivers working remotely or if you're working with sensitive/classified data - but I've not come across many jobs within software engineering that couldn't work just as well or better if they were remote or part-remote.

Flexible, remote working will open up a whole avenue of opportunities to you that you will miss if you insist on solely on-site working. Your engineers will be fresher, able to concentrate better and you will be able to recruit better people from across a much bigger area. You will also be able to attract people who might not want a full-time job but who would be an asset to your company.


Photo by Avi Richards on Unsplash

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