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Remote work

Started: 2020-05-24 22:19:12

Submitted: 2020-05-25 01:22:12

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator contemplates remote work in the age of Coronavirus, and the benefits of in-person collaboration in the future

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced me to work remotely from my house for the better part of three months, and this is long enough to have my own thoughts about what Google does well (and not so well) with remote work, and how well I do working 100% remotely.

When I started working at Google four years ago I was impressed by the high quality of the conference and collaboration tools. Every meeting anyone scheduled automatically had a video conference attached to it, and that name and conference id showed up on the tablet-sized touch-screen mounted in the middle of the table. To join the meeting all I have to do is tap the touch-screen and I'm immediately dialed into the meeting, connected to everyone else who's joined the meeting. (I haven't dialed a conference bridge number in more than four years.) I can join the meetings from any Google conference room, or from my laptop anywhere I have an Internet connection. I've joined meetings from remote offices (when I decided to randomly visit Mountain View or Boulder for the day but kept working) and from airport terminals minutes after stepping off planes.

I was also impressed to see Google Docs used in ways I hadn't considered. The first team I joined at Google had a cross-site meeting once a week between San Francisco and London, and the meeting was organized using a shared meeting document. As the meeting got going I'd watch the colored cursors representing more than a dozen people editing the shared document at once, adding agenda items with links and references, which helped to keep the meeting going.

As an SRE at Google, I am responsible for the care and feeding of my service's jobs in production, but for the most part I rarely deal with individual jobs or servers, since I have automation to do that for me. I never have to physically touch an individual server — there are entire teams of people physically located in the data centers to handle that. So my entire job is already 100% remote, even when I'm physically located in an office sitting at my desk.

(Google subscribes to the "cattle-not-pets" approach to servers, and the jobs that run on them: everything ought to be interchangeable to the point where a job or a server can crash or a data center or an entire campus can fall off the face of the earth and our load-balancers will immediately reroute traffic elsewhere and no one will notice anything has gone wrong. We want to write self-healing systems that don't require human intervention to repair, because we can't expect humans to respond in time to achieve four or five nines, and because requiring humans to respond to things that computers can take care of on their own is a bad use of the human's time. I can think of only two or three times where I've actually needed to ssh into a machine in prod, usually to debug something I couldn't get any other way.)

But Google has a weird obsession with people being physically present in offices, collocated with their team in sprawling open-plan offices. Some of this I understand: it's easier to get to know people and build rapport when I can see them in person, walk around the halls with them, get coffee and go to lunch together. (I did get to know my dev team better on my first team at Google, when they were located around the corner from my desk on the same floor, rather than my current team, located two states away in Mountain View.)

Google San Francisco sign at Hills Plaza
Google San Francisco sign at Hills Plaza

Right now I can do about 60% of my job exactly the same as I did in the office. This is the part where I sit alone at my computer and design software, write code, read documents, debug code, and do the sorts of engineering work I like to do. I replicated my desk in my house, with two 27" monitors plugged into my Macbook (providing more screen space than I can really use), giving me a physical environment in which I can work. I spent entirely too much time the first couple of weeks of the pandemic trying not to freak out about the pandemic (and what it would mean for my plan to relocate myself somewhere sunnier and drier before next winter); now I think I have a credible plan so I can spend more time focusing on work and less time worrying about the pandemic.

Office in Wallingford
Office in Wallingford

The next twenty percent of my job is communicating with my colleagues in near-real-time. This is the part where text chat and video meetings are useful, and the existing structures (existing chat rooms for my teams, and meetings with seamless video conferencing) generally work well. My meetings went from 20% remote to 100% remote, and the Hangouts Meet team has managed to roll out features to make 100% remote meetings work better. There's a little loss of efficiency here (I can't rely on rolling over to a colleague's desk to help them with a problem) but for the most part this mostly works.

The next ten percent or so is much more difficult: this is the part where I have to collaborate in real time. I can't stand in front of a whiteboard with my coworkers and hash out a design, an the existing electronic tools are not adequate substitutes. The best I can do is fall back to other means of electronically-mediated communications: video conferences, text chats, design docs; and hope that I get my point across and we achieve enough of a meeting of minds to move forward. This is the point where my collaboration really begins to break down. I can keep on going on what I know now but in three or six months going to become a problem.

I've given up entirely on the final ten percent. This is the part where I build relationships with my team that I'll use later in unexpected ways. This is where Google's over-reliance on physical proximity to build relationships and encourage collaboration has built up a giant blind spot in my ability to even find and develop other mechanisms for building relationships and rapport with my colleagues. This is not an insurmountable hurdle — real online communities exist, and I've formed meaningful relationships with people I've never met in person — but this is not something I'm prepared to spend my limited emotional energy on doing now, especially when I'm not planning on staying in my current team past the end of the summer.

Google's Spear building in San Francisco
Google's Spear building in San Francisco

I've seen breathless think-pieces proclaiming that the COVID-19 pandemic will signal the end of the office as we know it and that everyone is going 100% remote (and the commercial real estate market is going to crash) — and that's not going to happen. (If for no other reason than most employers are sufficiently freaked out by their employees living in random other states, with their weird tax rates and disparate costs of living, especially when those random states think that they have full jurisdiction over anyone who happens to employ someone who lives in that state, never mind that it's just a couple of people working remotely for their own personal reasons.) I'll look at remote work differently after this, but I'm still looking forward to (someday) returning to the office, where I can spend face-time with my colleagues and collaborate physically, as well as virtually.