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What Does the Future of Engineering Work Look Like?

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The pandemic sent engineers home to do their work. When the pandemic is over, things won’t go back to normal.

Engineering from home became the practical alternative to risking close work at the plant. Now, companies and engineers are finding major advantages to home-based engineering. When the pandemic is over, we’re likely to find a new normal, one that includes remote engineering.

As I speak with company after company during these strange times, I keep hearing the same refrain: “There are a lot of advantages to working from home. We’re probably not going to go back to the way we used to do things.”

Andela, a global talent network that helps companies build remote engineering teams, conducted a survey that revealed that many organizations have embraced remote work for the long term. According to the data, 74% of engineering leaders said that their teams had transitioned to fully remote as a result of Covid-19, and 66% indicated that they plan to continue allowing remote work after the pandemic subsides.

Andela’s survey found the following:

  • Prior to Covid-19, 13% of engineering teams were fully remote. As a result of the pandemic, that number has increased to 74%. 
  • 66% of engineering teams believe they will continue to allow remote work after the threat of Covid-19 has subsided.
  • Only 22% of engineering leaders express a preference for engineers working in an office environment following the pandemic.

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Remote Work Was Considered a Bad Idea by Many

Working from home was not always viewed positively. Many corporate leaders didn’t trust the concept. “There’s a historic bias against remote work. In 2013, Marissa Mayer banned remote work at Yahoo because she, like many of her peers, believed that remote workers were neither as productive as their in-office counterparts, nor as collaborative,” Arpan Jhaveri, senior director of product marketing at Andela, told Design News. “Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, echoed that sentiment in a Twitter post in June of this year.”

Before the pandemic, companies hesitated to allow their engineers to work from home. “When Andela was just getting started – prior to the current COVID crisis – a lot of the sales process involved convincing folks that working from home could be productive and collaborative,” said Jhaveri. “Today our clients realize remote work is successful despite their initial hesitation, so now we rarely pitch the benefits of remote work.”

Even before the pandemic, some companies were beginning to embrace the idea – partly because the technology to support remote work was evolving. “COVID simply accelerated the ongoing trend to remote which has been largely facilitated by improvements in technology,” said Jhaveri.

Software to the Rescue

The software designed for team communication comes with remote capabilities. Now, it doesn’t matter where you’re located. “There aren’t tremendous differences between the way engineers in a remote setting communicate versus those in an in-person setting,” said Jhaveri. “Teams can leverage software like GitHub to manage their repository of code and provide feedback such as pull requests; JIRA to manage the agile development workflow; and Slack for asynchronous communication, such as a wiki-like confluence for documentation.”

Virtually all of the collaboration software on the market works as well for remote workers as it does for at-work engineers. “Nearly all of the key interactions happen on SaaS platforms that make location largely irrelevant,” said Jhaveri “The obvious difference is that instead of having in-person meetings, engineers leverage video conferencing tech like Zoom. Instead of tapping your colleague on the shoulder to see if they can chat, you ping them over Slack and send a Zoom link.”

The Efficiencies of Remote Engineering

When the pandemic hit, many company leaders were surprised by the efficiencies they discovered when their teams started to work remotely. “Companies that take the time to do remote right are more productive than those that don’t. In order to examine the efficiency implications, you need to examine the internal support remote work has,” said Jhaveri.

Remote software actually makes meetings more productive. “Simple things like turning chat –Slack – notifications off during a meeting, staying on mute until you have something to say, and treating all members of the team as if they are remote even if one person is can have a material impact on the overall productivity,” said Jhaveri. “Several of the companies we work with have internal remote productivity councils to drive the changes in behavior and culture that ultimately make remote working more efficient.”

What’s Lost in Remote Work?

Even while remote engineering comes with plenty of positives, there is something lost when teams are not in the same building. “Some things are lost during remote work. The two issues we commonly hear are the absence of impromptu conversations and the inability to do whiteboard ideas,” said Jhaveri. “But some things are also gained. Companies that are fully remote tend to have much better documentation and internal processes because they rely less on behaviors that drive in-person office culture. As always, technology solutions are there to fill the gaps. We recently discovered Miro, a whiteboarding app for distributed teams that’s good and getting better.”

Even without the pandemic, the move to at least some remote work was inevitable. “In a world where everything is on the cloud and accessible by your phone, it’s difficult to unplug regardless of where you are,” said Jhaveri. “Collaboration and communication haven’t been an issue with remote workers, and the technology to support remote work continues to materially improve,”

Employers are beginning to realize there are considerable paybacks when you send the engineers home. “The benefits of remote work, from an employee’s point of view, include potentially lower costs, higher employee engagement and retention, higher productivity, and greater access to talent,” said Jhaveri. “For engineers, these are the ability to have a more flexible schedule, spending more time with family, and not having to commute.”

Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 19 years, 17 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cybersecurity. For 10 years, he was the owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.

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