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Your Place or Mine?

It is no great secret, and no great surprise, that the latest SARS outbreak has greatly reshaped the world of work. Particularly in software engineering: where the work can be done anywhere with an internet connection so codes can be pasted from Stack Overflow, and the practitioners generally have a dislike of meetings. Your average stereotype of a software engineer would rather build the wrong thing for eight hours in a flow state, than have a 15-minute conversation in which they find out what direction they should be going in.

An aside: I actually enjoy meetings. My view of professional software engineering is one where I get to find out about people’s work and the problems they have, and try to solve them, and discussions are key to this project. If what I wanted to do were to have some uninterrupted time to discover how to shovel a Haskell into a BEAM on Kubernetes so I could scalable actor lambda, then yes, I could understand why understanding what the deliverables are would get in the way.

Unfortunately the best sorts of meetings are the serendipitous ones, the ones where you bump into Becky who leads the Windows platform team who mentions a new API coming from a supplier next month, and Drew from marketing who says that at last week’s trade event all the customers were asking about support for that API.

That sort of thing isn’t a “home-working” meeting. It’s a spontaneous chat in the break room. I’ve been known to hang around the smoking areas at break times in my work, not because I smoke but because I get to talk to people from across the organisation. And, damn it, I’m entitled to as many breaks as anyone else, even if I will live longer and thus get more opportunities for recreation.

Not so, the 30 or 60 minute videoconference meeting. I now have so many of these booked in my day that I tend to mute them, switch to a different virtual desktop, and carry on working: my furrowed expression staring at the camera continuing to give the impression of being in deep thought about the current conversation over whether a second status meeting a day would help us get things done twice as fast. I’m now invited to so many meetings that even the people sending the invites out have conflicts and can’t attend.

Of course, the alternative is the commute: an hour each way in the car listening to audiobooks, or on the train listening to men in suits who cough openly and spread their corona viruses throughout society as they’re too important for things like tissues or nose breathing. Then a cycle ride across the city (there being no parking near the office) to work in one of those modern “open working environments”, code for an employer who’s too cheap to install office doors or walls. So then to sit for eight hours in a too (hot or cold; no matter, as we’ll each alter the thermostat as we walk past) typing clumsily onto a £10 plastic membrane keyboard and listening to a dozen other people doing the same. And looking at them too, over the top of the too-low monitor from the previous generation that doesn’t support the laptop’s maximum resolution.

At home, I’ve got a decent mechanical keyboard (which I paid for), high-quality optical mouse (which I paid for), good monitor (which I paid for), fast internet which…you get the picture. For some reason, home working has become a license for employers to get their staff to pay for the right to have the correct equipment to do their jobs.

Not that this actually suits the rich as much as you might think. On the one hand, they don’t have to pay as much for office space (you may remember 90s/00s fads such as hot desks, hotel desks, and corridor warriors: the employers already know about the cost savings and productivity increases). However, the ultra-rich are not the people who run universities, devops advocacy firms, or web agencies. The ultra-rich are the people who own the office complexes in London and Zurich. They rent 60% of the space out as modern, luxurious work spaces; 30% as chic eateries and after-work bars; and the remaining 10% as artisanal bean-to-cup coffee experiences.

These people need bums on office chairs, because those bums pop out to Pret for a sandwich at lunchtime, Costa for a latte in their edgy walking meeting, and Wetherspoons for a pint before picking their car up from the valet and filling up with petrol before heading out to the motorway. Every one of those businesses is on their property, every one of them is paying ground rent, and they need you to go back to work so that ecosystem continues to turn a profit.

There may well be concessions—maybe the dress code will be relaxed to include pyjamas and slipper socks—but we’ll all be shepherded back to the office as soon as it’s reasonable to do.

Cover photo by kate.sade on Unsplash.

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