What is the balance between co-locating and telecommuting for an engineering team?

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010 by Robert Cravotta

My wife’s current job position has got me wondering about how to find the balance between going to the office versus working remotely. Her engineering team is split between two locations that are three thousand miles apart. She has been doing a lot of flying to the second location because often times being physically present is more effective than working strictly through email and phones.

In fact, after examining my own career, I realized that more than half of my time as a member of the technical staff was spent coordinating between two or more locations. My first “real” engineering job after completing my bachelor degree involved working at two different locations for the same company that were 70 miles apart. I later transferred to an embedded controls group and worked in a lab and field facility that were more than 100 miles apart. Several other jobs required me to coordinate between two offices that were three thousand miles apart. In each case, the team dynamics and the network and communication technology available enabled us to manage the need to be able to work remotely a portion of the time.

Contemporary embedded systems continue to increase in their complexity, and the number of people on the design teams continues to grow. It is increasingly unrealistic to expect everyone on the design team to be co-located with each other. Design projects need to be able to accept some sort of accommodations to allow team members to work from remote locations – whether those locations are a home office, a remote lab, or out in the field.

In the past, I have seen project managers claim that their projects are too hands-on and evolve too quickly to support members working remotely to the rest of the team. Is this an accurate sentiment? I’m not advocating that remote teams never meet face-to-face, but I wonder if constant co-location is a hard and fast requirement when we have access to so many cheap and pervasive technologies that allow us to share more details with each other than we could face-to-face twenty years ago.

How does your team determine the balance between co-locating and telecommuting?

5 Responses to “What is the balance between co-locating and telecommuting for an engineering team?”

  1. SdR @ LI says:

    This is interesting. In my current position, our entire company works as consultants to other engineering teams, in general all off-site. As it is, I often telecommute from home and am able to work on embedded work generally anywhere as long as I have a network connection and my computer.

    I found significant frustration in my last job search as many embedded companies weren’t willing to even consider anyone who wanted to do some work as a telecommuter. My home location is at least 45 minutes away from the nearest major employment centers, so working from home one or more days a week is a major question I always ask new potential employers. Unfortunately, I lost a job that I was perfect for simply for asking if there was any possibility of telecommuting. They decided that no I couldn’t do any telecommuting, and that my even asking about it meant that the 40 minute drive was too far for me.

  2. M.Y. @ LI says:

    Not to mention the fact that your home office is probably more productive than the poor excuse for an office that your employer would probably provide for you.

    In my case, I have a complicated home situation. My elderly and practically helpless father-in-law lives with us, my wife has chronic health problems that somedays leave her unable to function, and I still have twin 10th grade girls at home who are very socially active and serious soccer players on their high school team. So, with that long-winded setup, I use telecommuting as a way to balance my home life with work life and was very surprised when I got blind-sided at a performance review for “working from home too much”. It felt very hypocritical and unenlightened especially since I work on a team where one member is hundreds of miles away and another that lives in Prague. I was told I should be working from home no more than two days per month. When I asked what the difference was between someone working in Prague or someone working at home 17 miles away, I pretty much got the “just because” answer, followed up with “this is not and probably never will be a virtual office environment”.

    Anyway, pretty frustrating. You would think that a job that lends itself so well to outsourcing would certainly lend itself to telecommuting.

    M.

  3. J.G. @ LI says:

    I’ve had very similar experiences to S.’s. Companies make very quick, irrational rejections if you say you want to work for them, but you don’t want to move. My general strategy has turned to trying not to publicize the fact that I won’t relocate until I’m directly asked the question. I try to make it as far as possible in the interview before that point so they can see how good a candidate they will lose if they don’t budge on that issue. I still have very little luck with it.

    It’s always worse with recruiters, as opposed to the actual engineering managers. Recruiters just see “no telecommuters” on their checklist and don’t give it another thought. I once had a recruiter practically laugh at me on the phone as if I had suggested something absurd, like hiring a trained monkey to pound on the keyboard. If you can make it to the manager, you at least have a _chance_ that they will change their mind.

    There are challenges to working at home, certainly, but rather than trying to overcome those challenges, companies usually just prefer to find someone less-qualified who is willing to come into the office.

    @M., my suggestion to you would be to move to Prague! : )

  4. R.M. @ LI says:

    I think it’s ridiculous that management won’t think twice about sending work halfway around the world to people they don’t even know, but will balk at letting direct reports out of their sight.

  5. W.R.B. says:

    I agree in part to what has been stated. I have been looking for a telecommuting position for about 10 yrs due to much of the same reasons as M.Y. However this is not possible with my current employer. My current employer is a small manufacturing company with around 40 employees – each wearing many hats. We have turn around times from 6 months to 2 weeks. I am the only software and firmware developer. It is common for an analog engineer to come to me first thing in the morning with a job that needs to ship that day (whoops, they forgot to tell me). Further, I provide second tear customer support for communications and interfacing.

    When developing the digital interfaces for our products I need access to Spectrum Analyzers, Logic Analyzers, Oscilloscopes, Regulated Power Supplies, and Soldering Stations. All of this would not be cost affective for my company to have at my home as we often share these items in the lab. So telecommuting has been denined me and I can understand why.
    WRB

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