Computer Architecture Today

Informing the broad computing community about current activities, advances and future directions in computer architecture.

Telecommuting is becoming increasingly common. This is partly due to technological advances that make it more feasible, and economic and family dynamics that tie people down to a particular location. With the exception of big cities with tech hubs, accommodating dual career paths is difficult. However, big cities do not always accommodate families well due to cost of living, traffic, and additional stresses. Add to this the need to be near extended family, and more and more engineers are choosing to work outside the central office either in remote offices or a home office.

My co-authors and I have spent the last decade or more either working from a remote office and/or telecommuting from home in order to balance family needs, quality of life, and dual career paths. We have learned much during that time about what works, and what does not, in industrial product and research teams. Yes,  we have worked in pajamas on many an occasion which probably sounds heavenly for those who commute regularly, but  at least one of us has also dialed into meetings huddled in the back of a closet with the door closed in order to find a quiet space with children around.

Telecommuting from a remote office is not for everyone. This is not something we would recommend for younger engineers who are just starting their career. It is also a lonely path where you might find yourself not seeing or talking to other human beings outside your family for days at a time. But it does offer clear advantages for some, and the rest of the article presents some ideas on how best to make telecommuting work for you.

Build Your Network

It is rare to find a job where you work alone, and co-workers always play a big part in your success. This is even more so in a telecommuting situation where you are not in the office daily or even monthly. Even the best manager cannot update you on the daily goings on. Having a set of people whom you can depend on to act as point persons is essential for you to keep track of project status, new projects being considered, decisions being made, etc. Being remote results in many “unknown unknowns”, to quote Donald Rumsfeld, and keeping in touch with your co-workers means that you might hear about something you were not even aware of.

What worked for us was having great co-workers whom we felt comfortable checking in with regularly sometimes just to say hello. We already had established relationships with some co-workers via previous interactions in other companies or academia, and others we met through frequent travel to the main sites when first getting started. This is one of the reasons we do not recommend telecommuting for younger workers. Having more experience means you implicitly bring some existing contacts and interpersonal relationships to a new job. By being remote, we were forced to develop a wide network of contacts at multiple sites which might not have occurred had we been local to one site. In the end, when telecommunicating regularly, the onus is on the remote worker to develop the people networks necessary to succeed.

Finding the Right Task

Being remote means that you are generally out of sight and out of mind for most of the local workers, and any interaction will be primarily on the phone. No matter the quality of the audio/video or how well the other attendees try to include you, you will always be at a disadvantage. You cannot see the other attendees to pick up on body language or subtle cues, it is difficult to keep track of fast moving conversations, and you are completely out of the loop if someone starts discussing ideas on the white board. While these challenges can never be completely eliminated, we have identified a few particular situations that can mitigate their impact.

  1. Playing to your specialization: Probably the biggest problem with telecommuting is that you may be invisible to the rest of the team. One way to stay relevant is to have a skill set that is valuable to the company. For instance, if you are the expert on machine learning or network architecture and your skill is a scarce commodity within the group, then you will implicitly be the go-to person for any related projects. You will be included in all conversations on relevant topics. However, the downside is that you may or may not be included in discussions on other areas of work and your value and contribution may be bounded by this skill set.
  2. The lone wolf: Hardly anyone works alone in industry, but there are projects that require less interaction than others. For instance, building and maintaining a performance model is a long term task, but one that can done relatively independently once the fundamental software infrastructure has been developed.
  3. All in the same boat: Being relevant while being remote is easier when there is no one location with a critical mass of team members. If the team is distributed, no individual or small group has a significant advantage. Everyone is on the phone, and everyone is trying their best to communicate with each other across long distances.
  4. Working within bounds: For you to succeed, you must have a have a clear mandate and deliverables. For instance, it is relatively straightforward to work on performance and/or power modeling for an existing product, but more difficult to drive a new idea that is outside the scope of current research or projects. Open ended projects tend to take on a life of their own and they are more cumbersome to manage without regular interaction with other team members.

Finally, telecommuting is not a barrier to taking on leadership roles as long as they meet some of the criteria listed above. Many of us have held technical leadership positions while being remote; being a project leader is a special position that forces others to reach out to you for project-related discussions, as described in item 1 above.  Steve and Bobbie both had technical leadership roles on DOE Exascale projects while at AMD Research. Having co-leads at local sites helped us lead teams while being remote. As noted in the previous section, a local point person who can, when necessary, literally walk the halls and track down information can be essential to getting certain tasks done.

Separating Work and Home

Keeping work and home separate is honestly the most difficult aspect of telecommuting. Many of us, whether we are telecommuting or not, have difficulty separating the two in today’s work environment, but this is especially true when the distance between your bedroom and office is measured in feet. Here are some thoughts on the matter.

  1. Understand your limits and those of your family: Yes, the “official” workday is from 8 to 5, but that does not always work with a home office, especially with children involved. We realized quickly that there were more distractions as soon as the children were home after school. When possible, we avoided meetings that conflicted with the family schedule or shifted work times to working earlier and/or later at night.
  2. Dealing with distractions: A home office means you have fewer distractions from co-workers, but more distractions around the house. Keeping a routine and structure to the work schedule stops you from fixating on dirty dishes, doing laundry, or a myriad of other tasks that seem imperative at the time.  What worked best for us is creating structure within the home office for coffee breaks, lunch breaks, etc, and having a running list of small and large work tasks that needed to be completed in order to avoid being distracted by something at home.
  3. Avoiding work creep: One of the benefits of working from home is that you avoid the commute. However, a commute also  creates a clear separation between work and home life and provides time to shift focus. With telecommuting, that shift and separation may not occur. Given the proximity, it is easy to check e-mail, check on simulations, etc., during non-work times. This may not take a long time, but it is physically distracting and runs counter to having more quality family time. Our solution to this was to create clear boundaries when possible. For example, we carved out time in the evenings for family, and any work would take place afterwards. This sometimes meant creating more hurdles to checking e-mail, etc., such as putting the computer in sleep mode rather than leaving it on, or having the office be separate from the rest of the house such as in the garage. Some of us also removed work e-mails from our personal smart phone so that work does not interrupt evenings or weekends unless absolutely necessary.  Finally, in order to join the rest of humanity during the work week, it is a good idea to  get out of your home office during the day – walk around the block, go out to lunch.  This also forces you to take a shower, get your of your pajamas, brush your teeth, etc.

The Final Pros and Cons

Telecommuting offers many advantages in terms of work/life balance. We were able to participate in our local community and schools to a level that is not possible for others. In many ways, however, it does make the “work” portion of work/life more difficult as discussed above. There are limitations to the types of jobs or tasks available to a remote employee, and one has to make a concerted effort to be relevant and visible. These issues can have a detrimental impact on your career if not handled well.

Although my co-authors and I have worked in a remote home office for many years, we have all transitioned (or will soon transition) to either a local office or to a partial telecommuting situation where we are in the office a few days a week.  Even though we are no longer full time telecommuters, there are skills we learned along the way that make us better engineers regardless of where we work.

  1. Be structured and organized. In the home office, being organized helped us stay focused, but there are just as many distractions at work albeit a different kind.
  2. Clearly and explicitly document all results.  Not being able to walk into our co-workers’ offices meant that we had to document our data/results/analysis in order to communicate with others. Documenting our results forced us to slow down and be explicit and thorough in our evaluation similar to when writing a research paper. Not only did this make our final analysis more robust, but it also provided a permanent record which we and our co-workers could refer to in the future.

In summary, we do not regret the choices we made with regards to telecommuting. We learned along the way, figured out how to make things work, and our careers have continued to progress. Best of all, it provided us an opportunity to find the necessary balance between our family and our work.

About the authors:

Dr. Srilatha (Bobbie) Manne has spent the last decade working remotely for AMD Research and Cavium. She is transitioning to a non-telecommuting job as Principal Engineer at Microsoft.  

Dr. Steven K. Reinhardt is a Partner Hardware Engineering Manager in Bing Engineering at Microsoft.  Previously he spent over 8 years working from home for AMD Research. 

Bryan Chin is a CSE Lecturer at UCSD.  He was formerly employed at Cavium and numerous Silicon Valley companies for which he has telecommuted from San Diego since 2002.