Felix is a software developer who until recently worked on behalf of bevuta on the
JUICE-project of the Max-Planck-Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Göttingen. He was involved in the development of the Submillimetre Wave Instrument (SWI) that will investigate the atmosphere on Jupiter and characterise its moons and rings. During that time, and unlike any of our other colleagues, he was not part of a bevuta project team but worked directly within the MPS team. What he shares with his bevuta colleagues, though, is that he, too, works largely from home. And that he has come to appreciate this way of working very much.

During the interview, Felix talks about self discipline, focused working, and billing for intellectual work.

You’ve been working for bevuta for several years now. Did you work on-site in the office when you started?

No, I’ve only ever worked from home. I started with the sayHEY project, with occasional visits to Cologne, but the majority of my work was always remote. I gradually got to know my immediate colleagues, so that after a while I could at least put a face to each of the team members.

Now that I’ve become used to remote work, I have to say that it really suits me. Timewise, it gives me more independence, I don’t have to stick to office hours, can do bits and pieces more or less at any time, and can adapt my rhythm of work to suit my current state of mind and my own biorhythms.

As you worked remote from the beginning: How was the onboarding process for you? How did you connect with the team?

The sayHEY team grew rather slowly, so it was relatively easy for me to get on board, especially because, during the early stages, I was in Cologne quite often. Then gradually it shifted increasingly towards remote work.

During the most recent project in Göttingen, I’ve visited the Institute on one day most weeks so far, for example, to run hardware tests or participate in meetings. That suited me quite well because it kept me in contact with the project staff and management.

But attending more than one day per week feels quite stressful to me. Concentration and focus seem considerably higher when I work from home, I have fewer disruptions and more comfortable surroundings. I regard my on-site appointments predominantly as a way to improve the social climate and stay in touch. This is especially important in a large organisation like the MPS, which has a tendency towards anonymity and a lot of the communication happens informally. When remote work is an accepted part of the daily routine, as it is at bevuta, the exchange of important information is much better and works well even without on-site appointments. Often that’s purely due to better expertise in online communication.

Can you give examples of social factors that change by working from home?

Right at the beginning I tended to become a little “alienated” from my colleagues. Meaning, I quickly grew impatient and unfriendly when things didn’t work the way I thought they should. If you only ever communicate by chat or mail, it’s easy to lose sight of the actual person behind the nickname. I have to constantly remind myself of this when there is none (or at least, not enough) of the personal contact that would increase mutual trust.

If you only ever communicate by chat or mail, it’s easy to lose sight of the actual person behind the nickname. #remoteteamwork

Do you keep regular working hours?

I sleep late and go to bed late. That means I don’t have a particularly rigid rhythm. My most productive times are late mornings and late at night and I tend to be quite easy-going about it, not so dependent on the time of day, as long as I comply with my agreed working hours. In my experience, this work mode means that work life and private life very much blend into each other.

Which advantages of remote work do you enjoy the most?

I really enjoy being flexible timewise and not having to fit in with some artificial “biorhythms”. Also, I work more calmly and more focused when I’m on my own, without distractions.

In my opinion, fixed, uniform working times make no sense at all for intellectually demanding jobs. What if I mull over a programming problem in the evenings, sitting on my couch? Is that working time? Should I bill it? It’s absurd to think that I could switch my mind on and off on demand. I also think that the time wasted by changing locations is unnecessary and counterproductive.

I recently read somewhere that, in an office environment, you effectively only actually “work” between one third and one half of the time – I think that’s realistic.

Fixed working times make little sense for intellectually demanding work. It’s absurd to think that you could switch your mind on and off on demand. #remotework #flexiblework

And where do you see the disadvantages?

Loss of face-to-face contact, as I mentioned earlier. The social side is as important for your own experience of working as it is for the quality of the work produced.

Digital communication is a mode of information exchange that not everyone is equally good at. It’s ambitious and not easy to create trust and cooperation – a “team spirit” if you like – in such a way.

In addition, you have to be careful that you don’t allow yourself to become too distracted (surfing the web, reading the news, “just doing a few things”). Sometimes that requires self-discipline, which I can’t always muster. Personally, I occasionally notice a tendency to put myself under pressure.

On the one hand, not having a fixed rhythm of work suits me very well, on the other, it makes it more difficult to determine which hours to record as working time. But then, with intellectual work that’s sometimes debatable anyway.

Are there moments when you would rather work in an office? What are they?

Sometimes I find it hard to separate work from private life, for example, when I can’t switch off at home, or when the project seems unreal and far away. Sitting with my colleagues in the office (as is the case with the current project) and talking things over is invaluable and helps to refocus. It creates a sense of community.

Is there anything you need to be able to work efficiently that you could not, or not easily, implement in an office?

It’s extremely important for me to have times when I absolutely will not be disturbed. Even the potential danger of someone bursting in is enough to disturb my concentration. I like to make best use of being in the “flow” and take a break whenever suits me. And not when office routine demands.

Office environments lean towards certain daily routines that you are supposed to adhere to, whether they suit you or not. For example, everyone having their lunch break at the same time. I can really do without that.

Which software and technological requirements are essential for your work?

Version control, IRC-Chat, email, telephone – those are the basics, I couldn’t work without them.

However, the prerequisite for everything is an efficient working environment (computer, OS) that I can customise to suit. The more freedom I have with this, the better I can work.

The more freedom I have to design my own working environment, the better and more efficiently I can work. #remotework #flexiblework

It all starts with whether the company requires the use of particular tools that restrict my choice of working environment. For example, do they only use a web-based chat software, or can I use an IRC client? Do they use software that only works with particular operating systems? And so on. Having that degree of technological freedom is important to me.

Could you imagine working on-site on a regular basis again?

I don’t think so.

I need the freedom to largely be able to determine my own working times and I can’t see the point in driving back and forth, just to end up sitting in front of a computer anyway.

I can’t see the point in driving back and forth, just to end up sitting in front of a computer anyway. #remotework #homeoffice

As a side-line, I’ve been part of an open-source project for a while now, where I was able to gain a lot of experience in asynchronous remote teamwork. Since then, I can’t really imagine an alternative with regard to the software sector. To my mind, with the right people (those that are equally proficient in this work mode) it’s the most effective way of working in software development because it untangles the confines of time and location and allows all the team members to choose their optimum rhythm.

We wholeheartedly agree – working with the right people is absolutely essential. We are happy to have you on board, regardless of remoteness!

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