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Remote work (Trends to follow or forget)

Trends to follow or forget

by Tom Johnson on Mar 22, 2022 •
categories: technical-writing

This post is part of a series that explores tech comm trends that I've either followed or forgotten, and why. The overall goal is to better understand the reasons that drive trend adoption or abandonment in my personal career. This post focuses on remote work.

What is remote work?

In the list of disruptive trends affecting tech writers, I can’t leave out the effects of the pandemic, even if this one might be less specific to tech comm than other trends. Among other learnings, the pandemic showed us that tech thrives in a world where people work and interact in a digital world. As the importance of tech and digital tools increase, the demand for tech writers seems to follow. Tech work remains a thriving industry in a pandemic-ridden, catastrophe-filled world.

Although many businesses are experimenting with more of a hybrid work model, some companies have embraced fully remote work. It wouldn’t take much to push us all back into a remote-only model. Climate change, more viruses, war, or other unprecedented events that make “life outside” less safe could push tech workers back into the full WFH mode — this time with less uncertainty about the move.

As tech writers return to work (even in a hybrid way), the nostalgia about the social aspects of the workplace might evaporate. Tech writers are most commonly on the periphery of teams, supporting many engineering teams without being a full member of them. A typical tech writer supports 5+ engineering teams, which are often globally distributed, and focuses his or her energy on the team only as their products are near release. The occasional five-minute breakroom conversations or chit-chat with a non-tech-writer neighbor might not scratch the social itch in a way that compensates for two hours of commute time.

In contrast, engineers who work closely with their engineering peers as they build out solutions — meeting regularly in standups, meeting to brainstorm solutions, meeting review code, and even meeting to play ping pong — might find more fulfillment in the workplace’s social dynamics. But not for tech writers, who operate more as singletons.

Then again, to excel in the tech writer role, you don’t work in isolation. You meet regularly with different people and teams, more so than engineers who might be shoulder-to-shoulder with the same small group. A large documentation project might require tech writers to meet with product managers, engineers, quality assurance teams, marketing groups, support teams, business stakeholders, and more. Meeting with this variety of people, even if only briefly and somewhat sporadically, might touch that same social core — assuming all the meetings at work aren’t just video conferences.

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Post-pandemic, with more options to work remotely, will more tech writers embrace the full WFH option (if available to them)? It’s unclear. The allure of remote working might include better housing and location options, more flexible schedules, and other incentives. Tech writers could find ways to compensate for the social isolation by becoming more involved in communities online, such as through Write the Docs Slack or local meetups. They could get more involved in the city groups around them (e.g., sports leagues, book clubs, hiking groups, etc.) to fulfill the social element. Ultimately, as the Metaverse rolls out, they might find social connections in more interesting digital spaces. With this social element fulfilled, the idea of commuting into work might seem like an antiquated model, almost like imagining a time before the internet.

It might be another couple of years before we see how the remote work trend plays out. But if it does, tech writers are in a good position to excel in this remote model.

For more reading, see the following:

Why I embraced remote work

Like most tech employees, for me, remote work was mandated when offices shut down. I’ve struggled to operate optimally in WFH mode and have written a number of posts on this — see the posts listed in the sidebar here. I often felt isolated and unproductive working from home and began returning to work when offices started reopening, even when it was optional.

But as others started returning to work as well, I didn’t find that same bubbling social dynamic in the workplace that I sometimes thought about while isolated at home. It’s possible to feel alone in a crowd of people. I’m not an extrovert by default, so going over to someone I don’t know and striking up a conversation with them, or worse, inviting them to lunch, didn’t come naturally. And the commute time chipped away at my productivity. Even so, working all day from home feels boring to me, and lonely, like staying home from school while everyone else is in the classroom.

My company plans to embrace a hybrid work model (three days in office, two days at home). So far, the hybrid model might strike the right balance for me. It will be interesting to see if hybrid models actually work for companies. In the Technical Documentation Industry Survey Report 2021: Coronavirus edition, from The Content Wrangler, Rob Hanna writes:

Only slightly more than half of the respondents indicated that they preferred working from home while one in five want to return to their workplace. Despite the environmental, economic, and health and safety benefits of working from home, many technical documentation professionals appear to be frustrated with working conditions and miss the social aspects of the workplace.

It’s interesting that only 20% want to return to the workplace despite only slightly more than half (50+%) preferring to work from home. How do you explain the 30% of people or so who don’t prefer to work from home but who also don’t want to return to the workplace? I think it’s the same paradox many feel with social media and smartphones. A lot of people would like to toss social media in the toilet along with their smartphones, which have been an albatross and disruptive always-on pager in their lives. But how many of us actually go full Luddite? We can’t. We dislike it but can’t seem to discard it. Same with WFH. Sure, we might be “frustrated with the working conditions and miss the social aspects of the workplace,” but do we dislike it enough to return to the commute-to-work model and workplace? For at least 30%, the answer is no. Perhaps the hybrid work model will work, but there’s no solution that seems to make everyone happy.

Why I didn’t abandon remote work

I didn’t go fully remote in a permanent way (even though I could have opted for it) because I never cracked the WFH code to make it enjoyable. Plus, my company has adopted the hybrid model, which goes into effect in April. I’m still in a wait-and-see mode with this hybrid approach.

Why not cut ties with my house and relocate to some remote region of the world (e.g., Ireland, South America, Iowa) to embrace remote working permanently? Partly, I still have three kids at home, and you can’t just bounce around the country or go international with a family, especially when they’re teenagers. Plus, kids do so much better with in-person school than online. They need in-person friends and social interaction.

Case in point, I currently have two kids currently going to Driver’s Ed. For five weeks, they have to attend couple of classes a week (each three hours), and the classroom venue is 25 minutes away. There’s an option to attend the course remotely through Zoom. Do my children prefer Zoom? No, they both flat out said they’d prefer to go in person rather than attend via Zoom. Mind you, this isn’t a discussion-based class, and the kids haven’t even asked a single question. They prefer to drive 25 minutes to the classroom, then sit and listen (and suffer in silence) the entire time (3 hours), in person. Apparently, the experience is worse on Zoom.

Given how children thrive in in-person settings for school, it gives me pause to think that adults wouldn’t also thrive in similar ways in the workplace. But perhaps the contexts are different — children are learning both intellectually and socially (even in Driver’s Ed?), and that learning mode is optimized through in-person contexts. Adult workers aren’t so much learning and growing as much as simply working, so perhaps Zoom functions adequately for that. I don’t know. I’m still mixed about the remote work phenomenon. The pandemic may have disrupted the workplace model permanently, or it might have just been a blip on the work model radar, with in-office work eventually returning. This is a topic I’ll return to later in this series.

Current status

As more tech companies offer fully remote working models, it places pressure on other tech companies to follow suit in order to stay competitive for employee resources. Companies that require all workers to return 100% in-office will likely face attrition to companies offering more flexible models. Especially with technology work (engineering, technical writing), there’s a need for uninterrupted periods of concentration, so the remote work model appeals to many. For example, many programmers dislike open-floor plans that invite easy disruption/distraction when they need to fully focus on a complex coding problem. Especially now that social media has fractured our attention spans, many engineers might need the extra isolation just to focus. Plus, if only 20% of people return the office, the ghost-town-like feel will likely reduce any social connections and team morale, making in-office working less desirable.

Despite all the uncertainty, one thing is for sure: tech work is a good career bet for a dystopian future. All world events and directions point toward an increasingly digital world, and that digital world means more tech. More tech means more tech writers, so our profession will likely thrive as the future grows more dystopian. This outlook at least provides a silver lining to a grim future. If climate change (or a nuclear winter) renders the air unbreathable, and everyone resorts to a digital world for interaction — hello Ready Player One — there will probably be plenty of work for technical writers. You’ll be able to go find your favorite abandoned car in a junk yard, plug into your virtual haptic suit, transport yourself digitally into a virtual workspace, and continue writing documentation.

Takeaway

For many tech writers, the frustrating social effects of working at home don’t outweigh the negatives of commuting into an office and working on site.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.

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