When I first started in my career in 1997, the only option for a workplace was in the office. And before you ask, yes, the internet “existed” back then. But in no way did my first company have (or could afford) a means to allow access from outside to the IT network. This was a very small company (12 employees total on my first day), and there were simply too many constraints. Most homes were still on dial-up internet, the office “network” was a tower computer under the IT/Lead Plumbing Engineer’s desk, and the company owners were old-school. We’ll get more into that topic a little later.
My next company was larger, with about 90-95 total employees. We were large enough to have two people dedicated to IT. Technology was just starting to allow the possibility of working outside the office. The internet was still not capable of information transfer at a rate suitable for any level of ACAD work (Revit didn’t exist yet, this was 2001). The only way we could work outside of an office was to download a file to a hard disc on a laptop with the required software to work, and then sync with the network the next morning. This basically limited your work capabilities to word processing only since laptops could not support ACAD software at the time.
When I started at my current employer in 2009, much of what I described was still the same, but not for long. Faster home internet was becoming more readily available and affordable, and options such as “remote desktop” allowed you to control a computer from a different location, so you didn’t need the computing power and software locally. That said, I mentioned a term earlier called old-school, and I think now is a good time to discuss it further.
The generation(s) that were in leadership at many firms in the late 1990s and early 2000s were, in my experience, old-school. These were (mostly men) who were born anywhere from the 1930s to 1950s, and their model of work was you show up to do your job. Have a cold? You came into the office. Want to see your kid’s baseball game? Maybe you’ll make the 7th inning, you stay until 5 p.m. This was the workplace, take it or leave it. Working from home was for overtime only, and that was dependent on what you had to do.
Then COVID hit, and this was all turned upside down. While we might have occasionally “worked from home” in the year or two prior to COVID — now we were all forced to do so. And during this time, we saw some serious advancements in online collaboration tools. Zoom, Microsoft Teams and WebEx all became the norm for meetings in March 2020. We all could “work,” but the question I’m asking is, could we really “learn?”
The old-school leaders in my past did have some good aspects to how they conducted business. They did it in person. They developed designs in person with their clients and colleagues. They solved problems (or got yelled at) with the contractors and clients — you guessed it — in person. Let me tell you, a very angry contractor explaining their issues with your design will be something you never forget.
In-person allowed for other perks as well. If you had a question, you could walk down a few desks or offices and get an answer. You could tag along to a meeting and listen in on the lead engineers develop designs or walk a job site with them and really learn what the lines and circles you draw on paper really mean. Sales reps would come in to teach you their product, because the better you understood it, the more likely you would specify it.
When I was in the office, I saw people develop relationships, because frankly, it’s just easier to so in-person. Having relationships with co-workers and a supervisor/mentor breeds opportunity. Opportunity for new challenges, more responsibility and faster career growth.
According to McCarthy Mentoring, 25% of employees who enrolled in a mentoring program had a salary-grade change, compared to only 5% of workers who did not participate. Additionally, mentees are promoted five times more often than those not in a mentoring program. Even if mentoring is informal, there is considerable value in the time spent and skills gained.
Working from home is certainly convenient, but I’d contend that it does not support a quality mentorship or career development plan.
Working from home is certainly convenient, but I’d contend that it does not support a quality mentorship or career development plan. In my experience during COVID, how people communicated changed drastically because of not being in-person. The old casual conversations and learning sessions changed to quick pointed calls, which then changed to chat messages (depending on your age). Talking, collaborating and learning became information gathering to complete a task, and nothing more.
So, I ask you: How are you polishing your technical skills? How are you taking those next steps in your career? How are you positioning yourself for new opportunities? For me, it’s in-person, in the office. And this is not just because of my role. Even now, after 26-plus years of experience, I still see the value of being in the office. While I don’t have a lot of technical questions I can’t figure out on my own anymore, I do get more knocks on my office door than calls/chats when at home. I do engage in more casual conversations that can turn into opportunities, and I have more exposure to tasks in the office that allow me to learn and grow. Time spent in the office provides many opportunities that simply do not exist when working from home. Give it a thought when you’re eyeing that next promotion or wondering how a senior engineer gained their knowledge — it likely didn’t happen from the comfort of their living room.