Remote working can be great - but be aware of organizational isolation
The 2022 edition of the industry leading State of Developer Relations report is out.
One data point from the State of Developer Relations Report that really stood out was the significant number of Developer Relations practitioners that now work the majority of their time remotely - an incredible 92%.
The popularity of remote working in Developer Relations is not a recent trend driven by the COVID pandemic. Many Developer Relations professionals, especially in advocate roles, regularly work remotely from the company's HQ for a variety of reasons, like:
Geographical placement to service regional startup clusters.
Working in an expansion territory for an international company.
Or companies seeking to hire the best global talent without forcing a relocation.
Remote working sounds attractive and most DevRel job ads now lead with it as a key benefit - better work-life balance, flexibility, and reduced travel time and expense.
However, is spending the majority of your time working remotely from colleagues as beneficial as it first may seem?
The issue to consider is isolation.
Isolation from your company, your colleagues, and your ability to influence.
Let’s look at the implications.
Training and learning have been an ongoing challenge for DevRel professionals - a recurring theme is there is little structured learning on offer, and no professional body offering certification. On the job and peer-to-peer learning have been the primary means of personal development for years, the quality of which is variable and unpredictable.
As nearly every DevRel person is now spending the majority of their time working remotely from other colleagues, we are seeing the impact of this on their training opportunities:
On the job learning has dropped 26% in the past year.
Peer-to-peer learning has been even more severely impacted, with a 39% fall over the past 12 months.
This drop in training is especially impactful when you consider the majority (62% of respondents) of practitioners have less than 5 years DevRel experience, meaning the need for foundational training is paramount and should be addressed by their employers in a more structured way.
Alternative methods that could help improve the training of remote employees - like online training - are still niche, with low levels of adoption (just 9.8% of respondents), which compounds the problem, and suggests training is just not happening, rather than shifting to new delivery methods.
Make sure you ask in your interview process what the onboarding experience is like for new hires, and how will you be trained in the specifics of the role.
The final point on professional development is we believe:
Too many DevRel professionals hit a glass ceiling.
It is common for DevRel practitioners to be “trapped” in the DevRel team, meaning to progress, they are forced to join engineering, product, or marketing or leave the company completely to seek more senior roles.
If you are interviewing with a company, understand where the DevRel team reports into, and try to understand how much influence it has. Question if your employer provides management and leadership training, alongside on the job and technical training and ask about the track record of success for previous DevRel team members.
It is hard to join an organization as a new hire and have an impact. You have to be adept in both the specific job you were hired for, building relationships and forging internal partnerships. You also need to quickly understand and embrace the company culture to display the right behaviours.
Your chances of success are significantly lower if you have never set foot in the office or have never met your manager or stakeholders in person. Stories of people being remotely hired and fired without ever meeting their boss or anyone else at the company are increasingly common.
Worryingly, 51% of survey respondents do not see a defined career path. Working remotely offers little chance of improving that. The end product of all this? Churn from DevRel roles, with people needing to switch departments or companies to progress.
As DevRel leaders build their authority and influence, it enables them to effectively manage their stakeholders to establish air cover for their activities, secure budget, and headcount, and clearly demonstrate how their DevRel activities directly contribute to the priorities of their company.
If you are successful in that, then opportunities for progression will present themselves.
In addition to the professional issues of working remotely, there is increasing research on the mental and physical impact of remote working.
The American Psychiatric Association published survey results in May 2021:
17% of people working from home feel isolated or lonely all the time, and 66% feel like that at least some of the time.
Younger adults (73% of 18 to 29-year-olds and 73% of 30 to 44-year-olds) were more likely to report feeling isolated or lonely working at home compared to older adults (48% of 45 to 64-year-olds).
There is a blurring of the line between work and personal time. More than two-thirds of employees who work from home at least part of the time report they have trouble getting away from work at the end of the day.
There were similar results from research conducted in the UK.
In February 2021, The Royal Society for Public Health published research.
People who switched to working from home as a result of Covid-19 had experienced health and well-being impacts, with the most common being feeling less connected to colleagues (67%), taking less exercise (46%), developing musculoskeletal problems (39%) and disturbed sleep (37%).
Interestingly the research also highlighted the importance of the home environment - it’s perhaps easy to assume people have a dedicated space and good setup to work at home, which is often not the case:
Over one in four (26%) are working from home from either a sofa or a bedroom
Nearly half (48%) of people who work from a sofa or bedroom said they had developed musculoskeletal problems.
Women were more likely than men to feel isolated (58% of women vs. 39% of men) and develop musculoskeletal problems (44% of women vs. 29% of men) as a result of working from home.
Home working is having an impact on people’s mental health, with 67% saying they felt less connected to their colleagues and 56% saying they found it harder to switch off. However, only a third of respondents had been offered support for their mental health (34%) by their employer.
People who live with multiple housemates were more likely to think that working from home was worse for their health and well-being (41%), compared to people who live on their own (29%) or with just their partner (24%).
Yes, it’s difficult to hire good people.
Offering remote work is a superficially attractive benefit to attract talent and widen your search. But, be thoughtful about your business.
Does spending 100% of their time working remotely set your people up for success?
How will they build the necessary stakeholder relations and align their activities within the business? This is especially important if it’s a brand new team or you are hiring a new DevRel leader. It could prove to be a false economy if productivity is low and churn high.
How does your company culture include remote workers?
What training, support, and infrastructure are you putting in place to aid your people's professional growth and personal and physical well-being?
You might have the option for fully remote work, but is that really going to work?
How will you develop relationships with your boss, colleagues, and stakeholders?
How will you embrace and immerse yourself in the company culture?
Do you have a suitable situation at home to be truly productive?
Consider the business impact you can make and the impact on your mental and physical well-being.
Consider a hybrid mix of working, to enable you to develop the insight and relations needed to be successful in your role, and prepare for your future.
As a reminder, the full results from the 2022 State of Developer Relations report can be found here.
Are you working remotely? Do the issues raised in this article ring true for you, or do you have a different experience or insights to share? Let us know!