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Remote work raises new crunch concerns | Opinion

As a boss familiar with how crunch works, Mark Lloyd worries about the impact on developers working from home

Crunch is a phenomenon that holds us to ransom our time and our lives. I know this from personal experience, including my 12 years at Rockstar Lincoln.

Crunch is also enforced by someone or something, whether it be an edict from management, an unspoken studio culture, or peer pressure from co-workers. Conventional crunch has these drivers, but the pandemic-induced shift to remote working carries new dangers that come from within.

Crunch manifests in the form of relentless pressure, which we as humans convert into our own stress when thinking about delivering on productivity expectations. This stress then ripples into our lives outside of work as unusual behaviour and exhaustion, which affects family time, leisure activities, and our mental state. If this pressure situation is maintained, stress-driven burnout is sure to follow, and that's what 'normal crunch' does to people.

How remote crunch happens

If you are anything like I am, you feel exhausted and lacklustre at the end of each day. You're heaping multiple Zoom meetings on top of routine work, and all with an increased focus because even a video feed lacks the full extent of visual cues and complex interactions you get in person.

Many developers in this industry love the working team aspect, the culture of a studio, and even those that work well alone will miss some level of interaction. Co-working applications are useful, but they cannot replace that feeling of interaction when people are all in a room together. It's much harder in such a setting to feel valued, to feel recognition, because generally, remote working is much more transactional and less connected.

"There is something incredibly powerful in being able to leave a workplace, commute home in whatever form, enter the front door, meet and hug the family who are missed through the day, and close that door to the workday"

When you work in your home, and neither you nor your family are used to it, there are distractions, expectations, new routines. Your work place is, at best, a separate office space within your house. So where does a productive remote team player go to get away just for a moment? To take a breath from the work pressure, the family pressure. Coronavirus pressure?

It is tough, really tough.

There's also the difficulty of transitioning from work life to personal life each day, as you are required to switch your brain from work immediately to home and family. There is something incredibly powerful in being able to leave a workplace, commute home in whatever form, enter the front door, meet and hug the family who are missed through the day, and close that door to the workday. It makes the time afterward about family, fun, and a disconnect from work until tomorrow.

We have lost that separation, and there is a real danger that remote work will lead some of us to become our own jailors, trapping ourselves in home-working prisons. That may be a bit dramatic, I admit, so let me explain.

As a remote worker, I've had those moments where I just can't help but check my emails before I go to bed. It's 11 p.m., my partner and I are locking up the house, and I pick up my phone. When I was having dinner, an email landed. As always, it's urgent.

So what now? If I weren't remote working, it would have to wait until the next morning. But you know what? My computer is still on, it's a 15-minute job, I'll just do it. Especially as the email I read finished with, "You have your laptop right there; can you quickly do this now?"

You may feel it's your fault, that you missed that email when it landed and should have checked earlier. There's real pressure to do this work right now. You can't ask if it's urgent because it's late at night. You feel you need to do the right thing. Before you know it, you are getting up and checking your mail over breakfast rather than paying attention to your partner or children, and they understand it's work, right?

The result is that your working day is now 15 hours long, and responding to off-hours requests becomes the norm. But the difference between traditional crunch and this? You decided on this crunch, you set a precedent, and it's directly inside your home. You cannot even come home to escape work, and the lines are blurred, the expectations unclear. You have inadvertently become your own taskmaster.

It's perfectly understandable when you are alone and remote that you feel guilty for not doing the work. You may worry about what people are thinking, and you assume they are all working late. You might even get in trouble.

If you are feeling like this, I am sure you aren't alone. After six years of remote working, I still feel like this. My solution is a balance of remote and in-house working. Being honest, I would take full time in-house.

(Photo by Flickr user maticulous)

How remote crunch can play out

So how will our mental state be impacted when the clear delineation of home and work life dissolves and we are fully responsible for our productivity, work/life balance, and managing the pressures involved?

Previously these tensions required a localised team effort to overcome, in a workplace where we could easily access help, support each other, and get answers. We had additional tech to call on, and we were used to going to battle on that playing field relatively free from distractions. While crunch is no way to make video games, something is compelling in facing adversity together, in one place and at one time.

"Crunch inside a studio with a team together is somewhat manageable, if not ethical"

We take many visual and physical cues for granted in pressure situations. We don't always see how much additional information we pick up through that interaction, just leaning into a colleague to ask a quick question. Or that five-minute extended chat as you walk back to your desk, to get a deeper understanding of a meeting's content. That little 'extra' knowledge-gathering now needs a scheduled Slack conversation, Zoom, Teams, Google, or other apps everyone is using, even though you just wanted and needed a quick answer.

If any studio finds themselves in the unfortunate position of traditional crunch as they entered this crisis, then a remote working situation could further harm how a team comes together to overcome the challenges apparent in those pressurised moments.

That in turn leaves leadership teams no longer looking at tired faces in the office, eating pizza for the second month running, providing a clear reminder of the crunch people endure and the effects it is having on the team. Those leaders will be sleepwalking into a crisis where the people in their teams are damaging themselves, their families, and ultimately the studio's livelihood by being unable to manage their productivity and lives remotely.

Crunch inside a studio with a team together is somewhat manageable, if not ethical. There is at least one clear degree of separation from home life, which for many developers is the escape, the way to get by. If leaders apply the same pressures to their people when they are alone, remote working, effectively overseeing their own productivity but with reduced proximity and operating within what would be their usual 'safe space,' that can only increase and hasten the potential damage to all those involved.

So what should we do?

Where does that leave us all? Of course, remote working has its place. But in my opinion, it relies on carefully planned execution. The pressing concern is that since we shifted to remote work with the pandemic, we won't adequately assess whether this move is appropriate and better for our studios because we're already doing it right now, so we can just continue.

In more ideal circumstances, my suggestion would be a planned, phased, and escalating way of getting someone set up with remote working. Not a 'Here's some gear, give it a go' approach. The critical point, though? If it doesn't work, then there is a clear and quick way to get back to office work, with no repercussions.

"Remote working in some form has a place in our operational futures; there is no doubt"

Even with a systemised approach, continued and long-term remote working is not comfortable and requires a steely resilience and structure. It's a fact that remote working will not suit all the developers out there. It must suit the company culture and its people and be part of business continuity planning. Leaders and teams need to think long and hard as to whether a move to remote working will actually benefit a studio and in a measurable way.

Studies have warned that remote working can make people work for more hours and be 'switched on' all the time, irrespective of where they are and even in their own homes. So, what does this mean for those studios that believe this could be the new normal?

As always, we need to avoid extreme solutions when stabilising a business. After this crisis is over with partial or full remote working, a studio looking to adopt remote working permanently needs to understand that serious questions need answering regarding how sustainable it is for the current projects and the team.

I suspect that, for many, being forced to work in this way will confirm the need for studios to be more flexible, which is a powerful motivator to switch to working remotely.

However, what I do know is...

Remote working in some form has a place in our operational futures; there is no doubt.

Successful, fully remote companies exist, but they have usually been built from the ground up, and team members are recruited with a remote working aim. A comprehensive plan after much consultation is essential if you are looking at remote working from a long-term strategic view.

For individuals that want to try remote working, it's easy to be seduced by the lure of a change of scenery, not being in the office, actually in a space you created, one where you control your own time and can increase your productivity. If you do a night shift rarely, that certainly seems to happen thanks to fewer distractions and a quiet office. But working at night over an extended period takes its toll on your life. Just ask any long-term night shifter.

It seems more than sensible for studios to look at remote working integration. The catch here is that there are many drivers, both individual and project-based, that affect the productivity under remote working conditions. But more importantly, the support systems need to be clear, as we are essentially taking all the challenges of office-based working and driving them into people's homes, exposing their families directly to the resulting pressures.

A rush into this 'new norm' will create a feeling of crunch that we have yet to experience as an industry. Caution is the watchword.

Mark Lloyd is an industry veteran with 20 years' experience. He ran the Rockstar Lincoln studio for 12 years from its inception in 1999, was a founding member of Activision studio The Blast Furnace, and now works for Remote Control Productions. He has also written a book about excessive work practices titled 'Zero Crunch - The Best Way to Ethical, Cost Effective Software Development.'