Can engineers work remotely? It depends on a couple of factors. Certain types of engineers can, while others would find it impossible.
These factors come down to answering two questions:
- Do you need to use high-level machinery and computers in your job?
- How much do you need to interact with your end product in your job?
Let’s go over these two questions to better understand the limitations of remote work.
High-level machinery and computers at a workplace
Some jobs need you to work with expensive equipment. A lot of hands-on work.
So, by working remotely you won’t have access to certain equipment.
For example, think of a company like SpaceX. There, engineers need access to:
- Powerful CAD machines
- High-end tools
Without access to these things, there’s no way the engineers could properly do their jobs.
Also, some equipment legally can’t leave a company building due to secrecy reasons. You don’t want a prototype to leave a company building to fall into the wrong hands.
Creating a mini-lab at home
Some engineers can recreate a mini-lab in their homes. And, their company will more than likely assist them.
For example, if you design circuits as a hardware engineer, you can probably do this.
The key is, the equipment must be relatively cheap. Not above $20,000 for instance.
A lot of the time, you can do your main design work at home. Then, come into the office once a week to test your design.
The end product in a project design
To understand what I mean by the end product, answer these two questions:
- Do you need to visit a project site?
- Do you need to watch over the manufacturing of a product?
If you answered ‘yes’ to either of these questions, you won’t be able to work remotely all the time.
Some engineering projects need you to physically manage a project. For example, you need to watch over construction.
You can’t do this remotely. This is because you need to:
- Look over the construction very closely
- Ask questions to contractors
- Direct contractors from the design drawings
- Resolve all field issues fast
Which engineers can work from home?
There are so many types of engineers. And, with each field of engineering, some engineers can and cannot work remotely.
For most engineers though, several days out of a week you probably can.
Here are some engineering job type examples, where you can easily work remotely:
#1 Design work: if your office has everything stored on a network, you can VPN in. Then you’ll have access to everything on your company’s servers.
So, you can easily do both drafting and design work without any issues.
#2 Customer support: most all customer support related jobs you can do remotely. Because you do most of your communication via email or phone.
It’s only when you need to do onsite customer support, that you can’t do remote work. But a lot of times, the engineer who does this work can work from home until they’re called upon.
#3 Internal coordination: if you coordinate two parties together. For example, coordinating manufacturing with R&D in your company.
#4 Managing outsource teams: a U.S. engineer managing engineers in other countries. Like India.
This work is all done over the computer regardless. So it’s a no-brainer.
#5 Software engineering: software development perfectly translates over to remote work. Most all the production and testing you can do on a computer anywhere.
Also, most software engineers are tech-savvy enough to know how to use digital team tools. This is already woven into the software development culture.
One reason why companies like Twitter have shifted taken such an extreme approach. They’re allowing their employees to forever work remotely.
Should engineers work from home?
The $64,000 question.
Should engineers even work from home?
This table from a Buffer report shows the biggest benefits of working remotely.
|Remote working benefit||Respondent rate|
|Working from any location||30%|
|Time with family||14%|
|Working from home||13%|
That said, a lot of engineers I’ve spoken to would not want to work from home indefinitely. And I get why.
- Loss in productivity
- Loss of social interactions can lead some people to depression
- Unable to efficiently solve complex problems with your colleague’s
I find being in a team environment in person is the best way to solve complex problems. You bounce ideas off each other. Troubleshoot together in real-time without any hiccups.
That’s why personally I prefer the office environment for at least several days of the week.
Overall though, it comes down to someone’s personality. Some people prefer working alone.
But like anything else, working with people is a skill you need to finetune. So, the answer typically falls somewhere in the middle.
Because working remotely isn’t all sunshine and rainbows either. From Buffer again, here’s a breakdown over the biggest struggles with working remotely.
|Biggest remote working struggles||Respondent rate|
|Unplugging after work||22%|
|Collaborating and/or communication||17%|
|Distractions at home||10%|
|Being in a different timezone than teammates||8%|
|Taking vacation time||7%|
|Finding reliable wifi||3%|
The shift in company culture
Most large tech companies have already adopted remote work because they’re progressive. They’re in line with the latest trends and technology. I’m talking about companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter.
Whereas traditional engineering professions, like civil engineering, the firms are more conservative. They have deep roots in certain ways of work.
In many instances, many engineers at these firms can work from home. But, a company’s culture prevents it.
But, I know some of these firms are now using VPNs to allow employees to log in. They’re slowly adopting to the remote work model.
The world is changing. And COVID-19 has sped up this change in work style.
Considerations engineers should make on whether to work remotely or not
If given the choice, working remotely is a personal choice. There’s no right or wrong answer.
But, there are certain things you need to consider that I’ll go over from the engineering world. These things may apply differently to different companies.
#1 Relationships and visibility
It’s more difficult to build relationships when working remotely. This is important if you want to move up the ranks.
Building strong relationships requires a good amount of face to face. There are several reasons for this:
- You can discuss subjects beyond your core work. When you’re face to face, you’re more likely to discuss random subjects. This in turn strengthens a relationship.
- You’ll be on the minds of people more through face to face interactions.
I find this especially important, given a lot of engineers already may not be too social. So, remote work may further create distance between people.
#2 Complex problem solving
I’ve used all the tools for online collaboration. They work.
But there’s something to be said about face to face work when it comes to complex problem-solving.
- Instantly draw sketches and get feedback.
- Look into someone’s eyes to see if they really understood the problem.
- Sit someone down uninterrupted to discuss a subject.
I just find face to face to be more efficient in this regard, especially in engineering.
Solving complex problems isn’t like responding to angry customers with missed t-shirt orders. This is something you can do while lying in bed.
#3 No boundaries
Walk into another designer engineer’s office and instantly start chatting about a problem.
This simple chat then turns into a deeper discussion on the side subjects of the problem. Then other engineers may drop in to chime in and help.
I’ve learned so much this way. I think too many people overlook the importance of these group discussions.
And, I find this discussion model especially important for younger engineers. Because they need a lot of hand-holding.
When working remotely, this scenario rarely happens. The other engineer would quickly try to answer your question, and that’s that.
#4 Gained flexibility at home
Working remotely gives you a lot of flexibility in your personal life. Thus, it improves your mood.
Also, most other people who provide services work regular hours. The hours when you’re normally stuck in your office.
So, by working at home, you can better handle your personal work. For example:
- Visit your dentist
- Call and dispute a credit card charge
- Bring a contractor over to fix something in your house
- Be around your kids and family
All this reduces your stress and anxiety. By being stuck in an office all week, you may get stressed out over how many things you need to handle at home.
It’s the real struggle of juggling office life and your personal life.
In short, the less stress you have, the better quality engineering work you’ll output.
#5 Work commute
By not commuting to work, you’ll save a lot of money. Plus, it’s much safer and easier on your nerves.
I know a couple of Twitter engineers who used to commute from Sacramento to San Francisco. That’s a 4-hour total drive there and back.
To top it off, your productivity drops greatly because you’re always drained. Not good, since you need to use your thinking skills in engineering.
Can you manage yourself well? If you have a problem focusing when you’re on your own, remote work is not for you.
Some people have too many distractions at their fingertips when working from home. For example:
- Video games
- A spouse
Without structure and planning, working from home can become difficult. Especially in engineering, where you need to focus for long periods of time.
#7 Home office setup
Do you have a good office setup at home?
- Office desk
- Large dual monitors
- Fast computer
- Fast internet speed
These are all important in your productivity and sanity. You can certainly upgrade all your office supplies. But, it’s something you still need to consider.
A lot of engineering today requires a powerful computer. You use many different demanding software tools.
Also, you need a large workspace to spread all your papers and documents.
A lot of engineers can work remotely. But, company culture plays a large role if engineers are given this freedom.
Sometimes an outdated company culture makes great possibilities very difficult. I understand it’s a big change, especially for older engineers.
Over time though, it can become a great cost-saving for a company by reducing overhead costs. Also, it’s great for engineers, as they gain more freedom and flexibility. Thus, it can increase an engineer’s productivity.
But, some engineers prefer not to work from home. So, it comes down to preference when given the option.
I prefer a mix of the two. Best of both worlds.
Do you prefer to work remotely? Do you think there will be a loss or increase in productivity with remote working?
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Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2019 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering-related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for over 15 years now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, our history and future, sports, and fitness.