Can engineers work remotely? 7 Things to Consider

Can engineers work remotely? Certain engineers can, while others would find it impossible. The decision comes down to 2 questions.

  • Do you use complex machinery and computers in your job?
  • How much do you interact with your end product in your job?

Let’s go over these two questions to see the limits of remote work for engineers.

Do you use complex machinery and computers in your job?

Some jobs need you to work with expensive equipment. So, by working remotely you won’t have access to the equipment.

For example, think of a company like SpaceX. At SpaceX, engineers need access to the following:

  • Powerful CAD machines
  • Rocket parts
  • Rocket prototypes
  • High-end tools

Without access to these things, an engineer couldn’t do their job.

Also, certain equipment can’t leave company premises due to liability concerns.

Creating a mini-lab at home

Some engineers can recreate a mini-lab in their homes. Their company may even financially assist them.

For example, if you design circuits as a hardware engineer, you can probably create a mini-lab.

The key is for the equipment to be relatively cheap. Anything above $20,000 would become iffy to get financial support for.

That said, a lot of the time you can do your design work at home. Then, go to the office to test your design.

How much do you interact with your end product in your job?

To understand what I mean by “end product”, answer the following questions:

  • Do you need to visit project sites?
  • Do you need to watch over the manufacturing of products?

If you answered ‘yes’ to either question, you won’t be able to fully work remotely.

Outside of software, many engineering projects require your physical presence at some point. For example, a lot of times I need to visit construction sites.

I can’t fully work remotely because at construction sites I do the following:

  • Review construction quality and implementation
  • Ask questions to contractors
  • Direct contractors over my design
  • Resolve construction issues

Which engineers can work from home?

engineer working remotely

Many types of engineers exist. Then with each field of engineering, some engineers can and cannot work remotely.

For most engineers though, several days a week you can probably work remotely.

Here are some engineering job type examples, where you can work remotely:

#1 Design work: if your office stores everything on a network, you can use a VPN. You’ll then have access to all data on your company’s servers.

So, you can seamlessly do design work at home.

#2 Customer support: most all customer support jobs can be remote. Because you do most of your communication via email or phone.

It’s only when you do onsite customer support, you can’t work remotely. But a lot of times, the engineer who provides this support can work from home until they’re called upon.

In the COVID-19 crisis, all the support people I called, 90% said they worked from home.

#3 Internal coordination: if you coordinate two parties together. For example, coordinating manufacturing with R&D in your company.

Coordination mainly happens through emails and phone calls. Also, using apps like Slack.

#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 to work remotely.

#5 Software engineering: software development perfectly translates over to remote work. Most of the production and testing you do on a computer.

Plus, most software engineers are tech-savvy enough to know how to use digital team tools. This is already woven into the software development work culture.

It’s one reason why companies like Twitter have taken an extreme approach. Twitter is allowing its employees to forever work remotely.

Should engineers work from home?

This is the $64,000 question!

This table from a Buffer report shows the biggest benefits of working remotely.

Remote working benefitRespondent rate
Flexible schedule40%
Working from any location30%
Time with family14%
Working from home13%
Other3%

That said, a lot of engineers I’ve spoken to wouldn’t want to work from home indefinitely. Here are some reasons I often hear:

  • Loss in productivity due to distractions
  • Loss of social interactions leading to depression
  • Inability to efficiently solve complex problems with your colleague’s
  • Upward mobility for promotions becomes difficult

For example, I find in-person team environments to be the best way to solve complex problems. You bounce ideas off each other and troubleshoot in real-time.

That’s why personally I prefer the office environment for at least several days a week.

Overall though, it comes down to someone’s personality. Some people are introverts and prefer working at home.

But like anything else, working with people is a skill you need to fine-tune.

So, the answer typically falls somewhere in the middle.

Because working remotely isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. From Buffer again, here’s a breakdown of the biggest struggles with remote work.

Biggest remote working strugglesRespondent rate
Unplugging after work22%
Loneliness19%
Collaborating and/or communication17%
Distractions at home10%
Being in a different timezone than teammates8%
Staying motivated8%
Taking vacation time7%
Other4%
Finding reliable wifi3%

The shift in company culture with remote work

Most large tech companies have adopted the remote work model because they’re progressive. They’re in line with the latest trends and technologies.

I’m talking about companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

Whereas traditional engineering professions, like civil engineering, firms are more conservative. They have deep roots in certain work models.

In many instances, many engineers at these firms can work from home. But, an outdated company culture prevents it.

I know some of these firms are now using VPNs to allow engineers to work remotely. They’re slowly adopting the benefits of the remote work model.

Certainly, COVID-19 has sped up the adoption.

7 considerations engineers should make on whether to work remotely or not

commute to office for work

If given the choice, working remotely is a personal decision. There’s no right or wrong answer.

But, there are certain things you need to consider when it comes to the engineering field.

I’m going to go over 7 considerations I think are most important. And of course, they’ll vary from company to company.

#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. The reasons include:

  • When you’re face to face, you’re more likely to discuss random subjects beyond your core work. Think about sports, family, health issues, and so on.
  • You’ll be on the minds of people more through face-to-face interactions. You don’t want to only be a name on a screen.

I find this especially important given a lot of engineers already aren’t too social. So, remote work may further create distance between people.

#2 Solving complex problems 

I’ve used almost all popular online collaboration tools. They work.

But nothing beats face-to-face work when it comes to solving complex problems. Here are several benefits:

  • Instantly draw sketches and get feedback. Sketches always help simplify complex ideas.
  • Look into someone’s eyes to see if they really understood a problem.
  • Sit someone down uninterrupted to discuss a subject. When working remotely, you don’t know if the other person is eating and playing video games.

Solving complex problems isn’t like responding to angry customers. I can reply to an angry customer alone while lying in bed. But I can’t say the same about solving complex problems.

#3 Small questions turn into deep learning environments 

Walk into another design engineer’s office and instantly start chatting about a problem.

This simple chat then turns into a deep discussion on tangential subjects. Then other engineers may drop in to chime in and help too.

I’ve learned so much this way. I think many people overlook the importance of group engineer discussions.

Further, I find this discussion model especially important for young 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 the discussion ends.

#4 Gained flexibility at home

Working remotely gives you a lot of flexibility in your personal life.

Most service providers work regular 8-5 hours, Monday through Friday. These are the same hours you’re normally stuck inside your office.

So, by working at home, you can better do the following things:

  • Visit your dentist
  • Call and dispute fraudulent credit card charges
  • Bring contractors over to your house for home projects
  • Be around your kids and family

Naturally, juggling office and personal work can cause a lot of stress and anxiety. Thus, working remotely can improve your mood.

Even more, the less stress you have, the better the engineering work you can do.

#5 Work commute

By not commuting to work, you’ll save a lot of money. Plus, it’s much safer and less stressful.

I know a couple of Twitter engineers who used to commute from Sacramento to San Francisco. That’s a 4-hour total daily commute.

Total insanity!

To top it off, your productivity greatly drops because you’re always drained. Not good in engineering, since you need to think a lot.

#6 Self-management

Can you manage yourself well? If you have problems focusing when you’re on your own, remote work isn’t for you.

Some people have too many distractions at their fingertips when working from home. For example:

  • TV
  • Video games
  • A spouse
  • Kids

Without structure and planning, working from home is a challenge. 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
  • Printers
  • Fast computer
  • Fast internet speed

These are all important in your productivity and sanity. Yes, you can certainly upgrade all your office supplies. But, it’s still something you need to consider.

A lot of engineering work today requires a powerful computer. For example, I use demanding CAD and design simulation software. Most computers couldn’t handle these software tools.

What’s more, most engineers need a large workspace. I often spread my papers across a couple of desks.

Conclusion

Many engineers can work remotely. But, company culture plays a large role if engineers have this choice.

Sometimes outdated company cultures make optimal work models difficult. I understand it’s a big change, especially for older engineers.

But, it can become a great cost-saving for a company through reduced overhead costs. In the end, a company needs to find the perfect balance. You want to increase productivity, yet not drain your workforce.

Personally, 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 permanent remote working?

SUBSCRIBE TO ENGINEER CALCS NEWSLETTER

Get daily articles and news delivered to your email inbox

Leave a Comment