Can engineers work remotely? 7 Things to Consider

Can engineers work remotely? Depends on if you need access to certain equipment and/or your final working product.

We’ll answer the below 2 questions in detail, to highlight the choice of remote work.

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

Do you use complex machinery and computers in your job?

Jobs, where you work with expensive equipment in a lab, you can’t do remotely. For example, at SpaceX, engineers need access to the following:

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

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 inside their homes. Their company may even financially assist with the setup.

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 from your employer.

Depending on the complexity of your work though, you can do preliminary design work at home. Then, go to the office to implement and 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 visit project sites?
  • Do you watch over the manufacturing of products?

If you answered ‘yes’ to either question, you won’t be able to work fully remotely. Because you need to be physically present somewhere.

In my case, I can’t work fully remotely because I visit construction sites and I do the following:

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

Which engineers can work from home?

engineer working remotely

The following are engineering job types, which best accommodate work from home setups:

#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 to seamlessly design from home. 

#2 Customer support: most customer support jobs can be remote. Because most of your communication is via email or phone. It’s only when you need to provide onsite customer support, you can’t work remotely.

#3 Internal coordination: coordinating two parties together. For example, coordinating manufacturing with R&D, through emails and phone calls.

#4 Managing outsource teams: a U.S. engineer managing remote foreign engineers. This work you need to do over the computer regardless, so it’s a no-brainer.

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

Should engineers work from home?

The following table from a Buffer report shows the biggest benefits of remote work:

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

Yet, many engineers I’ve spoken with wouldn’t want to work from home indefinitely. Below are several reasons why.

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

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. This is why personally I prefer the office environment for at least several days a week.

Overall though, it comes down to a person’s personality. Some engineers are introverts and prefer working at home. While others are extroverts and want face-to-face time.

So, the answer typically falls somewhere in the middle. From Buffer again, the following is 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 high-tech companies like Google and Facebook have adopted remote work. Because they’re in tune with the latest trends and technologies.

Whereas traditional engineering professions, like civil engineering firms, are more conservative. They have deep roots in previous-generation work models. Even though, many engineers at these firms can perfectly work from home.

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

commute to office for work

If given the choice to work remotely, consider the 7 following factors:

#1 Relationships and visibility

It’s difficult to build relationships and move up the ranks when working remotely. Building genuine strong relationships requires face-to-face time for the following reasons:

  • 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 and not only be a name on a screen.
  • You can better read the person you’re communicating with.

I find this especially important given a lot of engineers already aren’t too social. So, remote work may further disrupt the team work environment.

#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. The following are several benefits:

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

Solving complex problems isn’t like responding to angry customers. I can reply to an angry customer 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. Even more so, for young engineers who need hand-holding.

When working remotely, this scenario rarely plays out. 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:

  • 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. And the less stress you have, the better work you can do.

#5 Work commute

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

I know a couple of Twitter engineers who used to commute from Sacramento to San Francisco. A 4-hour plus total daily commute. Insanity!

To top it off, your productivity greatly drops because you’re always drained.

#6 Self-management

If you have problems focusing when you’re alone, remote work isn’t for you. Some people have too many distractions at home, which includes the following:

  • TV
  • Video games
  • A spouse
  • Kids
  • Endless food

Without structure and planning, working from home is a challenge. Especially in engineering, where you need absolute focus for long periods of time.

#7 Home office setup

Do you have a good office setup at home, with the below listed?

  • Office desk
  • Large dual monitors
  • Printer
  • 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 to consider.

A lot of engineering work today requires a powerful computer. For example, I use demanding CAD and design simulation software. Most home 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. Also, it’s a big change, especially for older engineers.

But, it can become a great cost-savings for a company through reduced overhead costs. In the end, a company needs to find the perfect balance. You want to increase or at least maintain 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 work?

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