Colocation and Efficiency

Monday, July 10, 2017 by Rainer Stropek

Recently, I spoke with one of our partners about their view on remote working vs. colocation. My discussion partner was convinced that his software development team is more productive because more or less all members work in the same location. He complained that more and more applicants decline job offers because they are not willing to travel half an hour or more to come to the office. He said that he doesn't understand this attitude because an interesting job should be enough reason to accept a certain amount of related travel time.

Colocation is More Efficient

That conversation gave me a lot of food for thought. One the one hand, I think he is right. I also made the experience that a colocated team is more productive than a distributed one. On the other hand, isn't this productivity just theory if we cannot convince the best people to work in your teams? Do efficiency gains from colocation outweigh losing talents who are not able or not willing to regularly commute into the office? Is there a happy medium? In this blog post I would like to share my thoughts on the topic.


Companies aim for maximizing productivity. Colocation leads to higher productivity. Things are clear, aren’t they? Arguments change if we look at them from the point of view of employees. As an employee, I strive for a good work-live-balance. I know a lot of developers who love their jobs. This is true for me, too. If I wouldn’t be in the software development business, I would code as a hobby. A long working day working on some tricky programming problems is no punishment for me, it's fun. Thus, I don’t see work and live as two distinctly separate things.

However, in my 25 years as a developer and software architect, I have learned that focusing solely on the job over a long period of time doesn’t end well. I know that even the best project management cannot entirely avoid crunch times. That’s fine as long as those periods of hard work don’t become a permanent condition. In order to be productive and efficient, you have to have some time away from work. Neglecting family, sports, hobbies, time to relax, etc. will definitely have a bad influence on your live. If you want to be successful on the long run, you have to find enough time out of work. So time is precious and should not be wasted.

The Problem of Commuting

An important aspect of colocation is that people gathering in a corporate office have to commute. In my job, I travel a lot. Over the years, I have learned to enjoy travelling to a certain degree (see also my blog post Make Travelling Time Quality Time). It isn’t quality time at its best but I usually can relax. However, I find it hard to make good use of travel time on short trips. Taking the car often ends up being stuck in traffic. Public transport means frequent delays, crowded vehicles, changing lines, etc. There is no leaning back and watching a movie or getting some work done. The only things that work for me on short trips are listening to music, audiobooks and podcasts. Spending time like this is just a reasonable compromise.

Reducing Commute Time to Raise Employer Attractiveness

Whichever way you look at it, time to commute reduces available time for work and private life. Therefore, people try to avoid it. Skilled developers have lots of choices nowadays. If you aren’t Google, Microsoft or Tesla, it is very likely that your employees would find comparable jobs if they want to. Travel time is an important factor that many take into account. As employers, we need to take all chances to make working in our companies attractive. Minimizing commute time is one aspect. Possibilities are:

  • Make your office easily reachable (e.g. public transport nearby, free parking)
  • Allow home working even on short notice (especially important for families with young children where both partners have a job)
  • Allow flexible working time (to e.g. avoid travel time with regular traffic jams)
  • Provide infrastructure for convenient remote working (e.g. laptops, smartphones, web conferencing software and hardware)

Organizational Measurements

Colocation and fully distributed teams are just two sides of the spectrum. There are many options between these extremes. I have no experience in managing large teams distributed across countries and time zones. In our environment of small teams, we try to combine the strengths of colocation and distribution as far as possible. Here are three examples:

  • Selective off-site work is possible whenever an employee has work to do where she does not need to be in constant, interactive connection with colleagues. You need to work at home because of some construction work going on? No problem.
  • In customer projects, we regularly form cross-organizational teams with partners. In such cases, the teams work partly collocated, partly distributed. We try to find a project- and team-specific compromise between low-friction, in-person collaboration and minimizing commuting.
  • If we are the remote team working with a larger customer, we have regular in-person meetings where social activities (e.g. common dinner) are an important part or the schedule. Personally knowing a remote college makes communication via phone or web-conference easier.
  • While we are as flexible as possible during usual project work, we very much favor colocation in case of crunch times.

Using the Cloud and SaaS

Cloud- and SaaS-based systems make connecting satellite workers or collaborating in multi-site teams much easier. If your systems are locked into a local network without connections to the outside world, externals will have a hard time. Many companies argue with security as the reason for preventing any external access to internal systems. In my experience, the opposite is the case. A distributed workforce combined with cumbersome policies for gaining external access will lead to security nightmares like

  • data exchange via uncontrolled private services (e.g. Dropbox, webmail),
  • poorly-secured server (e.g. unmanaged FTP servers) or
  • uncontrolled hardware (e.g. private, unencrypted USB sticks).

Cloud-based systems are built for being connected to the internet. In my opinion, enterprise IT departments should focus on identity and access management via systems like Azure Active Directory instead of locking ports and building organizational hurdles for granting external access.

SaaS-offerings have another big advantage for distributed teams. If you add satellite workers or external teams for a limited amount of time, you typically only pay for the accounts as long as you need them. When the project is done or team members change, you can easily assign the licenses to other people or cancel the accounts.

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I agree to the discussion partner I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post. Colocated teams have advantages for employer (e.g. higher productivity) and for employees (e.g. richer social interactions with colleagues). However, the best talents are sometimes far away or not willing to travel. Technical and organizational measurements like the ones mentioned above can mitigate the negative implications of regionally distributed teams. With this, we can hire the best people inside and outside our offices and find a happy medium for both sides.

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