Working on the train

As a (freelance) software developer I have the ability to easily carry my working environment with me. All it takes is a properly configured laptop. This opens up a lot of possibilities. One of these I'd like to emphasize: working while commuting.

Ideally I work close to where I live. It allows me to cycle to work. In addition to being fun, quick and convenient, cycling also provides some physical effort, albeit light. When your job requires you to sit behind a computer for extended periods of time, any physical effort, even light, is highly welcome. However most of the time my work requires me to commute a lot farther than is practical by bicycle. Thus far I have managed to avoid commuting by car. The time driving a car is completely wasted, especially during rush hour. Hence I select my clients on the feasibility of getting to them by means of public transport, specifically by train. The trains in The Netherlands – especially the 'Intercity' ones – are very comfortable and provide ample space to work on a laptop. Hence working while commuting is easy.

Productivity

Though it is not only a matter of having the ability to work on the train. The train happens to be an excellent working environment as well. I find the train to be a relatively distraction free environment. A number of things make this possible.

Firstly, the time spend on the train is bounded; I consider my commute time on the train to be a time box. It keeps me focussed to deal with the issue I intend to work on and nothing else.

Secondly, the cadence of a moving train together with the muffled background noises generated by the other commuters helps me concentrate. Some people prefer absolute silence. But when there is silence, every bit of sound will be a distraction. It is also the reason I avoid the quiet coaches on the train; there is always someone who is unaware they are in a quiet coach.

The background noises by other commuters are also very different from the – highly distracting – background noises in the office. In the office conversations are generally somewhat relevant to do the work your doing. Unintentionally you'll pick up word or phrase that has some meaning to what your doing. And before you know it you have tuned into the conversation. Not so in the train. All conversations there have no meaning to me, hence do not distract me from my work.

Thirdly, apart from the conductor that only wants to see my ticket, there are no colleagues that interrupt me. Nor are there any meetings to attend to. This means that pretty much all the time on the train can be fully dedicated to work.

These three things make my time on the train often the most productive time of my working day. I arrive at work with a head start and well prepared. I come home generally having wrapped up the last lingering issues of the day. I'm pretty sure I can be as productive in the office as well, if it wasn't for the tyranny of open-plan offices

Time

Aside from the productivity benefits, working on the train has an obvious other benefit: efficient use of time. If a door-2-door commute takes 1.5 hours, then 2 * 1.5 hours + 8.5 hours at the office = 11.5 hours dedicated to work related activities. By working on the train for an hour – both to and from work – and staying at the office for only 6.5 hours, I save 2 hours a day while doing the same, if not more, work.

Why is this important to me? Those two hours allow me to pick up my kids from after school care at a reasonable time. I also like to do sports: running, going to the gym, Krav Maga. All that becomes a lot harder if you spent your time commuting idly instead of working. In short it, provides me with a better work-life balance.

The Problem

All is well then, you might think. Work benefits from better productivity. And my work-life balance benefits as well. A win-win situation.

Alas, clients tend to be extremely reluctant, or outright unwilling, to allow me to work on the train. Reasons range from security issues, afraid of the precedent it sets, hard to sell to the rest of the team, to not trusting actual work is being done on the train.

Of those reasons I only really understand the security issues. I can imagine, and have come across, situations where all code is required to be developed on the client's computer at the office and no code is allowed to leave the office. In all other cases – most cases as it turns out – I'm required to bring my own laptop to work on. Hence code already leaves the office. So whether I work on it outside, or inside of the office, should not really matter.

The other reasons effectively boil down to a matter of trust. Trust, that has already – and often implicitely – been extended to developers simply by allowing them to work on code that drives business processes. Allowing developers to work while commuting by train should be a trivial extension of that trust. The fact that this is not the case makes me wonder whether these clients are aware of how much trust they have already extended to their developers by the very nature of their job.

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