Alex Warren

Objections to Remote Work

27 July 2020 · Comments

The Covid-19 pandemic has opened up a debate about remote work, and to what extent remote will be the “new normal”. At one extreme, the move to remote working practices during the pandemic will become permanent, and we’ll never return to our offices again. At the other extreme, things will go back to just how they were before. Of course, the real future will lie somewhere between these two extremes. But where?

There was of course already a move towards remote working before the pandemic, with some companies being fully remote, others being a mix of remote and office-based, and even many primarily office-based companies allowing people to work from home at least some of the time. What Covid has brought is a sudden switch to remote working for a lot of people, and that has meant the transition hasn’t been smooth for everybody. Some people have been pleasantly surprised to find that remote work works a lot better than they thought. Many people though have struggled, and so there is a lot of fear about what the future looks like.

I came across a blog post the other day called “Our remote work future is going to suck” by Sean Blanda. It argues that we should all be worried about a future where remote is the new default, and so I thought it would be worth countering a few of the objections to remote work in the article.

The article makes various statements about remote work that I disagree with, and I’ll go into some of them below and add my own perspective. It kicks off with this summary though, declaring, in bold, that “remote work makes you vulnerable to outsourcing, reduces your job to a metric, creates frustrating change-averse bureaucracies, and stifles your career growth”. Well now. I’ve worked in plenty of jobs in offices, and unfortunately, that statement is just as true of those. Everybody is vulnerable to outsourcing. Plenty of employers have no clue how to manage teams effectively, resulting in performance being reduced to metrics. Frustrating change-averse bureaucracies abound in the world of employment. And career growth has always been something that employers only pay lip service to, at best. Will remote work make these worse? I’ll break down the article’s arguments below, but spoiler alert - no, I don’t think there’s anything intrinsic about remote work that means these bad things will happen, if you do it right.

The lack of scrutiny our remote future faces is going to result in frustrated workers and ineffective companies”, says the article. Well, the frustrated workers and ineffective companies have always been here. That’s the result of a huge number of factors, including the way companies are run, maximising short-term profits at the expense of long-term outcomes. Being office-based hasn’t protected us from frustration and ineffectiveness.

And lack of scrutiny? Where was the scrutiny for office work? We just kind of accepted it as the way things were, until Covid upended everything.

If we do it right, the move to more remote work could in fact enable more satisfied workers, and more productive companies. That’s the key thing though - we’ve got to do it right. And right now, because so many companies have rushed to implement remote work, they’ve not got it right yet. Jason Fried wrote a good article the other day called “Remote work is a platform” - “Simulating in-person office work remotely does both approaches a disservice”. We can’t just transplant all our office-based meetings into Zoom and expect everything to work well. This is something I’ve covered before (in my talk Making Remote Work Work). The key to making remote work work is to embrace asynchronous working.

On your own?

“Remote enables you to be forgotten… you’re effectively on your own… [At remote companies] Some managers often have no clue what their direct reports are doing and how they are doing it…. how do you judge someone when you can only see their output and never their process?”

Have you heard of autonomy? What’s wrong with judging someone by their output, anyway? If their output is good, then as a manager you don’t need to know all the details of their “process”. And if they’re putting in a lot of effort, but not achieving anything you can see, then you’re overdue a conversation. Either their achievements are unseen - in which case, either you or they need to change something so you can see them. Or they’re not achieving anything, which definitely means something needs to change.

There is responsibility for both the manager and employee here. Managers don’t need to know all the details about what employees are up to. If they do, that’s a sign you’re working in an unhealthy environment that values micromanaging and does not value autonomy. Asynchronous work and remote work can only be successful if people trust each other and treat each other as adults. It also requires people to be proactive about communication - letting the right people know what is being worked on, and seeking help when there are problems.

Managers should be having regular one-to-ones with their direct reports, to ask them about what’s going on, and helping to solve problems with the way work is done. That should happen whether you’re remote or in the office.

No recognition?

“Employees who “do the right thing” spending extra time and energy supporting their teammates receive absolutely no recognition for doing the little things needed for a smooth-running, collaborative organization.”

Yes, the modern workplace does suck. Oh wait, I thought we were talking specifically about remote work here? This sounds a lot like a complaint I hear from - oh, just about anybody who isn’t myopically focussed on the short-term incentive structures that exist in most companies. This is unfortunately an entirely true statement - there is no recognition or incentive for performing so much of the work that makes a company run efficiently. This is not just a remote work problem. Incentive structures in companies are generally crude. But do you think people only help each other out when they’re in earshot of their manager?

“your team’s output is difficult to individualize for your manager — especially if work is done in private DMs or one-on-one Zoom calls. The manager sees the end product with no visibility as to who did what, who pulled their weight, who made tough choices, and who made things more difficult.”

Should work be done entirely in private DMs or one-on-one Zoom calls, with no documents describing the decisions made? If so, how is that worse than the in-office version, where presumably these would simply be private conversations? A manager doesn’t have visibility of those either.

If the only work you do is DMs and Zoom calls with no visible impact, maybe you aren’t really doing very much?

Generally, asynchronous remote work is more effective when things are public by default. Private conversations should be avoided. Decisions and plans should be documented somewhere that anybody interested can find, read and participate. That might mean collaborative documents, or Slack channels which are visible to anyone in the organisation. That way, the information people need to do their job is there when they need it. And managers can keep up to speed with what’s happening, too.

Soft skills?

“Whatever soft skills you bring to the table will be minimized when working remotely. This will lead to companies and processes relying less on things like creativity and collaboration and more on simple inputs and outputs.”

This is ridiculous. According to a quick Google search, opinions vary on what exactly constitutes “soft skills”, but it seems to include things like time management, teamwork, creative thinking, resolving conflict, openness to feedback, etc. Nothing about remote work changes how important these are. Perhaps they become even more important. Why would creativity not be important in a remote environment? What is it about collaboration that makes some people think it can only occur when people are physically present in the same space?

Interruptions are… good?

“Remote work supporters often return to the “interruption culture” at an IRL office as an argument for distributed work. First, clearly people that believe remote work creates an interruption-free zone have never used Slack or email.”

Slack and email generate interruptions, yes. Effective asynchronous work is not about being on Slack all the time, or being ready to fire off a response to emails as soon as they come in. But if you want to get your head down and get some work done, you can disconnect from Slack and email in a way that you cannot disconnect from the physical proximity of your colleagues.

“Second, those interruptions often exist for a reason: They often communicate information that ensures everyone is working on the right thing.”

But how often are these interruptions necessary? How frequently are people working on the wrong thing, only to be saved by an interruption? And how much more often are people working on the right thing, but have their train of thought derailed by receiving an email or Slack message?

“what happens when “what matters” changes? …. Eventually, the market shifts. There’s a competitor or a Black Swan-style event in the industry (like, say, a global pandemic). Suddenly the well-oiled machine needs to adapt and change course. For companies larger than 100 people, this is tremendously difficult in an in-person environment. Working remote, it’s damn near impossible. Twice-a-year in-person meetups are not enough to disseminate brand new strategies.”

And how many times per hour are these market shifts and Black Swan events happening? Why can’t new strategies be developed remotely? Why do they need “disseminating” from on high in the first place?

Career growth?

“Remote work can stifle your career growth. Mentorship is stifled because there is no learning via osmosis.”

Perhaps we can be more structured in how we train employees than hoping things happen via osmosis?

“You can’t model your behavior on your successful teammates because you only see them on Zoom and in Slack. Whatever process they are using to achieve their results is opaque to you.”

As software developers, we can do pairing remotely. There is no reason why pairing can’t be successful for many other kinds of work too. Jump on a Zoom call, share your screen, talk through what you’re doing.

We hire graduates from universities supposedly because they’ve mastered being able to tackle deep knowledge work on their own, learn independently, and seek help as required. Why shouldn’t those skills also be useful for getting up to speed in the workplace?

“When you’re young, you don’t need “focus” or to “get things done.” You need exposure to new ideas and people. You need the serendipitous fortune of sitting in on the right meeting, attending the right happy hour, or earning the respect of the right observer. All of the above is more difficult in a remote environment.”

What? I’m pretty sure companies hire even young people to get things done, not sit around in randomly selected meetings looking for the attentions of the “right observer”. Perhaps we need to think through how we get the outcomes we want, instead of relying on things happening by chance. Not everybody is lucky.

Ulterior motives?

“Those boosting remote work are often not entirely straightforward about their intentions — to themselves or their audiences. The next time you see someone advocating for remote work, ask yourself: How do they pay their bills?”

I advocate for remote work because I’ve seen it work. I’ve also worked with people who don’t believe it works - so I understand where they’re coming from. I’ve come to see that it’s because effective remote work - which is really effective asynchronous work - requires upending a lot of assumptions we have about the way work works. Assumptions about effective management and leadership, the way that decisions are made, and what collaboration looks like.

Office work mitigates a lot of issues with the working environment. It makes it much easier to get away with bad planning, bad training and bad communication practices. That’s why some people think office work is better. In a messed-up workplace, having everybody working in the same office is just easier. Going remote shines a light on a lot of underlying problems. It’s hard to get right. But it’s worth it. Especially now that remote work is no longer optional - pretty much all knowledge work is going to be at least partially remote for the foreseeable future. There’s been no better time to question our assumptions and set up a working environment that works for everybody.

More of my thoughts on this are in my talk Making Remote Work Work.


Technical Debt Guide

16 March 2020 · Comments

A recurring theme throughout my career has been developers asking the question “why don’t we get more time to fix technical debt?”

This was the inspiration behind a talk I gave a few times last year, called Why Not Fix Your Technical Debt?

I’ve turned some previous talks I’ve given into blog posts, and started doing the same with this. I wanted to add a bit more detail, including a nice case study of some technical debt I came across (and fixed!) during my time at Stack Overflow. Doing that made it far too big to be just one blog post, so I’ve created a whole website instead.

Presenting: Technical Debt - a guide for developers and product managers.

Check it out now at techdebtguide.com. If you find it useful, please pass it on to the developers and product managers in your life.


Making Remote Work Work

25 October 2019 · Comments

Many companies think they’re already set up for successful remote working. They have all the tools and technology in place. And yet, many people think working from home is simply not as effective as being in the office. Why is that? By shifting our mindset to make office work look like remote work – “Remote First” – we can help everybody to be more productive, whether they work at home full-time, at the office full-time, or a mixture of both.

In this talk, I’ll show how remote work increases productivity, improves hiring and retention, and can really help your diversity and inclusion efforts. We’ll look at both synchronous and asynchronous communication – when to use each, and how to use them successfully. Along the way we’ll look at plenty of examples from my time working full-time remote at Stack Overflow, and subsequently leading distributed teams across multiple countries.

We’ll also look at the personal challenges of working remote, and how to overcome them, and dispel some myths about what “collaboration” means.

Ultimately, this is all about setting teams up for success, wherever people choose to work.

This talk was given at Codemotion Milan on 25th October 2019.


Why Not Fix Your Technical Debt?

30 May 2019 · Comments

What is technical debt and why is it important? When should we fix it, and when is it not worth fixing? When it comes to a choice between “fixing up old code” or “delivering new features”, it’s often “fixing up old code” which loses - how can we fight back against that?

Based on my experiences over the last 10 years, I’ll talk about empowering developers to improve code while still delivering value to the business, and how the business can understand the benefits of fixing technical debt. We’ll also look at when it might actually be better to leave the technical debt unfixed.

This talk was given at the Front End London meetup on 30th May 2019.


Teaching women to code at Trainline with Code First: Girls

6 December 2018

At Trainline we’ve partnered with Code First: Girls, an organisation aiming to teach 20,000 women to code by the end of 2020. We want to help them make sure that women will have the same opportunities as men when it comes to technology skills, by delivering their free Level 1 Beginners Course, as well as providing financial support.

Volunteering as one of the course coaches, myself and Eli Schütze Ramírez, have been taking a group of 18 women who are complete beginners through the process of building their first websites from scratch.

Over seven weeks, we’ve covered everything from the basics of how the internet works, through HTML and CSS, using Atom, GitHub and Bootstrap, all the way to JavaScript and jQuery.

The students, who had never done any programming before, all now have real websites live on the internet, built using the same real tools that programmers use every day.

Judging the end-of-course showcase, we were super impressed at all of the websites the students have developed. We saw eye-catching designs, responsive layouts, and even interactive elements. Everybody had come such a long way!

One of the strengths of the Code First: Girls approach is because it’s using real software, it shows the reality of life as a software developer. The challenges that the students faced when building their websites were similar to the kind of challenges that I and other programmers face daily. How to work effectively with other developers, understanding documentation and code on the internet, working out why sometimes things work on your own machine but not on the website, how to handle an upcoming deadline…

I always think the best way of learning programming is to throw yourself in and start building something, and Code First: Girls provides that, in a safe and supportive environment, without over-simplifying things. Everything the students learnt will be useful whether they want to build sites as a hobby or even develop it as a career.

We ran in-person sessions and provided support via Slack as students built their websites in their own time. That meant there was always someone they could turn to as problems came up.

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and will definitely be signing up to teach another course. If you’re a developer and thinking of signing up to teach, you should. All the course materials are provided and they’re well written. You just need to talk through the slides and help out the students when they get stuck.

And if you’re interested in learning to code and identify as female/non-binary, you should give it a go and sign up. No prior knowledge is needed, we start from the absolute basics, you just need to have the interest and a little bit of time and we’ll teach you enough to build your very own first live website.


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