Objections to Remote Work

27 July 2020

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.