Remote or not (Part 1 - Fried Office)
Making the case against remote work is hard.. but one can try
(Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 31 seconds.)
Let’s pretend that I haven’t abandoned writing for almost a year and continue this relationship where we left it.
(ominous music playing)
Few topics in the tech world can be as polarizing as remote work. And as firms worldwide are trying to move past the pandemic -not an easy feat- employees are expected to come back to the office.
But why come back?
The internet consensus is that remote work is good. So have the C-level of companies worldwide asking their people to return, gone mad? Why do they want to enrage their employees, risking losing them?
Is it because, managers are worthless without in-office presence or are they scared that fundamental changes will be happening in the firm’s culture?
Or could it be that the proponents of a remote world are missing something? Let’s try to find answers in this series of posts.
‘Member March 2020?
When Covid-19 broke and lockdowns and moving restrictions were imposed in different shapes and forms, remote work became a necessity for most of the western world. Productivity soared, tech people were making great plans about the future, remote productivity tools startups were being given money on the spot. It was a good time. Until it wasn’t.
The productivity spike, was just that, a spike. Being forced to work from home was not exactly remote work, it was remote work out of necessity. The data show that people worked longer hours, too so what a surprise.
Being onboarded remotely in the company I currently work at and talking with my colleagues, I remember them telling me that they worked overtime, to the point of burnout, because they had little else to do (with everything being closed down and stuff). But this is anecdotological. Let’s bring some…
Data to the table
Atlassian, a company with approx. 25M unique users, has documented the lockdown effect through the analytics of their tools. They write on their website:
The impact of lockdowns on our customers was consistent with the patterns we observed amongst our own staff: a striking change took place in March, with workdays becoming significantly longer by April.
According to their findings, the extra time on a daily basis that employees put in on average deviated from +16 minutes in Japan to +47 minutes in Israel.
But that initial productivity spike has biased peoples’ opinion ever since. What’s more, it affected the whole discourse about remote work and its productivity benefits, even though, evidence of these benefits were shown to be circumstantial in the following lockdowns.
Remote before it was cool
For this 1st post in the remote series, I would like to dive deeper into the thoughts and overall thesis of one of the greatest champions of remote work, Jason Fried. Jason has always been a proponent of remote work, long before covid hit and he (along with DHH) have been running their company, Basecamp, fully remote for approximately 20 years. He has been evangelizing remote much earlier than most people -even in tech- realized the permanence and expansion of this trend.
However, a few months back, following a controversy that started from “a legacy message board, started in 2009, in which sales reps kept track of customers' funny names” the company unravelled…. But rather than fostering the cultural reckoning employees were asking for, Fried issued a memo banning workers from discussing politics or "societal" issues in company chats at all. As a result, approx. one third of the company’s employees left in a very public manner. Was this a cultural failure? Yes. Had this anything to do with remote? That’s much trickier to answer.
But let’s take a step back…. in time
In a Ted-X talk back in 2012 Fried laid out his thesis on remote work for the world to see.
Businesses, governments, and other organizations invest so much money in bringing their people together at the office, but when people really want to get something done at work, they want to do it elsewhere. They tend to either do it at home, or on their commute (plane, train, car), or at strange times – early morning, late night, weekends. This is because most people in creative professions need uninterrupted time to work, and being at work chops up your day with meetings and other requests.
I do agree that deep work is not easy to do in an office context. And in short, that’s what Fried’s tells us: Work doesn’t happen in office
But there is no easy and unique way to define work. One part of work is, indeed, the deep task-completing that happens when people are allowed to work uninterrupted in the zone and that’s what Fried refers to. But, contrary to popular -and mostly employee- belief, work is so much more than that. Serendipity, watercooler conversations, bonding, lucky breaks and ideas. We haven’t yet solved for reproducing that type of work, the creative one, in a remote environment. Or at least, haven’t solved efficiently.
Another one of Fried’s theses is that the city’s monopoly as a talent hub will come to an end.
The city is the original talent hub. Traditionally, those who ran the engines of capitalism thought: “Let’s gather a large number of people in a small geographical area where they must live on top of each other in tight quarters, and we’ll be able to find plenty of able bodies to man our factories.”
This is indeed a mantra that is being played on repeat by many Silicon-Valley-as-a-tech-hub deserters like Balaji. One of Paul Graham’s greatest essays is “Cities and Ambition” which makes the case for the power of condensing talent in a small geographical area for a specific period of time. Most people who did great things were clumped together in a few places where that sort of thing was done at the time. The osmosis of ambitious people is what brings extraordinary results. How this will happen in a remote world is probably through online communities.
Is this enough? Early insight for online communities having analogous momentum as real-life ones is not good. So, the tldr; is -again- that we lack the tools to make this happen.
It’s not about the money … but saving helps
Few would admit this and Fried, to his credit, does, but he makes a compelling point: a remote workforce is a cheaper workforce, by the powers of global wage arbitrage. But Fried wants to make clear that remote does not mean that your job will be outsourced - I’m not so sure about that. In general, remote will have a positive financial effect for firms and remote employees (in lower-wage countries) and we all should be rooting for more global wage equity. Developers in Nigeria working for firms in Europe, or USA (in general time-difference is an issue) is a good thing for the global economy and financial convergence. But we’d have to see more data on jobs created and jobs lost to call this.
Fried also writes about employee evaluation:
"What you're left with is "what did this person actually do today?" Not "when did they get in?" or "how late did they stay?" Instead, it's all about the work produced. So instead of asking a remote worker "what did you do today?" you can now just say, "Show me what you did today." As a manager, you can directly evaluate the work--the thing you're paying this person for--and ignore all the stuff that doesn't actually matter."
But evaluating the “work” is hard for many reasons. In most companies, success (or failure) is a team sport. Think of a star employee that has participated in failed projects or the reverse: how will their output be measured?
Αlso, a typical framework of an employee performance review for skills across 12 categories that include:
Creativity and innovation
Attendance and punctuality
Productivity and quality of work
Coaching and training
Improvement of Interpersonal skills and finally,
It is really hard to do this kind of review when fully remote. Those are only some of the many problems that are visible to the naked eye and I believe that soon, processes and products will deal with these problems. From all the issues mentioned, AFAIAC employee evaluation has the lowest score of importance.
But the question remains (and not only for remote): can we emulate 100% real-life interactions?
More on Part 2, which will probably be posted before Christmas :P . Happy to hear your thoughts on the in-between.
Tweet of the week
OpenAi has trained a neural net on a corpus of Glass’ work and got his commentary on that. This is so f@@@ing cool.
In the future, AI record labels without artists will pop up and will change music forever. I’m involved in a similar project as well and if you are interested in this type of tech, ping me. But more on that in a future newsletter.
Everything here is written from my own point of view ( a PM at Orfium)
I’m not against remote, just making a point about the complexity of things and polarization (with remote or against).