Since I posted my open letter to recruiters, I’ve seen a number of people speaking out against it (“against” used loosely here, ranging from “employees need to be in the office” and “the best companies hire the best people and the best people want to go into the office” (that’s not insulting at all) to “working remotely is isolating” and “in-person communication is better”). I decided to address a few of these things head-on.
There seems to be an underlying assumption that a remote friendly company is a remote only company – that employees can only be all remote or all in the office.
This is a false dichotomy, though. Being remote friendly does not necessarily mean that being remote is required. There’s nothing wrong with giving your employees an office they can choose to use. In fact, this is the most feasible option for companies that already have offices, and can be quite a large cost savings to rapidly-growing companies, since they don’t have to house all of their employees in their office at any given time. New companies can offer reimbursement on co-working spaces and encourage and allow for geographically close coworkers to find a shared office space if they want to.
Not everyone is cut out for working remotely, and that’s fine. Companies don’t have to choose between all their employees being remote and all their employees being in the office. In fact, the point of being remote friendly is that location doesn’t matter. When location doesn’t matter, it can still be in an office (and it – gasp! – doesn’t matter!). Just like it doesn’t have to be all office, it doesn’t have to not be, either. What’s important is that the decision is left to the individual employees.
Jacques Woodcock wrote at length about creating a “remote ready” culture. His entire post is a great read, but this segment is especially relevant to the point I’m making here:
Right now, we’ve setup what I’ve called a remote ready culture. What this means is that we function, with all company processes and procedures, as if we were a remote culture. We just happen to be in the office.
“We just happen to be in the office." His company doesn’t require employees to be in the office, nor does it require that they not be in the office. (On a side note, Jacques also provides a great example of how an existing office-required company can transition to being a remote-ready one, which can be a different beast than a company that is remote-ready from its inception.)
For some reason, the idea of working remotely seems to conjure images of being locked in a home office in your basement or attic with little natural light and no sense of time. Of work and home life blurring together as you find yourself working until midnight. Of not having any human interaction at all for months at a time. Sounds a lot like the “coder” stereotype, too.
This is more a symptom of tech and “startup” culture, I think, than of remote work culture. Cori Johnson at Model View Culture goes into this culture in Adderall Has a Tech Industry Problem, where the very first paragraph highlights everything that is wrong with our industry:
It’s no secret Silicon Valley has a problem with conspicuous consumption and drug abuse. Trace this behavior back up the pipeline to colleges where popping a pill gets a paper done on time. Instead of resting after working hard, recovery is substituted with playing hard, “blowing off steam,” and partying all night. This culture carries through to the internships, hackathons, crunch periods, and even the day-to-day work culture of tech startups and the gaming industry. As performance expectations rise, deadlines tighten, and 80-hour work weeks become the norm, stress and drug addiction rates in the Valley explode. And yet we mythologize this self-abuse as superhuman.
Even disregarding the drug abuse part, things like pulling all-nighters, 80-hour weeks, and putting up with deadlines that border on physically impossible are seen as positive traits and are considered being a “rockstar.” These things are more damaging to our psyche than where we work, and yet, they’re held up as ideals. (Fun fact: Expensify expects their employees to work 50 hours a week as a norm and take pride in running their developers just shy of burn out.)
When talking about remote working and remote-friendly environments, the fact that working beyond the typical 40 hours is itself isolating seems to be ignored. I think this is in part due to the farce that spending time in proximity to your coworkers counts as “socializing.” It doesn’t. Being around people and being with people are two different things. People need socialization outside and away from their coworkers. Seriously, no one needs to spend that much time together. Hell, I don’t even spend as many (waking) hours around my own husband as I have around coworkers in an office environment.
I, personally, actually tend to be more social when I work for a remote-friendly company than when I work for an office-only company. Remote-friendly companies are more results-oriented and therefore, more flexible on hours and breaks (not always, and not completely, but usually, and mostly), which makes grabbing lunch with a friend much easier and less stressful.
To put it crudely, if you’re working remotely and haven’t had human contact in months, then you’re doing it wrong. If you feel isolated and in need of social contact, your work does not have to provide that. Find an interest group or take up a hobby that naturally puts you around people. Or, if just being around people is enough, work a day or two at your local coffee shop. Working remotely is only as isolating as you make it.
There’s a current trend going on in business in general, and it seems to be especially popular among tech companies and anyone with a large tech department – open floor plans. There’s this pervasive idea that open floor plans foster collaboration, communication, idea flow, and other cultural equivalents of rainbows and unicorn farts.
In 2011, the organizational psychologist Matthew Davis reviewed more than a hundred studies about office environments. He found that, though open offices often fostered a symbolic sense of organizational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction. Compared with standard offices, employees experienced more uncontrolled interactions, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of concentration and motivation. When David Craig surveyed some thirty-eight thousand workers, he found that interruptions by colleagues were detrimental to productivity, and that the more senior the employee, the worse she fared.
Workspace is not one size fits all. Some people do thrive in this type of environment. More power to them. Having an open section in the office for these people is a good way to accommdate them. So is being remote-friendly, where they can choose to work in a coffee shop, an open floorplan coworking space, or in your open floorplan office.
Not everyone does well in this environment, however, and forcing those people into this environment for 8+ hours a day is doing a disservice to them and your company.
Some people prefer working in a coffee shop (yes, there really are such people, I know a few).
Some people prefer working at home on their couch.
Some prefer an office to themselves.
Some prefer an office shared with one or two other people.
Some prefer all of these in turn, when the mood strikes.
With all of the tools at our disposal that make geography all but meaningless, all of these should be at a worker’s disposal. When your company is remote-friendly, all of these options are at a worker’s disposal.
In words, developers hold a lot of stuff in short-term, working memory – most of which is difficult, if not impossible, to translate meaningfully and accurately to paper – and the impromptu interruptions that an open floorplan encourage (both from people intentionally seeking your attention, and from that loud person two cubes down) blows all that short-term data away.
Ever work on a paper, presentation, or other project on the computer that you haven’t saved in an hour or two and the power goes out? That is basically what happens when you interrupt a developer. The only difference is that we can’t just hit the proverbial save button every few minutes. Said proverbial save button (notes) can only capture a fraction of what’s going on in the brain, and the more the person is interrupted, the more data they lose and the more time they have to spend rebuliding that mental model.
Any workplace that provides mechanisms to control interruptions is generally a better fit for developers (and other high-level, creative or problem-solving people) than one that doesn’t. And no, putting headphones on doesn’t count as one such mechanism. Nice idea, but fails pretty hard in practice.
A couple of Tweets sum it up nicely:
@pamelafox Wait, you mean working in an environment with constant distraction and noise reduces productivity?— Matthew McMillion (@mlmcmillion) December 30, 2014
@pamelafox I have seen my productivity decline a ton... Can't focus, distracted, nervous all the time that I'm being watched— Brenda Jin (@cyberneticlove) December 30, 2014
As far as I can tell, this is one of the underlying ideas for all the times I see people cite “can’t collaborate” as a reason remote working is somehow inferior to working together in an office. What little information I can get from the people who hold this view amounts to “I can’t walk up to a person, tap them on the shoulder, and talk to them about something,” which I’ve already addressed. They also seem to think that no one talks to one another.
However, the opposite is actually the case in a functioning remote environment. Chat applications, such as HipChat or Slack, provide the infrastructure for everyone to communicate with everyone else. Most remote friendly companies have a main channel that everyone is required to be in. In that channel, you check in and check out, whenever you go away for any length of time, and when you come back from being away. Shared calendar applications, such as Google Calendar or Exchange Calendar, are also required to keep track of times when people plan to be away or otherwise unavailable for any reason. Add to that tools like GoToMeeting, join.me, and Screenhero, among others, and there’s not much left that you can do in an office that you can’t in a remote environment.
Yes, if you really want, that includes virtually tapping someone on the shoulder. It’s called a direct, instant message with whatever messenger system your organization uses.
You can look at it another way, too – if collaboration was indeed impossible or so cumbersome with distributed teams, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion on this blog. The code for this blog is hosted in a git repository, on Github, compiled by Octopress (which is an extension of Jekyll), which is written in Ruby. Github, itself, runs on a set of Linux boxes, developed on Vagrant boxes. Odds are, every router, switch, and DNS server between this Github server and your computer runs some variation of Linux, plus the routing/DNS software and any supporting software running on those servers.
What do all these things have in common? They are built and maintained by teams that are partially or wholly distributed.
The Internet as a whole, as we know it, would not exist if collaboration on distributed teams were impossible.
The idea that non-verbal communication universally adds value to an interaction is actually incredibly ableist (and potentially a bit sexist).
First, not everyone can read nonverbal communication, or the cognitive load of having to do so in addition to parsing the speaker’s words (and creating a response, and filtering out the other noise in the office, and…and…and…) can be too much for them. Conditions like Autism, ADHD, and nonverbal learning disorder (NLD), in particular, have these issues. Autism and ADHD by themselves consistute a large portion of the tech community, as well as a large portion of the potential employee pool of people who are capable of performing the job in question, but can’t handle the social aspect.
What does this mean in a business context? It means that the positives cited for in-person communication – eye contact, body language, tone, inflection – actually detract from social interaction for people like this. Add to it the ambient noise of an open office environment, and it’s no wonder people with sensory processing issues and NLD don’t last long in conventional office environments.
A remote-friendly work environment provides these people with the tools and the option for an ideal environment that allows them to meaningfully participate in the company – both in larger meetings, and in more impromptu, one-on-one discussions.
More broadly, the Harvard Business Review published a study that included finding that not only were employees who chose working remotely more productive, but also that the option to work remotely attracted a larger variety of workers:
Who else likes the work-from-home option?
People who have established social lives—older workers, married workers, parents. We found that the younger workers whose social lives are more connected to the office tend to not want to work from home as much. Right now the employees who spend significant amounts of time working from home are on either end of the income spectrum: solitary, per-hour workers like call center reps, proofreaders, and developers, whose output can be easily tracked; or professionals and senior managers, who presumably are highly self-motivated.
The article also specifically cites that JetBlue’s remote friendly policy attracted “educated, highly-motivated mothers, who wanted flexibility in their jobs.”
The Silicon Valley companies are notorious for simultaneously shunning remote workers and complaining that they can’t find enough “top talent” to work for them. Likewise, they’re consistently criticised for the lack of diversity in their staff, especially in the tech/engineering positions. Why is that? Well, look at what it’s like to live and work in Silicon Valley – high housing prices, hour-plus one-way commutes, gold-rush level competition, and high work churn between churning start ups and high-turnover tech giants (read - low job security). Hardly an appealling proposition for a midwestern geek mom like me, despite the fact that I’d love to have a name like Amazon or Google or Blizzard on my resume. The problem is, the glamor of those names, in and of themselves, pale in comparison to the real needs and risks of picking up my family and moving to the other side of the country. This results in companies that are dominated by young, white (and maybe Asian), single men (and not entirely accidentally, given the reports of active weeding out of people who are older, married, or want to live in the suburbs). In my experience, that’s ultimately a toxic culture, especially for me as a tech woman, as such places invariably give rise to “good ol' boys' clubs,” so even if I did thrive in the trendy open office floor plan environment, my days would likely be limited by virtue of being a woman and the mental/emotional wear and tear that comes with that, and then I’d have to find a new job in the gold-rush town that is Silicon Valley, or move elsewhere.
Or, I could work remotely for a team, and be in a situation where it’s easier to forget that I’m female or what I look like (and, therefore, more likely to be judged on the quality of my work), where I have more control over my contact with people (and keep to a level that allows me to thrive, instead of destroying me), and where I can choose where to live (and not be forced to pick up my family and move somewhere where housing is 150% that of the national average and more than 200% that of where I currently live).
I could probably write an entire stand-alone post on how remote friendly employers can be more diverse, since this section doesn’t even go into the diversity bonuses of hiring internationally and hiring people without ever seeing their faces (resulting in systems that can be as blind to race as is feasibly possible). We’ll save that for another time, though.
The best companies hire the best people and they generally want to go into the office daily.
I kid you not, I actually had someone say that to me in a conversation about working remotely. When asked for details, the person only gave the usual “impromptu collaboration” reason, which I already addressed. However, this is a spectacular example of the mindset that equates “working remotely” to “slacking off” or “underachieving,” because it implies that those who choose to work remotely are somehow inferior to those who choose to work in an office.
This stems from an old fear of (middle) managers that if they can’t see the employee, they can’t control the employee. This leads to rampant presenteeism (employees, in the office, looking busy, but not actually doing anything), especially when the only metric for “productivity” is a butt in a chair.
The problem, though, isn’t remote working. It’s poor performance metrics, or lack of metrics entirely, that create slackers. The switch to a remote friendly environment just sheds light on these people, and either they shape up and start meeting those metrics, or you ship them out. It’s that simple.
Since the program’s implementation, average voluntary turnover has fallen drastically, CultureRx says. Meanwhile, Best Buy notes that productivity is up an average 35% in departments that have switched to ROWE. Employee engagement, which measures employee satisfaction and is often a barometer for retention, is way up too, according to the Gallup Organization, which audits corporate cultures.
In other words, people were more productive, when given control over when and where they worked, not less. Makes sense, when you consider the fact that not everyone succeeds in a particular work environment, or working a specific set of hours, and when you consider that our lives outside of work are generally run in a results-oriented fashion (either you’ve done your laundry or you haven’t, it’s that simple). Oh, and it happens repeatedly.
But wait, what about Yahoo, and that “back to the office” call for remote workers? Well, it turns out to, so far, have pretty much no impact on Yahoo’s success…or lack thereof (most of their stock increase between 2012 and 2014 is actually from Alibaba; many people estimate Yahoo’s value without it at negative $4 billion). Apparently, it requires not only hiring “the best talent,” but also requires giving said talent projects that make them feel like they’re actually innovating. Seems Ms. Mayer thought that if you put people together, that’d magically happen. She was probably sorely disappointed when most of the people from her first acqui-hire left (of the three the author could find, only one remained at Yahoo). Her attempts to impress the media industry with high-profile figures like Katie Couric also backfired (it might help if she realized that Steve Jobs hadn’t come up with the iPhone five years after his second round at Apple, but had come up with its predecessor, the MessagePad, or Newton, some 10 years before, that people were begging him to bring back, but he saw the cell phone era on the horizon and leveraged that to launch the iPhone into the popularity it now enjoys). The problem with Yahooa, that Ms. Mayer thinks will be solved by banning remote work (but won’t), is lack of overall morale, for one reason or another. Regardless of anything else in your work culture, if morale is low, so is productivity. Give employees meaningful work to do and a culture of true support and respect, and they’ll be productive in return.
Despite myths to the contrary, remote-friendly companies are better off than their office-only counterparts, for a number of reasons. Working remotely may not be every individual’s cup of tea, but what’s important here is that the decision is left to the individual, not forced on everyone by upper management.