My thoughts on what remote work will look like in the coming decade
Posted on Tue 23 May 2023 in Side Activities
This post is a bit different than some of my others. It's a direct response to an article. Over the past 9 months, as the technology industry contracts, we've seen return to office orders from countless companies. Combined with the, roughly, 300k layoffs between August 1, 2022and May 23, 2023 (I was laid off in that time frame too), we've seen a lot of articles about how many companies are recalling people to the office.
I think this is short sighted. Remote work, when done properly, is the way of the future and forcing everyone back into an office is not going to work as expected. One of the bright spots from the COVID-19 pandemic was that society learned many jobs can be done from home.
The article I'm responding to is Changing my mind on remote, moving the team back to San Francisco by Flo Crivello. This isn't designed to pick on this author specifically, it's just the latest in a long line of these types of posts.
I encourage readers to take a look at the article. It is well written. I, however, disagree with almost all of it.
Let's get started, shall we?
I have a lot of problems with this article. The short version is that it sounds like this company implemented remote work poorly, possibly during covid (I'm not sure how long they've been around). I think remote work is the best, especially for companies that does not need a local presence.
The article raises four coordination cost bullet points:
- It’s harder to get a hold of each other, as we’re not online at the same time. “I’ll talk about it when I see him tomorrow” — these delays compound in a huge way.
- So most interactions are async, leading to lower bandwidth, more context switching, and more things falling through the cracks.
- Even sync chats aren’t as good. People can’t interrupt each other or have sidebars, and there are bugs with video, audio, screenshare, etc… These frictions compound too.
- This causes us to be less aligned. We’re only a few engineers right now, and yet people feel out of the loop on who’s building what.
The first three of these are the result of poor company policy and team expectations for how remote work will function. Remote work is still "work". It isn't "spend time by the pool with a laptop". It isn't "pick up groceries, mow the lawn, volunteer at the classroom parent, and maybe hop on a phone call". It is work. The team and company need to set that expectation. However, remote does offer the flexibility to do different things during the day. The company needs to be accepting of time zones, and time shifts. Embrace the employees that are productive outside of a 9-5 working day, especially if your workforce is scattered across time zones.
If the company is fully remote, they should build in the async communication as part of their communication plan. Good communication requires repetition. Asynchronous communication leads to that perfectly. Send a message in slack, send an email, mention it in Slack in another context, bring it up on an all hands call. Versus, only mentioning it once in a meeting.
Items falling through the cracks isn't a remote or async communication problem. It's a team problem. It's a leadership problem. It's a training problem. Don't blame remote work for this failure. Empower your team to make decisions that don't require constant input from others. This is one of the core points that GitLab's TeamOps has. Give your teams agency to make decisions without permission, review or approval. Do this, and those cracks get a lot smaller - regardless of where the employees work.
Synchronous chats having communication problems aren't great, but the reasons for failure that are listed by the author don't sound like a sync chat problem. "Interrupting", "having sidebars" - There are other avenues to communicate - zoom chat and slack are two examples. The bigger problem, in my opinion, is the requirement to always have video communication on in a company. This leads to fatigue due to communication patterns that don't exist in face to face communication (close eye contact, seeing your self, reduced mobility, and higher cognitive load). I argue that a well structured async communication plan and team will do better without constant sync communication. Sure, seeing people in person is helpful sometimes, but it's not required for all interactions.
The alignment problem is a leadership failure. I've worked remotely for the better part of a decade. I worked in an office for over a decade. Teams don't get misaligned because of remote work. They get misaligned because of leadership failures. Failure to communicate at all, or only slivers of data, will misalign a team faster than a network outage or Zoom failure will. Way faster. A poor company culture will ruin alignment in a way that a "My web cam isn't working today" could only dream of accomplishing.
Colocation is more fun too. You get to have lunch with your team, grab beers on Friday nights, play video games at the end of the day in the office, etc
This author does not care about a work life balance either for themselves or their employees. There are employees that absolutely love doing these things, building those relationships, and that's great. There are others that want to get home and spend time unwinding, being with family, hanging out with friends and none of that can be done if the boss is expecting you to go to the bar with them on a Friday night or stay at the office to play video games. Team building is important, but the way it's described here is not the way to build a team long term.
This matters not only because fun is fun, and building community is super important, but also because it helps build trust, which improves our work
My personal bias is going to show here, but my trust in team mates grows more through professional pursuits. How a team accomplishes a task or how a team responds to failure ( especially how they respond to failure) is going to build that trust a lot more than going to a bar on a Friday. Going to a bar will build a personal friendship, but that is different than a professional level of trust.
[A]sk yourself which of the following competitors you’d be most afraid of:
- The bunch of hackers coding on a couch in an apartment
- The team that’s fully colocated
- The team that’s hybrid
- The team that’s fully remote, split across timezones
The last one, absolutely. In this environment, I as a manager, can hire the best person for the job regardless of where they sit in the world. It doesn't matter if we could car pool to an office or if you are 18 hours ahead of me. This is the massive advantage of a fully remote workforce and is commonly brushed under the rug in these types of articles. A team that is aligned and has the best people in the world or industry working for them is going to crush a team of that is colocated and is limited by who lives in commuting distance or is willing to relocate to commuting distance of the office.
Lastly, this quote
A quick look for software engineers finds that SF has about 40 times more than Miami: (and my hunch is that they’re better ones too)
Wow. Every engineer here should be offended by this. I've hired over 100 engineers in my career. I think I have a pretty good idea of how it works, how these engineers perform, and how they behave. Purely from an economic stand point, hiring from the Bay Area is expensive. "But your engineers don't live in the Bay Area, Andy, you just said you hire globally." True...now, tell that engineer in Miami or London or Ankara or Sao Paulo or anywhere else why they are making at least $100k less a year than their coworker doing the exact same thing and see how quickly engineering morale crumbles. Or, are you one of the minority of companies that pay the same regardless of location? If not, you should be.
The best engineers I've worked with, except one, have been located well outside of the Bay Area. An engineer in Miami can do the exact same work that an engineer in San Fransisco can at the same quality.
Remote works can and is incredibly successful for many companies. It does require deliberate, intentional, company decisions to make it work though. I shared the TeamOps information above (and completed TeamOps certification earlier this year). GitLab, one of the largest successful all remote companies in the world, has intentionally built their remote policies around this. Without putting in the time or effort to ensure remote is successful, teams will (and are) defaulting back to in office. I think we are going to be seeing just how unsuccessful that strategy is in the next decade. One of the few benefits of Covid was that it showed many engineers around the world just how much they are missing out on with daily commutes, 10-12 hour days in the office, lack of family time which is why there has been such push back. Those that have successfully adapted (or built from the ground up) the company culture to handle remote work will have a huge advantage as this period of contraction eases in the future.