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Don’t call it a comeback (working remotely)

Written by Justin on February 23, 2013

remote-work

Remote working has existed for centuries. And now is the perfect time for it’s comeback.

Before and after the Revolution

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, goods were manufactured by contracting individual craftsmen who worked out of their homes. The merchant would drum up sales, and would coordinate the production with at-home sub-contractors.

Even back then, home working was popular because it gave people more freedom:

The domestic system was suited to pre-urban times because workers did not have to travel from home to work which was quite impracticable due to the state of roads and footpaths. Workers had some flexibility to balance farm and household chores with [this other] work.

- Wikipedia, Putting-out systemhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Putting-out_system

This all changed with the Industrial Revolution: production was centralized in factories and cities.  For merchant capitalists, this made sense: it was cheaper and more efficient to produce goods in one place, with machinery.

The Information Age came, but work didn’t change

We’ve been in the Information Age for at least 25 years. We’ve made huge leaps in technology. Many of us would describe ourselves as Knowledge Workers: we don’t work in factories, we work at desks in front of glowing screens. We don’t make goods with physical materials, but rather things made out of bits. The great thing about bits + the internet is that the materials and means needed for production aren’t dependent on location.

But here’s the funny thing: the way work is organized hasn’t changed. Despite all these advances, most of us still work in central offices. Employees leave their computer-equipped homes, and drive long distrances to work at computer-equipped offices.

It’s management that’s broken

CEOs, like Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer and Apple’s Steve Jobs, think that a central office fosters more innovation and productivity. I think they’re wrong. We’re still early in the research, but recent studies seem to dispute their claim.

Studies and data aside, we know, at least anecdotally, that distributed teams can create tremendous innovation. Automattic  created the world’s most popular publishing platform. 37signals helped create a programming framework that powers “tens of thousands of  applications”. At both companies, the majority of their employees work remotely (or have the option to do so).

It’s not remote working that’s broken, it’s management habits that needs to change.

Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.
Jackie Reses, Head of HR, Yahoo

Managers have developed centuries worth of habits based on the central workplace. The hallmarks of office work (meetings, cubicle workstations, colocation) need to be seen for what they are: traditions we’ve kept alive since the Industrial Revolution. We need to question these institutions: are they really more innovative and efficient?

To succeed, we’ll need some practice

To give remote working an honest chance, there needs to be a paradigm shift. Managers need to practice new ways of organizing people, and producing results. Individual employees need a chance to practice self-management, taking initiative, and collaborating online. Developing new habits takes time and commitment.

What does success look like? Taking millions of cars off the road, because people no longer need to commute. Reducing stress and improving the mental health of employees. And ultimately, increasing innovation and producing better products (as shown by platforms like WordPress and Ruby on Rails).

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