Don’t call it a comeback (working remotely)

Don’t call it a comeback (working remotely)

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 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).

Discuss this post on Hacker News.

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  1. Solid post. As someone who has worked remotely on and off for 8 years, I can say a lot of assumptions management make about it are incorrect. I too was dismayed in Mayer’s statement this week. I think it was just finding a scapegoat if you will.

    Given the tools available to us these days, remote work is very possible and dare I say, more efficient in a lot of cases. The last project I worked on saw the client in LA, developers in Oregon, Illinois and Kelowna, the PM in Northern Califonia, and the client in LA. It worked extremely well because remote working had been built into the organization from day 1. The company (of 100 remote full-timers & consultants) highly values hiring the *best*. Not the “best consultants in the geographical area”, the *best*. They built the process around that and it worked awesome.

    There was no wasted time driving and no wasted time chatting around the water cooler about the weather. This company also knew that to retain the best you had to treat them like they were the best. They paid top dollar and treated employees very very well. Of course they expected a high level of excellence and efficiently removed the very rare case of a non-performer.

    It’s a lot harder for big companies to adopt this approach especially later in the game. HP is one of the few companies that’s had some success although they are doing it purely for the cost savings which I think is a mistake.

    The tools are there and I think the correct approach to making it work is by having very flat, open and democratic teams. Everyone should be able to see what everyone else is working on. Empowerment is important in terms access to the right tools and information. Things like Dropbox, Drive and github all make this very easy. You could take it to the extreme and make all emails public like Strip did. (which is awesome)

    But as you say, these work well at small companies like 37Signals, Automattic and Stripe but scaling up takes a lot more effort.

  2. I’m a leader of a small, successful, tight knit team. We work well together, have known each other for years, and live in different cities. I’ve been working remotely for over a decade and I’m a real life example of how well it can work out.

    I’ve also written about making it work:

    Thanks for the awesome article.

  3. Someone needs to load the tape in the server, usually the same someone who will replace the HD on your laptop when it goes south. Working “in the cloud” sounds great until you lose power for a few days due to some natural disaster. Depending on an always on connection to the Internet is a giant, single point of failure. Sometimes, having a centralized spot for production is a good thing.

  4. A Fortune 500 company I once worked for had the first real telecommuting program I was ever a part of and I worked almost 100% of the time from home for a bit over 2 years.

    After doing an almost 2.5-3 hour minimum daily commute for a couple years and a typical approximately 1-1.5 hour commute throughout my almost 20 year worklife, was telecommuting as blissful and wonderful as I had imagined it would be, slogging through traffic, dreaming of the day when I could roll out of bed, pull on some shorts and a t-shirt and not care about my hair or shaving and plunk down at a desk at home?

    Yes and no.

    It took me at least a month to get into the daily discipline of working from home. Honestly I probably frittered away most of that time – but then that’s more of a personality thing and I’m sure others do much better than I did.

    Once that was taken care of I was in a pretty good flow. My detached garage was my “office” which was somewhat unfortunate as our garage was a massive disaster/dumping ground and I had to carve out a spot for my small desk workstation, mostly with brute force. In an office environment I like my desk and work area to be neat and uncluttered. At home I had piles of boxes, clothes, bikes, shelves, books… you name it at my back the entire day, every day. It was almost impossible to be neat at home.

    Frequently the garage was either too hot or too cold. The meant a lot of space heaters and fans. In the summertime where 100-degree-plus days are common where I lived at the time I almost always had to go inside the house after around 2pm to get away from the sauna-like conditions in the garage.

    Then there are kids. At the time I had 3 kids between infant and about 8 y.o. The middle and occasionally the oldest child frequently came into the back yard to either play or to ask me for something or to try to hang out in the uber-messy garage. I got very good at hitting the mute button on my IP phone as teleconferences are extremely common of course with an international group of 10-12 people, depending, most of them telecommuters like me (my boss was on the other side of the country).

    I was reminded of the pitfalls of having children at home while telecommuting recently where I spent the last week or so being mostly at home while my wife was very ill with the flu and couldn’t really handle the kids in the afternoon. After I pick the kids up my productivity essentially fell to zero. Any activity that requires deep concentration is out the window. I have to wait until the evening after the kids are asleep again to catch up on the work I missed out on during the day. Of course we also live in an apartment today so there is virtually no space separation at all and things would have been somewhat different if my wife was doing parent duty in the afternoon.

    In short, you either really need a separate space for an office detached from the house – preferably a neat space of your own – or a house that is large enough where you can go to the other end of it without hearing a lot of kid noise. I simply can’t imagine how you can get a serious amount of work done with kids distracting you constantly. Of course if you’re single or married and don’t have kids yet none of this applies to you.

    One other thing I would say is that this same F500 I worked for had JUST started its telecommuting program when I got in it and most of the staff were already familiar with each other and most of them had worked in the same offices together. I came into the company from an acquisition and was folded into the group and never really got a chance to get to know people first. It was an awkward transition where you’re trying to get to know people, know who does what and how to get things done (though that’s a challenge if you sit in an office, too) and get a sense of what the company culture is all about. All total I think I met my co-workers in person 3 times and only once as a whole group in two years. It’s nice if you can get some opportunities to get together and meet face to face 2-3x a year minimum (maybe once a quarter?).

    All this said, telecommuting is pretty great and I don’t understand why more employers aren’t more flexible with it. If your employees spend more than an hour a day on the road, at least 2-3 days per week telecommuting should be an option for them. They’ll save so much on stress, time, vehicle wear and tear, and not least of all fuel costs. Today my home life is such that I wouldn’t seriously consider long-term telecommuting but if I could have a separate office from the house I would definitely consider it then.

    And the quote from Yahoo is not surprising. An acquaintance works for them and squeezed out 2 days of telecommuting from them – he comes from VERY far away (as in, it would be at least a 4.5-6 hour/day commute) – after years of paying his dues. He’s a distinguished engineer, one of their major gurus behind their clusters so they tolerate his telecommuting. He sleeps in his cubicle 2 nights a week – yep, he has a small futon packed in there – and heads home Wednesday night and works from home the rest of the week. He showers in the office and keeps a change of clothes there.

    In any case, great post and I sincerely hope more employers and managers take heed and develop a strong telecommuting program.

  5. What does success look like? Google Google’s Googleplex. I’d say a central location (or locations) foster(s) success.

  6. I think it depends. Google ($GOOG) and Apple ($AAPL) have created cults. In a cult like environment it pays to work together. Ron Burt identified it as strategic management for cloture. $YHOO CEO Mayer obviously saw a benefit to that and brought it with her.

    Unfortunately, Yahoo workers didn’t create a marketplace of ideas that worked better than the centrally planned workspaces of Apple and Google.

    If you want to co-work powerfully, try Looks like the solution to managing spaces and looks like it could eventually be a powerful mobile interface for coworkers.

  7. Centralized and Remote working are both valid. To say one is the best solutuon for every kind of knowledge labor creates a false dichotomy. A mix is best for most organizations.

    For the past 5 years I’ve worked on a dozen different contract positions and some required on-site presence while others did not. I’m highly independent and love being left alone to do my work but I appreciate that there are certain points in projects where being in person is more fluid and worth the commute (although I limit my commutes to locations that are bikeable/busable/walkable).

    In person communication is unparalleled in it’s bandwidth though video chat has closed this gap some. We should encourage a mix of in-person and remote and resist simplistic notions that totally-centralized is ‘the only way’.

  8. Flexible working isn’t optional any more. Sell your shares in Yahoo. It’s doomed.

    There are companies (like Mob4Hire) who manage 43,000 freelance agents in 20 countries with four types of social software, three of which are free. It takes 10 people to run the company.

    “Imagine organizations in which most workers aren’t employees at all, but electronically connected freelancers living wherever they want to. And imagine that all this freedom in business lets people get more of whatever they really want in life – money, interesting work, the chance to help others, or time with their families.” Thomas Malone, The future of work

  9. Great tools help, too. We’re working on Screenhero (, a collaborative screen sharing app. We think it enables remote collaboration in a way that wasn’t possible before. It’s simple, fast and all participants get their own mouse pointer.

  10. Interesting post. The pre-industrial-revolution comparison seems a little questionable, though — the manufacturing work you describe sounds more like contract work than employment with a larger institution. Contractors working in technology work from wherever they please, for the most part, just as their historical peers working in cottage industries did.

    I agree with the premise of this post for the most part, but I do wonder about some of the challenges pointed out in the comments. Specifically, the cultivation of a cult-like atmosphere (which many companies view as an essential part of their success) and the problem of at-home distractions (from kids, an untidy work environment, etc.). As somebody who’s spent the last few months working remotely, in part from home and in part from cafes, I’ve certainly wished at times that I had a quiet, temperature-controlled office with fast, reliable internet access and no closing time.

  11. Hugh Johnson:

    If by ‘load the tape in the server’, you mean restore backups, I take care of my own. I have both onsite and offsite backups, and they take up essentially none of my time to manage. My computer does that for me. I am also more than capable of changing out a hard drive for myself.

    Yes, a loss of connectivity due to power is a risk. But, if my power goes out, it doesn’t go out for my co workers, who are in different cities and states. If we were all in the office together and the power went out, we’d all go home and get nothing done. In my case, I might have a problem, but the rest of the company would not. If I had an extended power outage, I could easily make other arrangements for working short term. If there were a large natural disaster that effected me, I wouldn’t be concerned with work, I’d be taking care of my family and neighbors. That’s true whether or not I work at home. In fact, our main office was closed for 3 days after the big hurricane last year. I’m 2000 miles away, so the work went on, even though the office was shut down. Had I lived there, it would not have.

    I don’t think that any of your arguments hold water. I think the only arguments that mean anything are whether or not a specific person has the right personality to work at home, and can deal with some of the distractions that can happen there.

    While I don’t have the experience with home working that some have posted here, I am coming up on a year of fulltime at home working. Its been great. Much money and sanity saved. And my power has yet to go out for more than a second or two.

  12. I think that her actions speaks to the concern a lot of managers I’ve run into have: if you aren’t sitting there how do I know you’re working?
    When you’re sitting at their desk using their computer they can monitor the time you’re sitting at a desk, the websites you visit, and they can just come over and talk to you instead of IM.
    These metrics aren’t the right metrics: they’re about control the company has over the employee more than whether the employee is producing what the company wants – but it is pretty common.
    I’ve worked at lots of places where I could work from home and VPN into the office for a few days, but after a while the managers would ask me to come back in because they just didn’t know how to manage me remotely.

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