Telecommuting existed 20-30 years ago and never truly broke through. Part of the skepticism against the remote work trend grows from this and persists because of it, giving non-believers are more credible voice than it probably should. Simply put, why will it be different this time? What has happened to make it better suited to now than it was previously?
The rise of technology
More specifically, the ease of access to 3 key areas of software which removes the friction of remote workers operating efficiently. Universal access, from anywhere in the world, without any noticeable waiting time, was the final thing needed for remote work to become the office-killer is will emerge as.
For remote work to be seamless at scale solutions to these problems had to exist
These were the enablers. Without them, remote work was difficult. Prior to their development, it was easy to object to workers operating remotely because participating as part of a team was problematic. Remote work was still a better way to do deep, focussed work but it wasn't comparable for almost everything else, while the lack of infrastructure to give workers ubiquitous access to the assets they needed to do that work in isolation at home did now exists. The historical trope that anything that intends to disrupt needs to be 10X better rang true. Remote working was comparable, but it was not an improvement ready or capable of replacement.
It is 10X better today
Current tools must optimize for remote
The tools noted above do one thing which will prove to be problematic long-term: replicate the bad parts of office working in a remote setting. I'm referring to the instantaneous gratification nature of synchronous-first, always available, disruption which is the default mode of operating withing every office. If I have a problem, I'm going to walk over to your desk and ask that you help me solve it. I don't care that you're deeply focussed and it is going to take a long time for you to get back into it once you've provided the solution I need because that what you and everyone else in this open plan office do to me.
Open-plan offices have become distraction factory adult kids clubs where doing deep, focussed work is an impossibility. The entire concept is made absurd by the culture and atmosphere perpetuated in these spaces. Company-owned open plan is one thing, you're only surrounded by your colleagues, but transition to a co-working space and you arouse the fight or flight response ingrained within each of us as we are surrounded by a revolving cast of strangers acquiring fresh coffee from our floors open cafe or playing pool with a friend visiting off the street.
Remote work replacing the office was not always inevitable
A confluence of factors has led to the demise of the office, and the impossibility that the trend will be reversed. The rising price of real estate, increasing wages in large urban areas to subsidize the cost of living, simultaneously means that talent is too expensive unless you are an established tech company and the property is too expensive to have unless it is the lowest common denominator office space where it's impossible to get your work done.
The office began as the optimum place to do knowledge work. It evolved to become the only place that we could access the technology we needed to do that work as computers and other tools emerge onto the scene, taking up large volumes of space due to their massive housings. As knowledge work grew in prominence, competition for space in cities increased, driving the cost of real estate through the roof. Everyone having their own office made way for everyone having a cubicle before we arrive at today's absurd situation.
Remote work is a return to the optimum space for working
Everyone has their own private office. We no longer have to waste 25 days of our lives a year commuting to an office in a city we don't want to live in. Freedom to spend more time doing things we love most, being with our families or exploring and cultivating interests and hobbies. An unbundling of city life, where the shackles that force us to organize life around work are released. Life-work balance gives us a greater quality of life, enables us to live in a lower-cost location, increasing our disposable income. The greatest trick capitalism has convinced us is that we should tie our ego to the number on the bottom line of our monthly payslip rather than the figure that is left over after we have paid for everything we need.
I'm often asked what's easier
- entirely office-based or fully remote
- a combination of the two
This is always asked from a position of bias that it's easier to be fully remote or entirely office-based. The answer, like everything else, is that it depends
The driving factor on what is better is company expectations. If the intention for remote is to continue operations in a manner that closely resembles how the office currently operates it is likely doomed to failure before it has begun.
Remote work and office work may look similar but the reality is that they are very different. That may not be immediately apparent for anyone who has never done it before but resonates with everyone whoever had. The benefits of remote work are huge but they are almost entirely diluted or destroyed by an expectation that the office culture management is used to will persist. This is usually driven by a bad middle-manager whose only means of measuring the performance of their team is by how much time they spend in the office.
For remote work to flourish, team members operating remotely must be given expanded opportunities for asynchronous work. They must be endowed with the freedom and isolation to have frequent, uninterrupted periods of deep focus. Do this, and they will do the best work they have ever done. Miss this and they will likely be as productive as they had been in the office. This is the thick line that will divide great remote teams and companies who end up being disrupted and replaced. A failure to embrace the benefits of remote work due to fear or a lack of trust, refusing to give team members more trust, flexibility, and autonomy to do their work will drive them out of your company towards your biggest competitors who will give them all those things.
We needed a generation who grew up on instant messenger
Millennials forged deep relationships on Aim/Msn. We are accustomed to being ourselves via written communication in ways that previous generations never had the opportunity to do prior to the rise of broadband internet. I spend weeks staring at Slack with a sense of familiarity without ever realizing why it felt like I'd used it before.
And this explains generational reluctance to embrace it
It doesn't feel natural. For certain ages, it will always be inferior to face to face. To perpetuate this they use all manner of excuses.
'Collaboration in person is always better.'
'We get so much done around the water cooler.'
The reality is that neither is true, it is all about personal preference. Most people use collaboration to replace what is really disruption. Meetings are a formalized mechanism to pad out an 8 hour day with not getting shit done.
Isolation is a feature, not a bug
The fact is the office only serves certain people. It is great if you are a certain age, color, and gender. It is awful for diversity. It is terrible for those marginal voices to be heard. Some companies will never understand or come round to the reason that many people, women especially hate the office. Fortunately, they will be left behind as the office is replaced and all their best talent deserts them for better, remote opportunities.
These things are table stakes for remote at scale
That and reliable broadband internet. Telecommunication was a thing 20-30 years ago but never truly caught on because of friction and disconnect.
Those problems have been solved
With that being true, only half of the issues needed for it to scale have been solved. This may sound surprising considering the rigor which I argue for the rise of remote work above but bare with me. Those things needed to be solved first in order for companies to understand remote work as an option.
The missing half of remote work is the half unseen and misunderstood by people who have not had the chance to experience it yet. This focusses on:
The half that has been solved can be seen as the low hanging fruits. This can be understood by the fact that there are innumerable variations of each product that is used for each of the initial subheadings mentioned in this blog post. That's not a criticism in any form. Without these solutions, remote work would not be possible. It's with the recognition that they were the things that gave rise to the possibility of remote work, and now that it is here we are discovering there are things that are heavily neglected and need to be improved.
And those things are significant:
Foundational elements that improve quality of life
Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson wrote widely about why remote work should rise over a decade ago. With the benefit of hindsight, we see that it didn't as quickly as those earliest of early adopters had hoped. They were solving problems, overcoming obstacles. Things that most companies would refuse to deal with. The maturity of the remote working market was not there, and nothing existed to make it easy for people and companies who were considering the transition.
The problem was, and in many respects still is, friction. The infrastructure that made hard things easy at the touch of a button had not been built. That was not improved by the foundational software tools needed to simplify access to remote work, but they could only be discovered once a greater number of people began to work remotely.
Remote was not ready for the mainstream. In their written works, it’s possible to spot entire business ideas that will be solved now. That is how good and how thorough what they wrote was. If you have never been a remote worker and want to build tools that appreciate the nuance required to operate this way, consume everything Jason and DHH have ever written.
Remote requires an evolution from time to output
The inflection point has already happened:
- 5m 2005
- 20m+ 2019
- 33m+ 2030
* full-time remote workers in the EU + USA
The reason remote work is growing in the minds of the majority is that we have crossed the early adopter phase of the adoption curve. We are at the edge of the metaphorical chasm and we are about to enter the exponential cycle of growth. More people talking about remote work leads more people to want it. We have reached the stage of maturity where the experience is seamless enough that it feels like a massive improvement on office life.
- Great people want it
- They talk about how good it is
- More great people want to be remote
The implication of this is that by 2030 a majority of the 255m desk globally will be done remotely a majority of the time. That doesn't mean everyone will work remotely all the time, but the number of people operating remotely full time will at least double in my opinion.
Remote work is the most important office trend in history
The office is already dead. Those who refuse to see this are in trouble. Remote work might look similar to what has come before it but it is the next evolution of workspace and a new operating system for capitalism. It will be driven by people realizing they have the power to demand it.
As office people search for a faster horse, remote work has emerged as a combustion engine of change
It’s still early, the dissenting voices are loud. The early adopters are a small but vocal majority. There is no guarantee that the pace that it has risen to this point will continue, but nothing feels more inevitable. As pollution drives us ever closer to despair, and things like the coronavirus scare us into considering alternatives, remote work stands as an opportunity for benefits on every side of the equation of work. That and something even more simple:
The smartest people I know personally ALL plan to work remotely in the next decade.
The remote workers I know would NEVER work for a company that wasn’t remote again.
The flywheel of talent leaking from office-first companies is only beginning. Soon it will become an expectation for everyone operating with a computer for 70% of their work.
The smartest companies I know personally ALL plan to hire remotely in the next decade