Maybe there’s an irony to reading the 37 Signals book Remote while on a business trip. I’ve been remote working for clients since finishing at Intel. It seems a more humane way to work – and I’m convinced it’s also better for the companies. But, obviously, there is still some contact time required, which means business travel.
For me, the biggest argument for remote work is removing the link between geography and employment. That means people can live where they want, with no need to commute. They don’t need to be near an office, removing pressure on housing.
We should definitely be using technology to end commuting. All that travel is bad for the environment and produces stress. And not everyone can manage a daily commute – carers or the disabled cannot make long journeys every day. And, while I’ve had good days commuting, no commute beats quiet time with family and friends.
I particularly like remote working as I have a nice flat and that flat is better for me than any office I’ve worked in. Sure, dotcoms sometimes offer laundry services – but I have a washing machine right here. The coffee is excellent, and there’s a chaise long when I need to read long reports. I also have flexibility – to work from friends’ houses, or a library, or a co-working centre like the Skiff. Research has shown that the length of the daily commute is inversely proportional to how happy people are with their lives. I’ve never been happier than I have since getting more control over my working schedule and conditions.
Remote work is also better for companies. Many start-ups I’ve worked for have ended up as oral cultures, with documentation and processes distributed by word of mouth. Remote working forces companies to make things explicit. This makes their actions more efficient, repeatable, and reduces the risk of knowledge disappearing when employees leave.
(Related to this are some interesting related questions about transparency within companies. Why should my email account not be visible as documentation for all my colleagues? If another employee seeing what I write is a problem, then I shouldn’t be writing it.)
Remote working requires much more written communication. Many companies already worry about the amount of email, with some even instituting email-free Friday. I’m not convinced that email is the evil that some people are making it – rather, like meetings and managers, these are good things that are misused.
(One of the best email strategies I saw was in the early days at Brandwatch. That company had the only functional corporate wiki I’ve ever seen. One reason for this is that they used mediawiki, which is a much more fluent tool than rivals like Confluence. Brandwatch also had a rule that questions should not be answered by email – instead you had to write it in the wiki and send a link. And, after a while, the wiki answered a lot of questions, cutting down on repetitive emails.)
Another cargo cult of management is open plan offices. These environments are toxic for knowledge work, but companies still go for them, despite decades of research. Many times it’s because managers want to stop employees slacking off. This leads to a culture where people are rewarded for turning up, not for the work that is done. Remote working forces companies to be aware of what is actually happening. 37 signals talk about the vigilance needed for remote work – that small problems must to be addressed rather than allowed to grow. And this is not just in terms of work done, but also employee satisfaction and engagement. If employees are slacking off, it could be because they are not engaged. Forcing companies to be pro-active about these things can only be positive.
There are excellent tools to support remote working, but these take some getting used to. Conference calls are tricky (as this site demonstrates). And slack is taking some getting used to: am I posting in the right channel? what should be a DM and what should be public? I’m also finding it difficult to know how best to work with remote reports.
But Remote working is a skill and I am still learning. For example, I’ve discovered how much I rely on quick, informal chats rather than explicit briefings. But, as I get better at remote working, I become a better employee all round.