You're not even remotely correct

Everyone seems to be getting excited about remote work, but it's more complicated than most people realize

Remote work is in vogue these days, kids. A few remote-first companies have finally made it into the late-stage tech elite – Buffer, Zapier, and GitLab, among others – and they’re forcing leaders to ask nuanced questions about their hiring processes. If only it ended there.

The Situation

Tech tends to work in cycles (just like politics, as they’re both media driven, but that’s for another time), and working remotely is October’s Juicero. Gitlab became the first remote-only company to a $1B valuation, and leaders of these types of companies have been broadcasting the good gospel. Even the Wall Street Journal wrote about it. Here’s Joel G., the CEO of Buffer:

One thing is pretty clear: companies have proven out that remote workforces can work. But is it that simple? (hint: no)

Like any paradigm shift, remote work has positives and negatives, and it also requires a very different type of company DNA. There are good reasons that this kind of arrangement hasn’t become popular until recently, and why some companies are still avoiding it.

The Abstraction

The proliferation of remote-friendly culture and its associated risks can be boiled down into two core questions:

  1. Productivity: should we judge employees based on their work or based on their process? (the company’s decision)

  2. Happiness: are we as happy working remotely as we are in person? If not, does it matter? (the employee’s decision)

These are both more important than they seem.

Work Product is Getting More Transparent

Investment Bankers still need to stay late just to make sure their boss (and their fellow analyst, who holds the real power) sees them, but this is becoming an increasingly vestigial work structure.

As Peter Drucker documented in his old but good guide to being an executive, it’s very difficult to measure the output of knowledge-based workers – but we’re getting better at it. It’s becoming common, especially in tech, for managers to say something like this:

“I don’t really care what time you get in or leave as long as you get your work done.”

As far as the history of work is concerned, this statement is as powerful as it is radical. And as mainstream as it’s becoming, I’m still not convinced that companies are entirely committed to it. Would my tech employer be comfortable if I worked two full time jobs, but got as much done as the next Data Scientist? What if I actually only needed to work a few hours a day? What does it even mean to “get your work done” anyway?

Remote work isn’t only about you not being there – it’s about you not being there with your manager. You might be able to get a remote job (I was), but that’s only part of the equation: what really matters is if you’ll be able to succeed and thrive in it (I wasn’t). I’m not sure companies are really ready to handle what a remote workforce means at scale, and I’d be wary of taking a remote job at a company that hasn’t proven it can accommodate – especially at the manager level. Good intentions and hype won’t make up for your wasted time.

Happiness is A Fickle Thing

Remote work seems to be the ideal situation: you don’t need to wear pants to your meetings, your commute is shortened by however long it is, and you don’t need to use VC-subsidized dog walking services. And yes, all those things are pretty great – but what are you missing?

Most humans are and always have been social creatures. As much as we complain about going to an office, it’s actually fulfilling in a lot of subconscious ways, and it’s very hard to communicate that unless you’ve tried the opposite. For young people especially, remote work can separate the corporate and social elements of the workplace. For some (especially parents) that’s welcome, but it’s not always great. Almost all of us are terrible at pinpointing what actually makes us happy – why are we so sure that this will?

This is ultimately a personal question, and a nuanced one at that: my point is just that you need to think about it, and people like me rarely do (and I didn’t). Remote work has tradeoffs in productivity and in satisfaction.

Just Think Before You Hire

Both of these questions are complicated, personal, and difficult to answer: and that’s exactly why I’m getting so nervous about what’s going on these days. So many startups are hiring remote workers that it’s becoming mainstream, but I’m not sure they really understand what they’re getting themselves into – and more importantly, I’m not sure that these hires do either.

For candidates, remote work needs to be another dimension in how you evaluate your potential opportunities: but you’re not always going to be able to know in advance if it’s going to work. I tend to think that being selective in your work opportunities is overrated, but this is different: we’re moving to a new model too fast, and I’m afraid that an entire group of people and companies are going to regret it too late.

(Other dimensions worth covering as they relate to remote work: age, type of position, headquarters location, stage, and funding)