Famous programmer Leaves Google Because of Remote Work Ban

Yahoo is a curious poster child for banning remote work, as they’re not a company that’s doing very well. Yet Google has strict policies against it too, as the recent post by famous programmer Tim Bray explained:

As of March 17th I’ll be an ex-employee. It’s an amicable separation in the face of irreconcilable differences: I wouldn’t move to California and Google wouldn’t open a Vancouver office. I haven’t decided what to do next.

Seriously, about remote work? · Yep. Both before and after being hired, I had been asked to consider moving south. I didn’t want to and politely declined. Eventually, the group I’m in politely informed me that staying remote wasn’t an option. I talked to a couple of other groups but my heart wasn’t really in it, because I decided Google’s position was correct.

It’s one thing if an employee is underperforming. It’s quite another to not let a high performing employee try an alternative way to work. That’s one of the big lessons from The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com & The Future of Work (See FAQ).

If a good employee asks to try remote work, or any choice about work habits they believe will help them perform well, why wouldn’t a manager let them do it on a trial basis? There’s very little risk. If it turns out to be disruptive to the team, or their performance is poor, that’s one thing as there would be an actual problem. But why not allow the employee to try? Allowing employees to try encourages them to look for better ways to work, an asset to any organization. Policies that are outright bans of anything rarely make sense as they prevents employees and managers from experimenting and evaluating actual results. Bans end thinking as people stop thinking for themselves and simply carry out a policy, the birth of bureaucracy.

Bray himself felt he would have performed better if he moved, which he was unwilling to do:

I would have been more effective in my job if I’d moved, and probably would have enjoyed the work more

Google’s icy remote work policy is oddly hypocritical as they market Google Hangouts as a solution for people who work from different places around the world.  Google itself does have 70 offices in 40 countries and there’s plenty of distributed work happening, just not on a solo basis. They do allow telecommuting for specific, and short term, workers such as ad-raters. According to the NYTimes Google does allow solo remote work on a case by case basis, and their CFO was quoted in the BBC as saying “[we have] as few as possible”, and apparently these exceptions did not apply to Bray.

Of course there is no singular answer to the question of remote work. Google has done an outstanding job of hiring and keeping talent. Yet by failing to frame the work policy restrictions around performance is a mistake against the philosophy at the core of any progressive company.

11 Responses to “Famous programmer Leaves Google Because of Remote Work Ban”

  1. AP

    Their loss. I worked with Tim at Sun and admired him for sticking to his principles and telling Oracle to shove their idea of what he should be working on when they took over.

    1. Steve

      I work remotely and love it. I have a VoIP phone just like everyone at HQ, a video cam, Slack for chat, and a Go-to-Meeting account. Anyone can talk to me, see me, and collaborate with me anytime during work hours. It is insane that I would have to sell my home at enormous personal cost and uproot my life to move somewhere else just to have a job. I understand many types of work may require a physical presence, but everything I need to produce can be done on a PC and the collaborative tools I have are more than adequate. In my not so humble opinion, companies who won’t permit remote workers “as a policy” are inflexible and playing Win-Lose rather than Win/Win. Geographically distributed “virtual companies” are a long overdue fact of life. Get with the program Google. Just manage it for God’s sake!

  2. Lois

    Google did let Tim work remotely for several years. He said himself that he would have enjoyed the work more if he had been onsite. However, it does seem strange that ultimately the organization and a very talented employee came to such an impasse.

  3. Phil Simon

    I agree that there’s no one right solution to this problem. Tony Hseih here in Vegas proselytizes the benefits of collisions and I can’t tell him that he’s wrong.

    1. the oldest sa

      > Tony Hseih here in Vegas proselytizes the benefits of collisions
      > and I can’t tell him that he’s wrong.

      I can and will!

      Tony Hsieh ( correct spelling) , you are wrong!

      BTW I find many proselytizers to be egomaniacs . There are some who not only crave constant human contact (and adoration) but require it – from an article on Tony :
      “Tony collects people,” someone tells me later. “You almost don’t even realize you’re being collected.”

      What works for one person, (or their personal fanclub of 50 or 1000 ) does not work for everyone. Forceful personalities who insist “only they ” are right will only achieve limited success in the “big picture” .

      Effective Long-distance technical collaboration took place long before the existance of telegraph wires.

      If a person is unable to collaborate effectively without face-to-face contact then I submit that this person is crippled in terms of effective intellectual communication. If a person is unable to be creative without face-to-face inspiration and “synergistic energy” then I submit that this person is missing an essential part of themselves. Undoubtedly, such a person would not be a good candidate for “WFH” or other semi-isolated endevours.

      But to whitewash *all people* in such a manner, adn “ban” remote working is pathetically shortsighted and a step back into the 18th century.

    1. Scott

      There always is. Was there something specific you’re referring to?

    2. still_dreaming_1

      I agree. It’s not like he wanted to “go remote” and they wouldn’t let him. He was already working remotely. The article makes it sound like he was a valued employee who was performing well, they wanted him to move, he would not move, he thought he would perform even better if he did, so he quit… That doesn’t seem to add up. It is possible, but does not sound likely. If all that is true at face value, it means that employee will only allow themselves to work at a company if it is the ideal environment that allows them to be more than just a valued employee, but to perform their best. Actually when I put it that way, it does sound like it could make sense. Maybe he wanted to find a local place to work where he could go into an office and be his best and continue to grow in his career. That sounds plausible at least.

  4. Geoff

    Alot of these companies say they are forward thinking when it comes to remote workers. There is talking the talk and and there is walking the walk. If you would like to find the real companies hiring in the remote space. Check out http://webwork.io
    They have a list of remote developer, designer, sys op jobs.

  5. still_dreaming_1

    In this day and age what is the big deal about working from home? We have phones you can call people on, text them on, tweet at them. We have google hangouts, Skype, Slack, and email. You will want to be organized either way and so you will probably want to use some kind of project management software or at least something that allows you to prioritize lists of stuff for developers to do. Working remotely just forces to actually do it and do it well, so it actually helps your team to grow and improve. It is typically believed that developers should have times of the day that are quiet time, where they won’t be disturbed. At home, they can turn off their phones, close the door, and focus. Well that is unless their home life is chaotic or there are kids at home… But it is a good option for a lot of people.

    And that is not even getting into the best ways to work from home. We have the internet now people! If you really want to emulate an office from home, just use Sococo. It allows everyone to have their own room / office where they hangout while they work. You can even change your office into a spaceship and work from space! I know you’ve always wanted to. Anyway, you can close your door, forcing people to knock first, or you can leave it open and allow them to pop right in. Once in the same room you can audio chat, video chat, and screen share. But it you don’t have to setup a special meeting or time to make it happen, you just pop into their office and share your screen with them. This is great for showing a developer a bug you found, and it really feels like working in an office. Actually it is even better than working in an office. In a real office, if you want to go into someone else’s room and show them something on their computer, you might no longer have your computer with you, so as you take to them, if it would be helpful to look something up on your computer, too bad. Or maybe you disconnected your laptop from its station to bring it with you over to that person. But now you had to spend effort and time doing that, you don’t have access to your preferred keyboard and what not, and you will have to spend time and effort hooking it back up again when you get back. I know lots of people are not aware of Sococo, but that is not the point. The point is it is obvious that something like that would exist and all you would have to do is search for it to find it if you wanted to find out about options for working remotely.

    Working remotely forces us to make better remote tools. I would love for more remote mob programming tools to be made (no not pair programming, mob programming). Currently, I know of Screenhero, and Floobits.

    1. still_dreaming_1

      Forgot to mention a few things. Sococo also allows lots of people to work in the same room if that is your thing.

      One of the good things about forcing us to make better remote tools is it opens up more opportunities. Let’s say you want to temporarily collaborate with someone who made a github project you are using. That should be easy! One time I did that using livecoding.tv. I had the developer of a plugin come into my channel as a special guest. They were able to see my screen, hear me, and they could communicate over text. Something like this was necessary because their English was not great, but this way we were able to get to the core of my issue, and I learned a lot from the experience.


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