Why Isn’t Remote Work More Popular?
I wrote the popular book The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com & The Future of Work about my 18 months working at WordPress.com as a manager of a remote team. I’m often asked “Why isn’t remote work more popular?” My first response is to ask: do you know how popular it is right now?
As a general rule the slowest thing to change about civilization is human nature. It’s easier to upgrade technology, but when it comes to people’s habits and beliefs change takes time.
1. Remote work is more popular than you think
We have poor conceptions of wider trends: our basis for opinions is anecdotal and prone to many kinds of hidden bias.
The broad trends are clear: remote work, defined as working somewhere other than the office one day a week or more, has been on the rise for years and continues to rise. The rate of change is moderate, but the rate of change in workplace dynamics is rarely fast. The WSJ posted the chart below based on a 2013 report from the U.S. Census bureau. Surveys and studies all have their weaknesses (e.g. the 126% increase for construction is hard to believe), but this summary reflects the baseline trends seen in other reports, like IPSOS/Reuters 2012 report. Many major corporations have had liberal remote work policies for years, including Aetna, American Express and others (another list here) and there are even job boards dedicated to remote positions.
And the data across all working people in American (about 142 million) shows an increase in 4.2 million people who work from home part of the time:
2. You do remote work every day without realizing it
How much of your daily work is done through a computer screen? 30%? 50%? At any moment you are working through a screen, you could be anywhere in the world while you’re doing it. Whatever benefits there are of being in the same office, when working strictly through a screen those benefits are neutralized.
Every mobile device and laptop is by definition a remote working tool. Pay attention to how much time you actually spend each day in the same room talking in real time to other people – it’s far less today than ever in history (I don’t have data for this, but I’ve rarely heard counterarguments). Even in companies that do not allow “remote work”, remote work is encouraged implicitly by the equipment used and the daily working habits we’ve adopted across our culture. The resistance to the concept of remote work is strange, given the reality of most office work.
3. It’s often smaller companies that are willing to try new ideas
Most companies on the list I’ve compiled of 100% distributed/remote organizations are small, young, and technology centric. Some, about half, started as distributed companies with one or more of the founders living in a different city than the others. 50 years ago it’d would very hard to start a company that depended on remote work, but the technology of the last 10 years has made it easier, and in some cases preferable, to base a company on remote work. These are new times and the assumptions we have about work need to change.
Managing remote workers requires different skills from managers and employees. The skills are not hard to learn, but they are real. I wrote The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com & The Future of Work to document my own experience as a traditional manager forced to learn this new way of thinking and to show what it was really like.
Even in large companies, it’s often younger managers, on younger projects, that are willing to experiment and try new ideas. Remote work is one of many new ideas about work and productivity. See How To Convince Your Boss To Try New Things and How To Change A Company for specific advice for your organization if you’re looking to push your company forward, on remote work or anything. The book Remote by 37Signals is a great companion to the Year Without Pants for advocacy of remote work policies.
4. Many companies are dysfunctional
We have a paradox about progress: many people complain about how stuck in the past their organizations are, yet point to the lack of adoption of remote work as an indicator of it’s uselessnesses, rather than a reflection of their organization’s fearful grip on the status quo. The people with the most power in any organization can be the most afraid of change. Remote work forces managers to reevaluate what good work is, and how to measure it, a reevaluation many managers don’t want to do (See: Work vs. Progress).
Remote work, like many progressive ideas, depends on company culture. A company that is truly progressive, trusting, collaborative and communicates well will fare better with remote work than one that is hierarchical, political and territorial. I wrote Why Culture Always Wins to capture why WordPress.com (and WordPress itself) are able to use remote work to its fullest advantage: remote work fits their philosophy of empowering talented people and keeping management out of the way of progress as much as possible. Organizations that see middle-management as the most important talent in the organization often struggle to see how remote work can function well at all.
5. Remote work, like commuting, is not for everyone
We have widely diverse preferences for how we work. Some people commute one hour each way, every day. That’s ten hours a week in a car or bus. Some people would find this unacceptable, others like the tradeoff. Generally we have many work traditions that don’t make much sense anymore in the abstract (e.g. 9 to 5 working hours, strict dress codes, etc.) but changing traditions takes time. More importantly, each person decides for themselves what the preferred combination of variables are and tries to get them for themselves. Remote work is another variable in the conversation between employers and employees and how they define what work is.
Paul Graham recently posted about the U.S. talent shortage of programmers, and Matt Mullenweg’s reply pointed to remote work as the solution. They’re both right. There will always be people who work best in the same physical space with their coworkers, and others who prefer the freedom of working from anywhere they want. More choices is the right answer for America or any nation.
6. Remote work requires skills workers and organizations might not have (added 1/8/15)
If digital media is the only way workers communicate, it means everyone’s collective habits about email, Skype and other communication tools are critical. How well people write and how thoughtful they are about giving their coworkers what they need to be successful becomes more important. Remote work often means working with people in different time zones, which requires an extra level of awareness on everyone’s part for scheduling and planning. Most of these are soft skills, which are sometimes easier to hire for than to train. Soft skills can be far harder to teach, or find people with, than hard skills.
Often when a company experiments with remote work and it fails it’s because they didn’t notice or anticipate the shifts required in their assumptions. They chalk up the failure to “remote work doesn’t work” rather than “we’d have to adjust our assumptions and habits to benefit from remote work and we’re not willing to do that now.”
Remote work should be a benefit workers can choose to use
My hope is more managers realize it’s in their self interest to give good employees the choice to work remotely. It’s in any manager’s benefit to encourage workers to find ways to be more productive. If you hire a talented professional they will know best how to be most productive and do their best work. And of course some companies will default to remote work, like Automattic and others have, and this is great too. Having more kinds of companies is a good thing.
Many workplaces offer benefits to employees that go unused (discounted gym memberships, etc.) – it reflects choice, not a failure of the benefit. Some workers will always prefer to be in a physical office, and that’s fine. But if they’ve never worked remotely when will they get a chance to see if it benefits them? The option to work from home when needed, or to try a different lifestyle without having to change jobs, is a win for everyone.
I’d like to measure how many companies offer remote work to their employees, rather than only how many use it. On its own it’s a good indicator of the health of an organization in demonstrating their interest in attracting and retaining talented people.
You can see all of my posts about remote work and The Year Without Pants, including the FAQ about the Year Without Pants and remote work.
I appreciate working from home on a very limited basis (a couple of hours here and there), but for the most part it ends up as a waste of time. I only resort to WFH when I don’t need to communicate with a team. Since my coworkers and I solve business problems together, we work iteratively and need to be able to collaborate freely throughout the day. This is greatly compromised when a teammate is absent from the workplace. There’s a popular belief that less than 10% of communication is verbal (the other 90% being subtle tone or body language). So unless telepresence technology is vastly improved, the majority of us struggle to communicate effectively over the phone or online through meeting spaces and screen sharing. Watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYu_bGbZiiQ for a humorous look at conference calls. If someone has a solution to these problems, I’d love to hear it.
It’s good that you know what works for you and your team. My largest point is that you and your team should be able to experiment and try different ways of working.
There are habits that make remote work more effective and if you’re working with 5 other people who don’t have those habits, it’s going to be miserable for everyone.
Organizations that see middle-management as the most important talent in the organization often struggle to see how remote work can function well at all.
Amen to that. The cultural element is huge. I would love to see statistics on the viability of remote work as a function of company age. Startups and small businesses, I believe, are much more amenable to remote work. Such organizations really contain traditional middle management. That can’t be a coincidence. Of course, employee age is another driver.
I’d be interested in a little deeper look at the statistics. My question is how much of the change is attributable to existing positions becoming eligible for remote work, and how much to new positions (and new companies?) created with that in mind?
For example, does the huge percentage increase for construction reflect a change in the nature of construction work, or does it indicate a rapid overall increase in the construction sector that demanded remote workers to meet demand?
So am I :) The broad statistics aren’t focused on these questions. And I don’t know of anyone who currently is looking into finding answers. There are some industry groups that promote telework so I can poke around and see if there’s anything new I haven’t seen since the book came out.
In Poland sadly, working from home is still highly unpopular due to overwhelming reluctancy on the side of mid-level managers. It stems from a deep rooted apprehension, that a worker when physically unobserved is prone to neglect work. But at the very foundation, there are always huge trust issues. A lot of work is needed before we can establish a trust based corporate culture here.
That stigma is true in many workplaces around the world. For some kinds of work I can understand the apprehension – work where employees are not motivated and are not doing interesting work.
Trust is a huge issue and trust is a major part of what defines a company culture. Companies with most trusting cultures are more likely to experiment with remote work.
I work remotely (as a software developer) about 90% of the time. When I do travel to the office, it always amazes me how inefficient my time is used. The noise, the “loud talkers”, the social interaction – all of it affects my concentration on a problem. I enjoy the social aspect; I’m not a hermit. But these things distract me from what I am paid to do. Every job type has its pros/cons on this topic and each individual has their own preference. The problem for me is the corporate philosophy – my days are numbered because of the resistance to people “not being seen”.
I too develope data integration code and database reporting functionality.
Remote work for me in the last 3 years has been the thing ever.
I will keep working remotely if can
Good article and it is an interesting topic. I moved from London to San Francisco in August 2014, I still work for the same London company and work 100% remotely on half European hours (6am start, 2pm finish). So maybe even more extreme than even a normal WFH employee. I am the first in the company to try this kind of working and from our experience so far it has been fantastic. Myself and the team have had the most productive quarter in 8 years.
One thing that I have found is that it is very difficult to regulate ones time. Unlike the preconception that WFH introduces lazyness I find the exact opposite and at first tended to work far too many hours as there was no reason to stop – the office closing for example, or simply people going out for a drink.
Once I had overcome this however the flexibility and ability to manage my time efficiently has made me a much happier and more productive employee.
As you mention I don’t think it works for all but I certainly think it can benefit more businesses than people realize – esp where teams are not customer facing and the 9-5 makes even less sense.
Small companies often pay peanuts. Constantly, they have their email on your smart phones so you work constantly. That’s the reason I refuse to work remotely. When I’m out of the office, I need to have a life.
One one hand, when I WFH I feel more refreshed as I don’t have to suffer through the daily grind and I can work longer hours into the evening. On the other hand, this often causes me to sleep in later than I should. And just like the office distractions that Gary mentioned, there are equal distractions at home – at least for me (household chores that have been piling up, the dogs wanting to play or go for walks, running errands that can can only be done during the day like going to the post office, etc). Some days I’m very productive at home, other days I spend too much time sneaking in other things, or just being flat-out lazy. While I love the break from the daily commute and being in the office, all-in-all I feel I can effectively WFH 1-2 days a week max, any more and my overall productivity would probably suffer. It all comes down to being honest with yourself about your own level of self-discipline.
I’m all for the working at home. As am a software developer I have better computers and better internet access.
BUT it seems that it is impossible to do without working onsite most of the time.
My problem is worse. I finished 8 years of embedded coding for Philips programming all their Veri*lite moving lights as a consultant I now can not find any work.
The biggest problem is I have been at this since 1960! No body wants an old guy. And all old contacts have died or retired.
Many firsts, MIT, EE, Physics, Math, current AI cources
I worked as a developer remotely for many years. I got a lot done, but I often found myself getting bored and depressed from lack of social interaction. Now I’m back in an office, and I don’t miss working at home one bit. If it had been 1 day a week though, it would have been better. I wish everyone that wants to work at home full time could also see the negatives. It seems like a great thing until you are there.
Our agile software development teams work from home. Teams come together for 2-3 days every third week. This approach gives us the benefit of recruiting our resources from a much larger resource pool (North America not just our city) while also routinely giving our team members some much needed face-to-face time.
Some resources move on because they cannot stay focused enough to get work done from home. For the most part our best resources stay on the team because they love working from home and this has led to very little resource churn.
I had to reply.
The whole problem with this article and your comment is that it looks at humans as “resources”. As far as I know, the only agilists who call people “resources” are ones who haven’t been doing it very long or who learned about it without being connected to the broader Agile community. Why? Because every good coach and trainer in the Agile space that I know always insists that we stop treating people based on their individual role or their individual billable rate or their individual limitations, and instead start treating people as unique individuals who learn to contribute effectively to team efforts. And that we NEVER call people “resources”.
Working from home only exacerbates the problem of treating people as resources. You are a resource who can work anywhere vs. you are a person who needs to interact in your fully unique way with the other members of your team. The point in the article about working through the computer screen is so completely wrong for most people that I despair of even starting to correct the bad assumptions.
I don’t want to be too absolutist about the WFH thing. I’m not saying you can’t be productive as an individual from home; clearly that’s not true. I’ve worked from home in many different ways over the two decades of my professional life. However, when you work from home, you aren’t working as a true team (99.5% of the time) because of the disruption of all the non-verbal communication that is so important to creating high-performance teams.
Here I am, writing to all of you about this topic. I’m remote from all of you. You can’t see my expressions, my body language. You don’t know if I’m deliberately being a jerk or expressing myself poorly through writing or if I’m a super-genius who has solved all the worlds problems. And you don’t know because you can’t see me. So then you make assumptions. Those assumptions are almost completely based on a few hundred words of text.
Of course, in a long term WFH situation where you are also in the office some of the time, you get to know your colleagues better, and that helps…. a lot! I can even heartily endorse the idea that if you are slightly ill with something contagious, it’s probably better to work from home. But I don’t think it should ever be encouraged for any company that actually cares about productivity.
“You don’t know if I’m deliberately being a jerk or expressing myself poorly through writing”
Actually you revealed many things about yourself in how you wrote this. You are thoughtful, careful with words, and sensitive to how communication works and doesn’t work.
All I can say is I had many of the same assumptions you did until I went to work at WordPress.com to find out for myself. Any my opinion changed. I’d be happy to send you a copy of the book so you can see what my experience was like and what changed my mind.
> However, when you work from home, you aren’t working
> as a true team (99.5% of the time)
.5% seems unfair especially as a made up number :) There are many organizations like WordPress.com that are entirely remote and are very productive and at least believe they are a true team. See:
https://scottberkun.com/2013/how-many-companies-are-100-distributed/ and http://www.flexjobs.com/blog/post/25-virtual-companies-that-thrive-on-remote-work/.
Of course remote work isn’t for everyone – maybe it’s not even for 50% of the human race – but as I said in point #5 many major attributes of work are not universally preferred.
Thanks for the kind words Scott. I am generally open-minded about this stuff and I’m writing a longer more “reasonable” article about this for my blog. I would be happy to take a look at your book about it – I just bought it on iBooks, no need to send one to me :-)
I love made up numbers. I hope to justify the .5% more completely in the article… but you’re right it might be unfair.
The problem of written communication is that it is harder to get at assumptions. I too have worked for extended periods 100% remotely. I liked it personally, but I came to understand through those diverse experiences how deeply it affected my relationships with my putative team mates. I assumed when starting with remote work that it would allow for me to concentrate more (it did), that it would make me more productive (it did), and that this would all be a Good Thing. But the problem wasn’t ever with my personal productivity. The problem was with our collective productivity. This is an extremely difficult thing to measure so I can only claim this anecdotally.
The trouble is, that while your experience was (apparently) good, it is also just an anecdote. One of the things about those statistics that you mention is that you also interpret them. I can also interpret them: the growth in WFH is extremely (interpretation) slow due to the very real problems (interpretation) that businesses encounter with quality (interpretation/assumption) productivity (interpretation/assumption) and morale (interpretation/assumption).
At any rate, this is a pretty important topic to be exploring. I’m interested to see what happens over the next 20 years with this as technology continues to advance and as our communal social structures continue to disintegrate. The corporate environment is, for many people, aside from their immediate family, the only communal social structure they have. I struggle to see the good in making it less communal. But that’s my philosophical assumptions coming out :-)
I completely agree about other ways to interpret these stats: for example it could be that employment in the U.S. is very hard, and as miserable as WFH is, these are the only jobs they could get (Simply because a number goes up doesn’t mean it’s progress).
> “the problem wasn’t ever with my personal productivity… the
> problem was with our collective productivity.”
This is a good thought and I agree. Hard to measure as the most important things often are.
Many of the software companies that are 100% distributed use continuous deployment (CD) which reduces dependencies, which helps WFH (although CD can create other problems too).
Part 6 is exactly what I have identified as a huge problem for companies who are basically willing to adopt remote working.
In my opinion, being able to have your team work remotely simply increases the robustness and improves the effectiveness of all work in the company. Because of some limitations, you need to communicate more efficiently and decrease interruption, which will benefit overall productivity.
Great article. We evangelize remote work @ http://www.toptal.com because we feel that businesses can find better development talent when they stop geolimiting themselves.
Being amenable to remote work is a huge competitive advantage when it comes to high-skill jobs – with each project and role having specific tasks, it strikes me as odd to assume that the best talent is always going to be in your region.
The key points, for me, are screening and accountability. In essence, making sure that whomever you’re hiring has a high degree of internal accountability, and also making sure that you (as the hirer/PM) have a high degree of confidence in your own ability to gauge the quality of the work product on an ongoing basis.
At the expense of making this comment sound more like an ad – we handle this by putting all prospective developers through five weeks or more of comprehensive testing that measures not only engineering skills, but business acumen/soft skills.
My point – it can be done, and it can be done well. When you can deliver higher quality work at competitive rates, everyone wins.
“Remote work should be a benefit workers can choose to use” – completely agree.
I work for a 100-200 employee software company as a developer and I WFH pretty much all the time except going into the office a few times each month for some in-face meetings or company events once in a while.
WFH is not for everyone or (every “role” rather), and I suggest people just need to experiment with it to figure out what works best for you and the company. In terms of accountability there are so many systems in place for developers to be “accountable” for their work, WFH should not be a productivity issue.
People are innocent until proven guilty, so WFH should be offered until it’s abused. :)
The problem with WFH in the USA at least is that if an employee could be productive without being on site, then why hire an American, when someone from India or Russia, etc. could be hired for a lot less?
Perhaps this is a false dichotomy. I agree with Mishkin (hi from a class of 2012? in Markham), in that WFH vs Commute treats people as resources.
I also believe that two hours a day (on good days) driving is a poor use of my time. Also, I (like many people, I suspect) spend most (85%) of my time separated from people by cubicle walls, computer screens and keyboards. We have a short daily stand-up, we choose tasks, then go do our thing. Our skills don’t overlap much, or even enough. There is a constant management drive for quick results. All of this makes real agile impossible anyway. That is not to say where I work is a bad company – far from it. However, in situations like this, where buy-in to an agile model is unlikely, a judicious blend of WFH and office commute would be worth exploring.
Sadly, I suspect it is the very companies that make poor use of teams that also stand four-square in the way of WFH as a policy.
Which “this” are you referring to?
The choice between agile style on-site teamwork and WFH presented as an either/or.
I am pointing to the fact that in many cases, the agile style teamwork is not available, and so the choice is not agile or WFH. It is commute + cubicle isolation, or WFH.
Thanks for clarifying.
Another great article. As someone who has been working from home for many years on a regular basis (with pants on, albeit often ripped jeans) I find it fascinating how others view WFH.
I typically work with remote teams, and the comments above about teamwork are especially interesting. There are tasks that are inherently collaborative, and there are those more conducive to long periods of solitude.
Whiteboarding sessions and other highly collaborative activities are really not easily replicated remotely. I volunteer to go onsite to do these things, even if air travel is part of the commute. Writing code/documents or doing detailed design work in an open office (no cubes) gets annoying. I’ve spent years without walls in the past doing this type of thing. Whenever one person gets distracted and starts talking or moving everyone loses focus. All it takes is one ADD team member and things go downhill.
My belief is that great teams need to get to know each other in person at first, and then over time they can collaborate remotely quite on many tasks in software development. This is especially true with teams that embrace remote desktop sharing and wikis. The real challenge is often the company culture. If coworkers view the workplace as a key part of their social lives, it’s hard to work remotely with them. Same goes with managers that want you butt in seat in front of them. My view is good managers look for outcomes and outputs vs. time spent at a desk.
I get more work done with less stress working from home. I like to get to know the people I work with, but prefer they let me focus when I’m trying to get something done. We can go to lunch or drinks after work if they want to socialize. Too many people blend work and socializing together in unproductive ways. These same people probably can’t work from home because they don’t have the self discipline.
Just my opinion.
Hi, totally agree with your opinion that, whiteboarding session is still very hard to replicate. And sometimes, I still choose to drive through the traffic to sit in one room with my colleague when we are in the creative phase of our work (i.e. storyboarding a presentation, slide review, etc).
Then after that, people can sit and be anywhere working on their stuff, until the time come when we get into the creative phase.
Not seen this discussed yet in the comments:
Remote work is not exclusively about “what allows the company to soak the most value from the employees” (which seems implicit in comments that come out against remote work) but also about non-monetary compensation and lifestyle benefits.
I work remotely for my company, and this allows for an extreme level of flexibility that could not be had even if I was paid 200% of my salary. I can work from a coffee shop, climbing gym, or a friend’s house. This summer my wife and I are moving to Argentina for a few months, and then other places in South America, and I can keep working.
I would be unable to travel but for a few weeks out of the year if I had to work in an office, and my life would be slowly drained away by commuting. I certainly value my non-work time more than many, but I’ve been ruined for working 9-5 in a traditional office.
And, anecdotally, I work for a small software company, just like many remote workers. I’m extremely satisfied by the work that I do, and the opportunities around it. Remote work (FULLY remote work) is a perk that just can’t be rivaled any other way.
Another great article on working from home! I have my own business at home which is an online job website. The preparatory setup of this site took me two years because I wanted to filter out all the job scams and I’m proud to say that I have succeeded in doing so. I always work from my desktop and I have one remote virtual assistant doing Facebook campaigns. I love to work from the comfort of my home but I have to admit that I regularly miss the feedback of collegues. For me that’s the only disadvantage.
Working from home would definitely increase my productivity by at least 10%, and in some cases at least 25% – I’ve used at-home freelance work as a rough measurement.
My work is mostly solo, and I would only need to be in the office 2-3 days a week at most for collaboration.
Unfortunately, my company (a rather large one) doesn’t allow this. It’s been raised before, and there was some mumbling about…well, I can’t even remember their excuse anymore.
On the upside, it’s motivated me to start a new job, and even a new career direction, over this year.
For those who do have the ability to work remotely and also desire traveling, it can be helpful to join a community of others doing the same! We Roam offers 3-12 month flexible itineraries, and is launching the first trip of its kind to ONLY go to North America. See itinerary here: http://www.we-roam.com/solis-destinations/
This helps keep individuals focused on work, while elevating the time consuming aspect of having to plan their trip!
The book is indeed a benchmark for remote work. Having inspired everybody who is remotely interested in remote work. I have got a chance to learn more about remote working with this online summit happening on remote work. https://www.theremoteworksummit.com/ Hope this is helpful for you all looking to learn more on this
In my opinion, employees who are productive in an office environment will become more productive when given the chance to work remotely as they will be have less distractions, avoid traffic when commuting, and other factors that might affect their performance. They will also feel more trusted and at the same time have more time to balance work and personal life.