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.