My relationship with remote working is mostly love with a little bit of hate.

I’ve just read Remote by, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, the founders of 37 Signals and Basecamp. I’m already a fan of remote work – most of the time. I was mainly looking for ways to improve how we do it.

I work from home, on average a couple of days per week, but with a number of team members who are fully remote. While remote work has had some bad press lately, I think they’re mostly teething problems, and working remotely is a big part of work in the future.

As Richard Branson is quoted in the book:

“In thirty years’ time, as technology moves forward even further, people are going to back and wonder why offices ever existed.”

I guess the main fear about remote work, is that people will slack off. If you’re in software or any knowledge work, I think the idea that having someone stand over you will make you productive is ludicrous.

In a TechCrunch article Not even remotely possible, Jon Evans writes:
“What doesn’t work includes confusing physical presence with checked-in code, or in-person meetings with productive communications, or valuing the starry-eyed magic of “serendipitous collisions” above all else and/or common sense. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying remote work is a panacea. It too has its failure modes. But the assumption that its failure modes are worse than those of office work, just because office work is the historical default, is sheer intellectual laziness.”

Here’s some of my pros and cons of being remote:

Pros

If I have a day of coding I’m far more productive at my home office. This is my most comfortable environment, with my chosen equipment. I still get a few interruptions from my family. But I can send the family out much more easily than I can dismiss my co-workers. The two year old does burst through the closed door occasionally, but after a frantic few sentences he’s usually happy to go on his way.

From the book:
“Meaningful work, creative work, thoughtful work, important work – this type of effort takes stretches of uninterrupted time to get in the zone. But in the modern office such long stretches just can’t be found… Ask yourself: Where do you go when you really have to get work done? You answer won’t be ‘the office in the afternoon.'”

Remote conversations tend to be a lot more purposeful than in person, where they can drag on, or lack definite purpose.

It saves me (and the planet) at least half an hour of driving every day. That’s over five days per year, if I went to every work day (it’s obviously a lot worse for others). And the time getting ready to go and coming home.

For the company it means we can attract staff beyond the limits of our office location. We’ve been able to add some talented people to our team who wouldn’t be available to us if they had to come to the office.

It’s a perk the company can offer, that also saves money. It clearly costs more to have staff in an office than in their homes.

Cons

It’s just easier to collaborate with people working in the same place as you. We’ve got lots of tools for communication, but at their best, they’re still not as good as being face to face. And at other times you can feel like the lack of communication, or the delay in hearing back, is a barrier to a project moving forward.

You can lose a bit of team spirit, especially if you lose track of where other team members are at.

As an extrovert I get energy from being around other people. The idea of a day alone doesn’t appeal to me at all. This isn’t really a problem for me, because I don’t live alone. More of con is missing out on having people around me who are all working to the same goal.

With a CEO who splits his time between the UK and NZ, I know we’re more on the same page when we’re in the same office. We delve into strategy discussions much more frequently.

Occasionally I’ll get distracted by something not related to work, but I’ll make the time up later, so the loss is entirely mine and not the company’s. If anything, the freedom of working from home makes me more careful about delivering the full value of my time to the company.

It’s harder when you’re a junior. If you need a lot of assistance from your senior team members, it’s easier to bug them when they’re sitting in the room.

Flexi-time

Flexi-time is a related idea which is even more important to me. I like to work early, others like to work late. And occasionally I’ll take a few hours off in the middle of the day to picnic at the beach or get some tasks done. Coupling flexi-time with a little bit of remote work, makes the work week much more enjoyable.

Even on the days I go to the office, I tend to start at home really early. Then take an hour off once the boys are up to eat breakfast with them and my wife before heading to the office after the traffic has eased off. The early start means I’m usually back home before the evening rush gets too bad. Those early hours before anyone else is up are when I’m at my sharpest, and they give you a really nice feeling of getting ahead of the work.

Making it work better

All of my cons can be negated or lessened with some deliberate action. I think you need to acknowledge the weaknesses, and deliberately work to overcome them. The list of pros makes it worthwhile.

In Remote they suggest having regular, probably weekly, check ins where everyone talks about what they’re working on, and what obstacles are slowing them down.

Also importantly they suggest having a place where general banter is encouraged so you can still chat with your co-workers.

At 37 signals they have a couple of times a year where they fly in all their staff to work and play together for a week. This is something we also do to some extent.

The focus should be on work achieved, not on hours spent. While this should be true for all knowledge work, it’s especially wise for remote work. Hours in a chair don’t mean much, but getting things done does. With the caveat that sometimes things outside your control can affect the outcome. In software it’s notoriously easy from something unforeseen to derail a day’s work.

Remote work is not for everyone. It works best for motivated people who are reasonably effective at communication.

Remote summary

It’s a great little book which really sells the benefits of Remote work. It deals with a lot of the misconceptions, especially the silly ones. And it gives a bunch of suggestions on how to make it work well.

As they conclude:

“Remote work is here, and it’s here to stay. The only question is whether you’ll be part of the early adopters, the early majority, the late majority, or the laggards. The ship carrying the innovators has already sailed, but there are still plenty of vessels for the early adopters. Come on board.”