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This does not bode well…

The news hit a couple of days ago that Yahoo is ending their (apparently limited) policy of remote work.

It just strikes me as the wrong move at the wrong time.

Yahoo is in dire straights and I would think the last thing they should be doing right now is making themselves less competitive.

I mean, think of what might have happened if they had encouraged the people building their products to go remote. I would hope that Yahoo still has some “A” players around and I know they would want to add more to their team. This is one place they could have been truly innovative. They could have actually gone against the trend in Silicon Valley. They might have picked up some top talent that wasn’t interested in moving to the Valley.

Alas, probably all this will do is just make them lose more ground.

Jurassic Farce

Photo by IvanWalsh.com

Photo by IvanWalsh.com

“It’s a UNIX system, I know this!”

Easy pickin’s

I’ll be the first to admit that taking shots at the traditional business office is low hanging fruit. It’s easy to criticize an entrenched system which has already been parodied and satirized for years. I think most tech workers acknowledge the deficiencies. We already ridicule the cubicle, the middle manager, the processes.

I want to put that all aside now and talk about what makes remote truly great. Remote work has huge benefits, not just to the employee but to the company as well. This may sound idealistic, but I truly believe there is a revolution already on its way to the traditional office. And the sooner companies realize it, the more likely they will stay competitive in the coming years.

I owe Ryan Tomayko from GitHub for enumerating some of the following points so beautifully. If you haven’t watched this video, you should.

The archive

When a company has remote employees, it’s almost imperative that they have one place to go to capture knowledge. Tools like Kickoff, Campfire and others become the organizational memory and makes it easy for anyone–especially new employees–to get up to speed quickly. Sidebars become less common and meetings are simply less interesting. At Mysterious Trousers, we’ve tried a bevy of these and found the tools with integrated chat to be superior to simple task managers. But the key is this: When a company embraces the notion of remote, even when some of the team is co-located, you get the benefit of having all of the company knowledge in one place.

Asynchronicity

When a company goes remote, they also enable asynchronous communication. Using the tools mentioned above makes it easy for people to be in any time zone and still be able to be tapped in to what’s happening at work. Work hours become a thing of the past and so do meetings for the most part. Our excellent tech support department (Katie) lives on a far away island in a different time zone as the rest of us. And yet in Kickoff, it FEELS like she’s here. She works when she wants and spends the rest of the time on the beach. And yes, we’re all very jealous. Another great thing about this is that people are less likely to be interrupted in their work by sidebars. Even using chat, you can respond when you want. Which brings me to my next point.

Flow

I consider flow to be one of the most valuable things in my day. When you’re in a state of flow, it feels almost superheroic. In fact, I’m in a state of flow right now as I write. When I worked in an office, flow felt like the Loch Ness Monster. People talked about it, there were blurry photos of it, but I’d never seen it myself. Now that I work remote, flow is the norm. I cannot overstate how important remote work is to getting into this state and staying there. If you own a company, do whatever you have to in order to protect flow.

Talent

I believe this is going to be one of the major factors to the office revolution. Once companies realize that their talent pool has gone remote, they will be forced to embrace the change. As an employee, once you’ve had the blessing of working remotely and enjoying flow on regular basis, you never want to go back. You’ll start looking for companies who support this way of working.

Balance

Finally, the most obvious advantage to the employee is being able to have work-life balance. Being able to work when and where you want/need opens up all kinds of possibilities. I’ve been able to successfully work while looking out the window of a rented R.V. at Monument Valley vistas. I did that because my wife and I wanted more time at the national parks and didn’t want the travel time to steal from the camping time. So I worked while she drove. I took breaks and had lunch with the kids. It was life-changing.

Caveats

Of course, all of the things I mentioned can be used for evil. Just because a company embraces remote, doesn't mean that everything is perfect. Work-life balance can be abused and you could be worse off. But companies that abuse it will once again be at a competitive disadvantge.

Of course, remote isn’t for everyone and it’s not for every company. Some people like getting away from their home life to work. Some value the camaraderie of the office. Some work better in an office environment. But all of those things can be done without the traditional office. It may mean getting together to work at a rented or public space but the concept of remote still has to be there for that possibility to be kosher.

Hope is not a four-letter word

I hope that I’m right. I hope that there’s a revolution coming. The tech industry is the perfect place for it to happen and the rest of the office world would not be far behind. The office as we know it is a dinosaur and natural selection needs to do its thing. We live in an information age and it’s time for us to work there too.

F.U.D.

Photo by Wolfgang Lonien

Photo by Wolfgang Lonien

Last year I chatted with two different people working at startups in Silicon Valley. When the subject of remote work came up, they were both adamant that things move too quickly for remote team to be effective in a startup.

Of course, they aren’t the only ones saying this. I’ve heard the same arguments from the industry for many years.

Here’s a list of the most common arguments and how we address each one at Mysterious Trousers.

It takes longer to do things

The argument is that instead of just telling the person, you have to type it all out. This is true but it also works as an advantage. If you’re documenting something, it helps to compose your thoughts and to make sure it’s clear enough for someone else to read. Sometimes verbal instruction can actually be hazier. In the event where more elaboration is needed, we use Skype or the phone to talk through it.

You miss out on non-verbal communication

You do miss out on body language but the flip-side to it is that you also don’t get distracted by other things happening in the room. We actually believe video chat is a red herring in the tech industry and only serves as a distraction in virtual meetings. In our experience, we get MORE focus by using only voice and screenshots along with whiteboard software to communicate.

You lose the informal discussions

You miss out on the sidebar discussions in the hall, breakroom, at peoples’ desks, etc. This is the one I hear the most. But the assumption here is that you can’t have spontaneous conversation via IM, Skype, etc. We use a software tool called Kickoff which is actually great at capturing and encouraging "water cooler" conversations. But more than that, because most of the chatting happens in Kickoff’s public chat, EVERYONE gets the benefit of the sidebar. In addition, we get the huge benefit of FLOW.

You can’t create culture

I actually believe the word “culture” is overused in conversations about remote work. Culture is whatever you want it to be. Mysterious Trousers has a culture of working with amazing people and getting out of their way so they can do rad stuff. We also have a culture that enables people to be home with their families. Is that typical to most startups? Maybe not. But it works for us. Furthermore, as a team we all get to know each other through Kickoff and Skype and if we want to, we can always schedule a get-together.

You can’t move fast enough

This is another prevailing argument. It’s certainly the one I hear most from Palo Alto. There are very few firms in Silicon Valley that do remote and this is the reason they give. But there are plenty of firms who are remote and do work quickly. 37Signals is the obvious example, but there are others , and this trend is only growing.

In which I use the only French I know

All of these seem to be variations of this theme: There’s a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ of being in an office together that you lose when you go remote. But I think a lot of the fear about remote work is really about control and management. Those are two things which become very important if you don’t hire people who are intrinsically motivated.

In my opinion, it really comes down to this: Hire amazing people, find tools that enable remote communication and let go of the fear, uncertainty and doubt.