Book Review: REMOTE: Office Not Required

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REMOTE: Office Not Required is the new book from successful software outfit 37Signals, authors of REWORK which I enjoyed immensely as it chimed with my own love of calling bullshit on the ‘norms’ of contemporary office & work culture. I was keenly awaiting the publication of REMOTE since Jason’s TED Talk on the same topic resonated with me greatly. I suspect many developers can sympathise with the notion of being constantly interrupted at work, sometimes in a good way by that hot girl/guy in HR, or sometimes in the most annoying way by a Project Manager wanting to know when it’ll be done. Either way, several of these interruptions spaced over the course of the day are all that is required to destroy flow-time and thus really retard productivity. Jason’s premise in the talk is that the modern office is just not the place where work is done anymore, especially if you are a ‘creative’ (includes designers, authors, journalists, and of course, software developers), and I have to broadly agree.

REMOTE: Office Not Required is a more in-depth exploration of remote working being a way to reclaim productivity by working in an environment that you fully control. Most of the book seems to focus on the increased happiness of the employee. While a lot of this was obvious (who wouldn’t want to skip the commute?) it did nonetheless open my mind even wider to what is available when your workplace offers very flexible remote working. My newest experimental idea is to travel for a long weekend to another city, but leave on the say the Wednesday night and work in a co-working space for Thursday and Friday, exploring the city by night on those days and on the weekend, and return on the following Tuesday. Cheaper transport as it’s off-peak, a long-weekend holiday and on top of that, no missing of work. Surely everyone wins! (Of course this probably only works for solo-trips, and there may be other constraints).

As a person who intensely hates wasting time, remote working is something I’m naturally attracted to. It saves 2 hours a day for me in not commuting. It also apparently makes me happier (see #3). A natural question that comes up when I discuss this with people is “How that extra time is spent – work or play”? Well to ask this question and other similar to this, is missing the point, and rather moot. They accept a clear time-dividing line between work and personal life as a basic first premise, which at least my life doesn’t apply. Why not conduct errands on a Thursday afternoon if you can complete that project on Sunday night for a few hours? As I do what I love and love what I do, the line between work and play has long since been blurred. In practice some workers may spend 2 hours of saved commute time on themselves always, on themselves sometimes, or on their work always. Point is, it’s 2 hours spent doing something you want to do instead of something you’re forced into. That’s got to be a good thing for employees and for employers that care about staff happiness. In a regular office where everyone is in 9-5, you’re still going to get people that perform better than others by using their time more wisely. The same is true for remote workers – you may want continue to structure your reward scheme such that people that produce more, even remotely, are rewarded more.

One of the more eye-opening chapters in the book is called “Morning remote, afternoon local” and speaks of one employee that spends each morning working from home, and comes into the office for the afternoon. I love this as it guarantees a minimum amount of flow-time and productivity every day, while also allowing you to catch up face-to-face with those you need to, and vice versa. I’ve tried this a couple of times and it does have the intended effect, but one side-effect is that it also means you’re commuting for 2 hours within 4 or 5 hours, and that felt like a lot of wasted time again! Definitely a net benefit though, as you can combine the commute & the lunch time break.

So all is good and well with remote working from the perspective of the employee, but I’ve also always been interested in what makes good companies perform well from a social and cultural perspective. What makes a good culture? What strengthens social capital? Some would say at least a little of this is serendipitous communication at work – “water cooler moments”. It seems likely that a 100% remote working company has challenges in these areas. REMOTE did not cover this a great deal, aside from a couple of notes about creating a “virtual water cooler” and suchlike. 37Signals is a company with the mostly remote employees, but also mostly tech-comfortable and ‘remote-ready’ employees: people that are not averse to hanging out in chatrooms. My company has over 100 employees, most with little remote experience and even fewer that are completely comfortable online. Added to that, we have a huge variety of roles and teams, and some I would suspect are not suited to remote working. How does the company manage the remoteness of some teams and not others? How do we manage the expectations of the non-remote teams when they need the help of remote workers? The book had few answers for these questions.

Another point that comes up in discussion is the fact that some people might abuse the trust placed in them as remote workers. This is true, and does happen, I’ve seen it. However, I also think that most often this degrading situation is not the fault of the remote worker, but rather of the employer/management. At best this person may not be sufficiently motivated because the work is boring or some other similar dysfunction and guess what, they’dbe just as demotivated at the office than they are at work (and thus, just as unproductive). And at worst, this person isn’t self-managed enough to respond to remote working and you’ve made a hiring mistake, which by the way would also play out similarly if the person had to come in every day. So you see, blaming remote working is just a cop-out for managers that don’t really understand how to manage true productivity (ie. work outcomes) and employee motivation.

Ultimately, on finishing the book, I realised that the book I wanted to read was not really a variety of anecdotes from an entrepreneur who set up his still <50 employee business over 10+ years from the get-go to be remote, but rather an in-depth expose’ of the high performance, 200+ employee frequently-shipping, distributed, software-delivery-machine that is Github (or perhaps Facebook – not sure what proportion of FB is remote). These are the companies that I want to start modelling my company on, and I suspect they have many more remote working learnings to supply than 37Signals. However this book will help win the PR war, and help to reposition remote working as an accepted, and eventually expected, practice.

I’m on to reading another book that talks about remote working – The Year Without Pants is Scott Berkun talking about his experiences coming in from the consulting world into a real company, Automattic, the company. Scott’s perspective is a more accurate proxy of my own devil’s advocate position on remote working and progressive company cultures in general, and I’m interested to see how he adjusts, given that the major portion of his working experience is from late 90’s Microsoft!