I hate ties. Those dangling, limp pieces of material that hang from the neck. They’re everything that’s wrong with the world. A leftover from days of actual practical scarves, needed for a cold climate. Ties produce no value except to add “colour” to otherwise colourless office garb. Often worn by men, no, required to be worn by men, they seem to borg-ify and remove what it is to be human.
Oh, and they’re hot and uncomfortable.
And often they need to be dry-cleaned. Dry-fracking-cleaned. The least performant piece of clothing in the world and they require special laundering. WTF.
So, what’s this got to do with remote work?
Ties come from a time when the British empire needed people to be CPUs. Instructions needed to be calculated by hot-swappable humans. Humans that have identical training (hello ‘school’.) And those humans need to be available for work at the exact same time. 9–5.
And because this model was successful, people are now wearing ties uncomfortably in Arizona, Australia and Africa. Ties were once functional things. They’re now a skeuomorphic leftover. The same as the fake stitching bumps on your ‘synthetic upper’ shoes.
Rigidly fixing work to a workplace, during certain times, is also a holdover. And you can kinda tell, right? It has the same lack of purpose. Commuting is a commodity, something to be reduced to its simplest and paid the least for. You know what peak-hour traffic looks and feels like. An old tradition that’s outlived it’s time.
And it happens on a massive scale. The same goes for all these planes in the air. All going the same direction, in a hurry. I’ve spent far too many hours of my life crammed in an airplane seat and herded through airports. It’s not a daily commute, but it’s the same idea. You need to be somewhere else to work, and the trip to get there is best ignored.
Ties around our collective necks
These old traditions don’t just impinge on our personal comfort. There are massive shared costs associated with requiring people in an office in order to work.
- Peak hour traffic
- Public transport infrastructure that is over-engineered, or under-delivering
- Offices that are empty half the time and housing empty the other.
- Over-priced housing near business districts
- Environmental cost of travel. For example, air traffic grew by 7% last year. There are no practical electric planes and none on the horizon.
A significant other problem/opportunity is the distribution of talent. There are great people everywhere. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with people in China, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, France and the UK, Vietnam, Russia, all over the United States including Hawaii, Japan, across Australia, Brazil, South Korea, Saudi Arabia. (I’ve somehow never worked with someone on the great continent of Africa, but I’m sure that’s coming soon.)
If you’re only looking for people that are physically near you, you’re ruling out genius. Some people treat it as an opportunity to find the same skills for less, some see it as an opportunity to just find great people.
The future workforce is already here, it’s just evenly distributed.
‘Remote’ sometimes means a Friday at home. Or perhaps an all-distributed team. Sometimes it’s just ‘our guy in Canada’, or the software team in Poland.
Having the option to work ‘remote’ has a bunch of bonuses.
- Avoid the peak hour commute
- Being available for important family moments, medical appointments, or just be able to get to the bank when its open
- Buying a house where you want to live, not just where you can afford (or not!)
- If fully remote, a world of new employment options
- Actually get a lot of work done, without the negatives of the office. Mindless coffeepot discussions about ‘the big game’, for example.
As a side note: There are teams who are famously all-remote, all the time. This seems to work well in the software world, but I’m not convinced it can work for every industry because most people aren’t hermits. (I’m a hermit, please don’t be offended)
The current software toolset usually includes heavy use of email, Slack/Hipchat or another multi-channel messaging platform. For many teams, it means a ticketing/shared to-do system like Trello. There’s often a smattering of video chat or screensharing solutions, like Screenhero or Google Hangouts. Hardware is usually the same, with occasionally a better microphone or headphone setup.
That, and a pair of comfy slippers and you’re now remote.
So, what does it mean to be…’remote’?
The word remote is not a nice word. It seems…lonely. Desolate. Unreachable. And in many ways, it feels like that. Here are some of the downsides I’ve personally experienced…
- Missed critical info, because it was said and was never written down.
- Got left-out in important calls and work assignment
- Missed strategic information. For example, new company directions that leak from a loud meeting
- Missed-out on the vibe, the energy of the physical workspace.
- Received annoying ‘R U there?’ messages while heads-down working.
I’ve also had the job of working with other remoters, which has problems including…
- Cool stuff, and sometimes a dose of sanity, doesn’t just happen
- Counter-intuitively, remote workers often overwork because they feel a need to compensate for a lack of visibility. They burn out.
- A teammate is supposedly busy working on something…but you’ve not heard from them for days. If your colleague was in the office, you build a sense of them working on a problem. But when the final product just seems to appear, it’s hard to get a sense of the effort required. Teams break down because people can’t see the work the others are doing.
This last point is more subtle than it may seem. Sometimes this is a simple ‘hey, I’m working harder than you!’ complaint.
But sometimes it’s conversations where there’s natural give-and-take:
Designer: “Hey, I see you’ve been working on that a long time, and it seems really stressful. It’s actually not that important, maybe there’s an easier way to make this particular feature?”
Developer: “Ah, that’d be great. Yeah, this particular implementation is a nightmare to code!”
No one mentions lunch break
The truth is that lots of people already work remotely, but it’s still seen as the exception to the rule. You wouldn't mention that your workplace offers a lunch break—that’s seen as de rigueur. Best practice.
Companies would like to offer remote work more. It’s often cheaper because they don’t need office space, and they can find the talent they couldn’t otherwise. Employees want it because it offers flexibility, less commuting and potentially more employment opportunities.
The desire to work remote is there but doesn’t work in the real world. For example, see this scientific study on remote work:
After the experiment, we see in Figure V that about 50% of the treatment group immediately decided to return to the office, despite having to incur the financial and time costs of commuting. Strikingly, only about 35% of the control employees — who all had volunteered initially to work from home — actually moved home when they were allowed to do so. The main reasons both groups gave for changing their minds were concerns over loneliness at home.
We see that people and companies under-estimate how big a problem isolation is:
It is worth noting that the firm’s management was surprised by two of the findings. First, they were struck by how many employees changed their minds about WFH. More than 50% of the volunteer group and 10% of the nonvolunteer group switched preferences after the experiment, primarily because of feeling isolated and lonely at home. The management thought these types of problems would have been foreseen by employees in advance, but apparently they were not.
Some opinions are that this is a ‘culture’ problem. All work should be written down. All communications over some digital channel. As an interaction designer, I know that people don’t change easily. And anyway, I think there’s lower-hanging fruit:
From my perspective, the technology simply doesn’t exist or isn’t good enough to overcome the physical separation for average people. So remote work doesn’t get widespread adoption. It’s chicken-and-egg. Without better remote tools, remote work remains a niche.
What exactly is wrong with the tools?
1. Digital communication excludes implicit information
It’s amazing to think that the telephone is over 140 years old. Over that time, the industry has done an amazing job of transmitting a cleaner and cleaner version of the conversation. Background noise removal can mean the listener doesn’t know if the speaker is in an office or at the beach. But that information can be incredibly valuable.
When you read a digital letter (ahem, email) you can’t tell if it was written with force, with care. There’s no ink smudges, no digs from pencil point. No grime, no patina. No blood, sweat, or tears on the parchment.
The only emotion that you see in my text message is the one I choose to add. 😔
With the abstraction and distillation of the message, we lose valuable information.
2. Existing tools can’t tell you what you don’t know
An office leaks information. You get the jist of the big loud important office meeting happening next door. You can hear your co-workers hammering away on their keyboard, grooving out to some bad 80s synth tunes. That information is both strategically useful and also energizing.
3. The tools lack human-ness
There’s a handful of companies that promote ‘always-on video’ as the solution. The result is a wall of faces that are staring at you. The thing is, humans really don’t like to be stared at. It makes you feel like you left your jeans unzipped, or you’re about to be eaten.
4. Even the basics don’t work
I’ve had so many video calls that include “Can you hear us? We can’t hear you.”, “Sorry, can you say that again, it cut out…”, “We can’t read the whiteboard…”. I’m amazed that this is not a solved problem.
Wouldn’t it be great…
So here’s what I propose: let’s fix the tech. Let’s make remote work so standard that it goes without saying. Let’s end ‘remote’ work. It’s just work. The potential of fixing these issues, and making remote work an unmentioned, and standard part of knowledge workers lives is huge.
Here’s how this can help save the world:
- Kill peak hour traffic
- Unpeak domestic electricity use. Today, the workforce gets home and turns on their air-conditioning. This requires gas and diesel generators to fire up to meet electricity demand.
- Engage more geniuses in the world. Include those currently excluded because they have family commitments. Which today, is often women. Engage those that live far from a CBD, and perhaps not even on your continent. Not only does this add massive intelligence to the world, but employs and empowers distributed opinions.
- Turn commute time into a productive time. Which means it can be slow, pleasant. Imagine a productive day train trip to another city, while you work. Compare that to four hours of rushed and unproductive commute-cramming through airports.
- The average commute time in the US is 52 minutes, five times a week. Here the Australian average is 53 minutes. Add a big percentage of that back to the global productivity with just a day away from the office.
Join me creating a better future
I like Bjarke Ingel’s philosophy of Hedonistic Sustainability. In a nutshell, it is not accepting that sustainability requires compromise. That a sustainable vehicle doesn’t have to be an electric golf cart, but instead can be a Tesla.
I believe we can have work that is not only better for our communities and the earth, but also more productive, more profitable, and more enjoyable. And cooler. It should be cooler, right?
How you can help:
- If you work remotely now, please share your remote work tips in the comments section
- If not, please share what blocks you from doing more remote work. There’s a chance something can be done about this.
- Please highlight and comment on any areas you strongly agree or disagree with. This will help me to build the right tools.
What I’m doing now: Tabby
I have a new startup. It aims to fix the ‘remoteness’ of remote work. Tabby re-opens the implicit communication channel—the stuff that doesn’t seem important enough to type. It’s the ‘yessss!’ of a win, and a groan of repetitive effort. The information contained in seeing someone walk to their desk, or get up to get a coffee. I’m finding ways to transmit this between distributed workers. And without adding more backlog, or annoying messaging.
You can learn more about it at teampurr.com. Take a look, and please sign up, I really want your help and feedback.
When I was part of Skitch, we believed it should be easy to capture and markup anything you can see on the screen. Over time, this has become a norm, a standard part of the OS on everyone’s device. I have the same feeling about the underestimated value of remote work. And the relatively poor state of the tools. So, please come along for the ride. And let me know what you think!
And finally, if you agree with this article, please do 👏 it below, to help spread the word about remote work.