It has been one year and one month since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Therefore there is no surprise that searches on Google for the seven-and-a-half-year-old book Remote: Office Not Required by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson dramatically jumped.
Since the pandemic was for many a sudden experiment in remote work, let us go chapter by chapter. I will examine one concept for each chapter: the promise, reality, and results. I will acknowledge the bias that the upper half of the K-shaped economic recovery where people who were more likely to be affluent and white were able to apply the lessons from the book. These realities and results are subjective, the outcomes of decades of policy and privilege.
Structurally, Remote: Office Not Required is divided into seven chapters, eight if you count the short conclusion. The first three chapters help the individual make the case to their management to allow remote working. Chapters four through six discuss adjustments to your workflow and corporate culture so working remotely is as productive as an office. The seventh chapter is a condensed guide of best practices for a remote employee.
Chapter 1: The Time is Right for Remote Work
This chapter was the opening salvo in the argument for remote work. It laid out the amount of time wasted commuting, the downsides of living in superstar cities, and the folly that superstar cities are the only places for talent.
"The luxury privilege of the next 20 years will be to leave the city. Not as it’s leashed servant in a suburb, but to wherever one wants."
Unclear. Given the ability to work remotely by employers and historically low interest rates many people moved. Some moved for economic necessity, while others bought second houses in vacation destinations. It seems few people moved to lower their risk of catching the virus.
Remains to be seen. Will those who purchased second homes move there permanently? Given such cheap capital, these houses could be investments for future Airbnb income when travel returns. I am curious how many people whose lives may no longer be tethered to a particular place of work might opt for a traveling lifestyle. Will digital nomadism no longer be dominated by twenty-something Instagram influencers?
Chapter 2: Dealing with Excuses
The subtopics of this chapter are the objections one would hear from an office traditionalist: 1. homes are full of distractions, 2. big businesses are not remote and 3. only the office is secure. In a pandemic, for many businesses, remote work became a necessity and not a luxury.
"People's homes are full of distractions."
Homes became full of distractions because they were full of everyone. COVID-19 being airborne, schools shut down. Thus with no childcare, statistically, women left the workforce in droves. Two adults having zoom calls at the same time could have chosen headphones or to work in different rooms to hear themselves think. But add in remote schooling for children, and no wonder home office renovations exploded. So is the traditionalist correct and remote cannot work long term? With vaccines, schools reopening, and childcare returning that argument falls apart.
Big businesses became remote. REI sold its headquarters in favor of smaller spaces, Spotify is going remote, and JPMorgan and Salesforce are dumping office space. Big businesses are thinking about how to operate going forward. This has ramifications as property taxes on central business districts (CBD) are income sources for cities, but I'll visit that idea another time.
That leaves the antiquated idea that only the office can be secure. I hope your employer or yourself are not relying on physical security (ie: access to the laptop) for securing your work product or customer's data. A Zero Trust Security Model provides an excellent basis for a fully remote workforce with wide implementation and vendor offerings.
Correct. Every counter-argument DDH wrote in this chapter was gold of why and how remote work is achievable. Even if you or your organization isn't executing all these ideas, rereading this chapter could be a source of inspiration to improve one percent more over time.
Chapter 3: How to Collaborate Remotely
This chapter gets into the transformations an organization needs to make for remote work to be as best as it can. Surprise! The answer is not to add Slack or Teams or whatever Google has renamed their G Suite communication tool this quarter. David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried's advice is about schedules, collaboration tools that seem quaint seven years later, transitioning slowly (unfortunately the pandemic did not allow for that), and minimizing meetings.
In systems design, there’s the notion of a Single Point of Failure or SPoF. Much of the work required to achieve high reliability goes into finding and removing SPoFs.
The chapter suggests that remote work would draw attention to SPOF's by embracing remote work as an exercise in disaster preparedness. An unscheduled pandemic was certainly a disaster exercise for which many were unprepared.
Working required more email, instant response to chat messages, back-to-back-to-back Zoom meetings. Staring at a screen caused fatigue, especially in women. Remove physical and psychologically recharging activities like visiting friends, club sports, or church and add on family care. Maybe you, like me, learned the single point of failure was ourselves. Tools like a VPN and calendar invites didn't support the other struggles of our lives.
Remains to be seen. This month, LinkedIn paid staff a week off to disconnect. Going forward there are opportunities for those who have burned out or heading toward burnout. Try to recognize when your energy ebbs and flows then apply those rhythms to your work schedule. Maybe a 7 am to 11 am sprint in the mornings, a long break in the mid-day to refresh or connect with family, and then a 2 pm to 6 pm session to button up the day. It is the same amount of time as 9-5 pm, only shifted. Longer-term there is a market for better collaborative tools that best replicate the ease of being in a room together without the time, stress, and greenhouse gases of flying there.
Chapter 4: Beware the Dragons
DHH writes the most practical advice here, extolling techniques and methods for a successful remote employee. Surprisingly, these principles are valuable in a non-remote context, but in a remote context, they are critical: do not work too much or in an uncomfortable space, interact with people outside of work, exercise, etc.
Cabin fever is real, and remote workers are more susceptible to it than those forced into an office.
It doesn't take Project MKUltra (a CIA experiment involving sensory deprivation and isolation) to guess that asking people to work remotely without being able to go anywhere or see anyone during winter caused widespread burnout, even for mayors.
Correct. Following the tips in this chapter can help you to keep good physical and emotional health as a human being - not a mouse hitting a KPI button.
Chapter 5: Hiring and Keeping the Best
Chapter five is similar to chapter four. That is, the lessons in it are about fundamental principles of finding excellent people to join a team, whether remote or non-remote. Prioritize written communication, diversity, and personal development. There is no one weird trick that will help you identify the best talent. This is also the chapter where DHH and Fried make the case about paying employees what they're worth, not just to their cost of living.
Great remote workers are simply great workers
The burnout is real. One in four employees is considering changing jobs when the pandemic is over. As companies move to a more remote workforce, the remote employees can't be considered less part of the culture or promotion track. A friend of mine was hired during the pandemic at a national financial firm. When they asked for coaching on the promotion process, their management said to take mentors to lunch. My friend left the company. Because management couldn't think past the pre-pandemic culture centralized in a corporate campus where meeting mentors was easy. One bright spot is that if organizations weave remote employees into their culture, hiring remote could accelerate hiring diversity.
Jason Fried's points are all correct. Yet guessing how these principles will be applied in the future feels like a 50% chance of being wrong and a 50% chance I'm not correct. Between employers wanting staff back in the office for "reasons" and employees wanting to retain some aspect of remote to reducing commute times and more work/life balance, I think it'll be a pendulum. The questions are which group gets the swing started and how far the pendulum swings back over time.
Chapter 6: Managing Remote Workers
In chapter 6, the authors apply their experience in the open-source movement to offer insights on how to create a culture in which decentralized workers can thrive. Key ingredients are leveraging intrinsic motivation, allowing easy access to everyone who wants to contribute, and creating opportunities to collaborate in person. Other broadly applicable good advice: manage outputs instead of people in chairs, and encourage the removal of roadblocks instead of building a fiefdom.
Just because you don’t have a permanent office or not everyone is working out of one, that’s no reason not to get together every now and then. In fact, it’s almost mandatory to do so occasionally.
I don't know what reality is right now. This chapter recommends regular meetups. Not just a virtual corporate retreat over zoom. Perhaps twice a year the company gets together to discuss projects, have show n' tell and talk about the health of the business, and generally build company culture. In between, the chapter suggests colocating for a sprint to finish a difficult project before the deadline. How this unknown state gets worked out as companies adjust post-pandemic is the essence of this chapter and there are no answers yet.
Remains to be seen. Management happens in the context of culture and culture is not transmitted through the employee handbook. It’s transmitted through relationships.
Chapter 7: Life as a Remote Worker
Barrelling towards a conclusion, chapter seven begins to weave the material together. Touching on chapter one, nomadic freedom or a change of scenery can look like scheduling your day to work partly at home, partly at a library, and partly at a cafe all in the same day in the same town as much as different countries each month. This approach to controlling your environment as much as your tasks (catch up, collaboration, or serious work) builds upon chapter four where you optimize for your workflow. Part of this strategy is using routine to demark to your psyche when it's time to work and when to relax. Lastly, the authors mention that separation can come in device form: a laptop for work, a tablet for home (do not add your work email account to it). Chapter 6 gets touched on again by reminding us that motivation is the fuel of intellectual work.
Not everyone has a spare bedroom to turn into a home office, but that doesn’t mean you can’t work remotely.
One option of not having an existing space in a home to convert into a home office has been to add a shed office to the backyard. With a recent IPO, you may think big brands WeWork or Regus dominate coworking. However, 80% of the coworking market is small to medium-sized operators. It's kind of quaint that the book explains co-working or subleasing a single office from another existing company. Of course, there's always a coffee shop, not that I would recommend a Zoom meeting there.
Correct. I picked out co-working as the chapter's main idea because the ramifications of co-working and commercial real estate in the post-Corona world are fascinating. Small co-working companies may struggle because of limited reach and cash to get through the months as customers stayed home. Larger firms like WeWork may thrive as they renegotiated leases and expanded locations as corporate clients exited their long-term office leases to have flexibility. With empty offices and a drop in business travel leading to empty hotels that could lead to a shuffle of offices into housing, hotels to housing, and hotels turning into short-term offices.
How well did Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson predict the future in Remote: Office Not Required? Four out of seven of their ideas were correct. Their recommended approach is the way that things have played out. Of the chapters whose recommendations I said remains to be seen is a common thread is people. The argument has been made that the COVID-19 pandemic is an accelerant. Perhaps people have not yet caught up to the ideas. As time goes on, the correctness may increase.