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Remote work is not new. It has been around as an option available to companies at least since when DSL became mainstream, which in most of the developed world was in the late 90's/early 2000s. It's how JetBlue was able to employ an army of work-from-home customer service agents based out of Utah. Ars Technica has been a 100% remote company since it's inception in 1998. The acronym SOHO - Small Office, Home Office, has been common parlance in the enterprise space for at least as long as DSL has been around. In many large organizations in the US remote work has been an option for more than a decade now. I worked remotely for at least one day a week through much of the 2000s while consulting for Accenture. Working from home on Fridays has been a norm in consulting for a very long time. Starting in early 2010 as an independent consultant and then as an entrepreneur, I have worked from home for 7 of the last 10 years.

So what's suddenly changed? Why is remote work suddenly the hottest new topic there is? COVID? Sure, it has a lot to do with it. However, remote was the hottest topic in tech even pre-COVID. What COVID has done though has taken a topic that was at the top of mind of the tech zeitgeist and made it mainstream. It has accelerated its adoption in a way that sans COVID would have taken at least taken a half-decade longer. The question to ask then is this: why was remote work at the center of attention of the tech zeitgeist at the end of 2019 when it's been around since the late 1990s/early 2000s?

This has to do with the fact that the tech zeitgeist did not start paying serious attention to remote work until about 2016/2017. Until about this time the zeitgeist had a very anti-remote sentiment. Steve Jobs, for example, was one such famous opponent, who believed “Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions..". In 2013, Marissa Mayer, (in)famously ended Yahoo's work from home policy, claiming that working side by side was critical in Yahoo's mission to be able to compete with the likes of Google, her previous employer. In very early-stage startups, beliefs were even more mythical. The idea of working side by side in a garage, or in a dorm room to build the next great world-changing startup is the stuff of legend. However, starting in the second half of the 2010s this sentiment started to reverse. Why is this? Three reasons in particular:

  • The emergence of companies like Github, Slack, Zoom, Asana, and Atlassian super-charged the ability of tech companies to go remote - in other words by about 2017 the entirety of the remote tech stack had taken shape.
  • The cost of living in tech hubs - in particular, San Francisco/Silicon Valley become absurdly high. It began to cost nearly 3x-5x the cost of hiring an engineer in the Bay Area versus hiring similar engineers in other parts of the country.
  • The success of remote-first companies like Automaticc (creators of WordPress), Zapier, Gitlab, and Webflow, to name a few began to get noticed.

Combined these three reasons - the tools, the macro-conditions, and the proof points - provided a potent combination that began to chip away at the very foundations of the Zeitgeist's previously strongly held anti-remote beliefs.

The headwinds though were clearly blowing in the favor of remote-work prior to COVID19. COVID's impact on the rise of remote work cannot be understated. Up to about February of this year only about 3% of the US workforce was remote. By March 19th, 2020, this number had exploded to 58% Sans COVID we were not expected to hit these numbers until much later this decade. My co-founder, John, and I have often discussed the idea that for human behavior change to occur at scale and fast, often an external trigger of sorts is required. A once in a 100-year pandemic is certainly that and more!

Every day there is a new announcement from a major company that has decided that they are moving to a remote-first or remote-friendly model permanently. These range from tech giants like Twitter and Facebook, to global consulting companies like TCS, through to traditional brick and motor conglomerates like Nationwide and Mondelez. Here is an up-to-date list of remote-friendly, remote-first, and fully-distributed companies. However, the question still remains, is this a temporary blip in the long arc of work, or will the world continue to work remotely once the pandemic has passed? I think the answer is largely a yes. This is because:

The question still remains though, will the world continue to work remote once the pandemic has passed? I think the answer is largely a yes. This is because:

  • Remote-work is going through what I think of like a stress test. Having worked from home for a majority of the last decade, I can categorically say that working remotely during COVID, is nothing like working remotely under normal circumstances - what we are experiencing now is much harder! This is especially true for those with school-age children. Under normal situations kids are at school for almost 6 hours a day, which means that adults are not constantly load-balancing between kids' school work, preparing meals, and work. Women, mothers in particular, who in the past have been the biggest advocates of flexible work models, are disproportionately impacted in the current scenario. However in more normal times, when you are working remotely, with coffee shops, co-working places, and gyms open, and most importantly kids back in school (I am not a big fan of homeschooling - a topic for a different post), remote-work can be a blissful experience. Particularly when working with the right group of people in the right personal context. If remote-work can survive this stress-test, and it looks like it will, remote-work will get easier in the medium to long term.
  • Remote work saves time and energy otherwise spent commuting or in endless face-to-face meetings. What is the primary advantage of bringing everyone into one central location? As Steve Jobs would put it "serendipity" or what mere mortals would call "water cooler conversations". Now while "water-cooler conversations" when you are Jobs and Wozniak, or Jobs and Ivie, can make history, most "water-cooler" conversations generally revolve around the last "Game of Thrones" episode or how the NY Jets will not win another Superbowl until 2069. The bigger problem with office-based work though is the more non-serendipitous conversations, alternatively known as "meetings". Meetings are a spillover from the long 20th century model of work. As someone once told me meetings should only be held for 3 reasons 1) brainstorming, 2) making decisions, and 3) socializing. Making decisions for sure can happen on Zoom if not in an Asana task or a Jira board. Brainstorming though, particularly bigger impact strategic brainstorming, is better in high-fidelity environments, however, most work is about execution or tactical brainstorming. If high-fidelity strategic brainstorming is required for things like laying out a quarterly product roadmap, people can meet in person in hub-locations. #3 - socializing - we won't deny is 1000x better in-person.
  • Most importantly though companies will get better at executing remote work and will realize that work is actually more efficiently and effectively executed in a remote setting. When companies develop the systems and processes that enable them to execute remote work with improved quality, velocity, and cost (the holy trifecta of work) while giving employees a better quality of life, it will seal the deal for remote work vs. office-based work. I will write a lot more about how companies can do this in future posts, hence won't go into detail here, however, I will say that the key to managing a remote workforce effectively is clear, asynchronous communication. I touched on this a bit in our first post - Remote-Native - The Big 3 Lessons Learned which had been posted prior to COVID being declared a pandemic.

In summary, the advantages of working remote when it comes to knowledge work, far outweigh the disadvantages. The COVID pandemic has only further accelerated the inevitable shift to a more remote working culture, that is here to stay.

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