Fully remote work for everyone was something that only a few companies did prior to earlier this year. Now, we’re all doing it.
In this post, I’m going to be discussing the impact this has on the tech industry and how it will change remote working forever.
The “remote last” experience
For most of my career I’ve worked in offices. Small offices, big offices, mostly open-plan. I’ve worked in the UK, Japan and Canada. I’ve worked remotely for a company in Palo Alto in the U.S and for a few small startups in Canada. I’m not an expert in remote working, but from my experience remote working is most successful when everyone is a “remote worker”.
For my previous company, I worked from home for a few days occasionally over several years. The experience was not good. It would a little something like this…
- I join the meeting on time.
- Nobody is on the call.
- After a few minutes, I’d jump on Slack and be like “Hi there! Anyone coming to the meeting? I’m on Zoom”
- “Yeah, we’re having some technical difficulties”. Now, I live in Canada and my parents live in the UK, so I’m used to having the regular technical difficulties on calls. The fact that the room on the other end of call contains mostly Engineers seems to make no difference at all.
- Once we finally establish the call, we go through a range of audio quality - from good to quiet to incoherent, and often “Is anyone still there?”
- Often they can’t hear you informing them that you can’t hear them. You try and balance improving your experience with not wanting to interrupt the flow of the meeting. This, ultimately, is what perpetuates this cycles and sets up the next meeting for failure.
- At the end of the meeting, you can hear everyone in the office are patting themselves on the back, “Hey, great meeting!“. “Oh, Phil, are you still there? Hanging up now”.
I’m not alone in this experience. We’ve all encountered this from both ends of the call. It’s not fun.
The feeling of exclusion or isolation when working remotely in this situation is not sustainable. It’s hard to be a company that is primarily located in the office and succeed with having some workers being remote.
The solution to this is problem is to become a “remote first” organization, where the primary focus is on being remote. Being in the office is secondary. It definitely helps if it’s physically weighted that way, with more people actually being remote than not, but mostly it’s a frame of mind.
Remote First Organization
The idea of “remote first” is not new. Companies such as HashiCorp, CircleCI, Wordpress, Invision and SocialText has been doing it successfully for a long time.
The idea isn’t that some individuals are remote and others are in the office together. No, everyone is remote. They just happen to be in the office, but they are remote, because… we’re all remote.
One fast track way to making this work effectively is having everyone dial-in from their own computer with their own headset, rather than share a camera and microphone in a communal office. This levels the playing field.
Although, if you’re in a crowded noisy open-plan office, this can be tricky. But good use of the mute button will help a lot.
Tip: In Zoom you can quickly unmute by pressed in the spacebar. Think of like a walky-talky - just don’t say “Over” when you’re done speaking.
Why is this better?
Putting aside the fact a lot of us are forced to work remotely right now, let’s look at some benefits…
There are many benefits to being remote first, but one big plus is the ability to hire folks who want to work remotely full-time or live in another city or country. There may be financial benefits to the company, or it may be a case that you can find good people more quickly by not limiting the search to your own neighborhood. This was definitely the case when I was trying to hire a Platform Team Lead last year.
It was through these hiring struggles and discussions with others companies that had gone fully remote, we started looking at what it was going to take to become a “remote first” company.
And then the world changed…
We’re all remote!
“From Monday, we’re all working remotely.”
Most of the working world, with the ability to pickup their laptop and dial-in from home, heard this phrase earlier this year.
The pandemic has forced our hand. Companies like mine, who were struggling to make the leap, we’re pushed off the ledge and found that “Hey, this ain’t so hard”.
Thanks to a small army of folks shipping out desks, chairs and monitors we managed to quickly re-define ourselves as “remote-first” (remote only).
For some the transition was jarring. For other teams, such as mine, we didn’t skip a beat. Sure, I missed whiteboards to help convey my ideas, but quickly found that, yes, you can replace a picture with a thousand words. Sometimes, less. We’re humans, we can adapt to anything.
Some people are enjoying the mandatory remote work less than others. If you live alone or with a partner and you’re trapped in your small studio apartment, that you have to expose on Zoom several times a day, it’s going to be less fun. Below a certain age our genes are screaming at us from literally every cell in our body to go out and socialize.
Other downsides involve the impact it will have building costs. If we’re not using them, there’s going to be some impact there.
Impact on Silicon Valley
Jason Calacanis, is a prolific Angel Investor and has invested in over two hundred companies. In his words, “commercial real estate is going to collapse”.
Here he is back in May on CNBC
Good for the Engineer?
If remote working is eating the world, is it good for the Engineers in the long-term? It depends on who are and where you are.
In a recent post by Sean Blanda, he considers whether engineers in centralized tech hubs think of themselves as more valuable than engineers in other areas of the world, regardless of whether they are remote or not. He writes…
When you, the American worker, share this belief you are being blinded by an erroneous belief in American exceptionalism. When your company goes all-remote, it is starting a clock that ends in you eventually competing with the global talent market — especially if travel and visas continue to be restricted by the federal government. --- Sean Blanda
As Sean points out, you and your neighborhood are not special. Sure, some great companies may have come from there, you may have great network of engineers similar to yourself who you’ve learnt from, go to meetups with, but ultimately great engineers exist everywhere that the Internet can reach.
As jobs go remote, real estate prices drop, as do salaries and the special status of tech hubs.
So what do you think? Do you think we’ll all go back to normal at some point in the future? Will the pool of talented Software Engineers be spread more evenly around the world? Will this lower the cost of hiring Software Engineers and, potentially, your salary?
Leave a comment down below.
This post can also be found on YouTube.