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Gordon Shotwell
Gordon Shotwell

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Why you should work remotely

My last job was as a data scientist at Upworthy, which is a 100% remote company. Prior to starting the position I was worried about whether I could be happy and productive on a remote team. I wondered how project planning would work, whether it would be terribly lonely, and how communication would function when things got hectic. What I discovered is that the company was one of the more efficient and friendly places that I've worked, and I think the changes that they have made to accommodate remote work deserve much of the credit.

Most companies who hire remote employees do so to take advantage of cheaper labour markets. If you are a Silicon Valley tech company and are able to hire remotely you will be able to hire from areas which are not experiencing a labour shortage and as a result you will able to hire better people for less money. The thing which prevents companies from taking advantage of this opportunity is that they are afraid that remote work will disrupt the company's workflow. How will they organize projects across multiple time zones? How will we come up with ideas if we have no watercoolers? I think that most of the changes required to accommodate remote employees are actually independent goods which every company should adopt. And since I learned all this at Upworthy, I'm going to present these benefits as a listical with cute animal pictures.

Four Ways that Remote Work Helps Your Company

1) Results orientation

Results oriented work environments are those which only care about employee output and do not care about their effort. In these environments it doesn't matter if an employee leaves early or checks Facebook at work so long as their results are good. This makes a lot of sense because ultimately, the company, as a whole is judged on its results, and so an employee's work should be judged relative to how it contributes to those results. The problem is that defining results for an employee is a hard job, and it's much easier to judge people based on their effort. Most companies which say they are results focused still use this heuristic.

Remote work makes results-orientation mandatory. The simple fact that you can't tell if or when your remote employees are at their desk means that managers have no choice but to evaluate employees based on their work product. As a result employees have incentives to make their work more efficient, for instance by taking short naps after lunch.

2) Intentional communication

When you work with a remote team you have to be intentional about your communication. If you are having a bad day or have run into a block of some kind, you have you proactively tell other people about it. Nobody is going to walk by your desk and notice why you are frustrated, and so you have to be intentional about asking for help, and connecting with your colleagues. My team at Upworthy did this, in part, by scheduling weekly one-on-one video calls between different engineers. These were a half-hour long, and the only requirement was that you not talk about work. We also did things like daily Slack check-ins and making sure to start meetings by spending a bit of time asking how everyone was doing. There's an assumption that this kind of informal communication happens automatically at in-person offices, but I don't think that's actually true. It might be true that some employees are making some connections, but most employees don't actually end up connecting with a wide slice of their colleagues. This kind of intentional communication is connection and emotional safety. People develop better relationships with one another, and so they are more likely to ask for help or raise a dissenting view. Because remote work brings the problem of disconnection into sharper focus, it provides an incentive to build structures which help people connect.

Here is an example of my dog Cadence engaging in intentional communication through a digital platform.

3) Continuous documentation

Remote work environments promote asynchronous communication. You spend more time communicating through email, Slack, or other written media than through conversation. Even video conferences involve a substantial amount of written communication. For instance at Upworthy we would frequently keep collaborative meetings notes in a Dropbox Paper document, or create Jira tickets as tasks were being assigned during the meeting. This is in contrast to in-person work environments where a lot of the work assignment takes place through verbal communication either at a meeting or through your boss dropping by your desk to ask you to do something. These synchronous bits of communication then need to be documented if anyone's going to keep track of them.

The great thing about remote communication is that teams are constantly producing written artifacts which are easy to turn into documentation. For instance, you never forget what exactly your boss asked you to do because work assignments almost always include a written description. It's also easy to move from a brainstorming document used at a meeting, to a working document discussing a system, to a polished bit of documentation about that system. Because everyone works in text all the time, there's a lower cost to creating documentation.

4) Support for diversity

Almost every tech company has a major diversity problem. This is bad both from a basic ethical perspective but also because it causes teams to ignore perspectives other than their own. Structuring your company to promote remote work is, in my opinion, the single biggest action that you can take to promote diversity. There are two main ways that it does this:

Remote work accommodates diverse workplace requirements

Workplaces are path-dependent places. You start your company with a few employees, and then make decisions about how that workplace develops physically and socially based on those employees. These decisions in turn attract employees who like those work environments and the cycle continues. For instance, it's very likely that your open-concept, start-up office with a climbing wall and beer in the fridge is tailored to support the work of able-bodied young men. Probably you won't make the investments to support the work of, say, a blind engineer who needs to code by voice, and so you will never hire that engineer.

The same thing is true for geography. A small or midsized company tends to pick office locations based on where their current employees want to work, and so tend to hire people from particular neighborhoods, because that office location is convenient to those neighborhoods. This embeds a fair amount of socioeconomic and ethnic bias into your workplace because neighborhoods tend to be ethically and socio-economically segregated.

This is a kind of Catch-22 for workplace accommodation: you don't know what to change if none of your employees need accommodation, but you won't be able to hire employees who need accommodation if you haven't made those changes.

A simple solution is to just let an employee determine their own work environment. If someone has a particular workplace need, it's very likely that their home already meets that need. If they need a quiet environment to code by voice, they will be able to find or create that space when you let them work remotely. If they need to be close to their children or ailing parents, they will be able to do that. Similarly your company can hire from communities which are geographically removed from your current work neighborhoods which increases diversity.

Reducing bias

Before getting into this, I should say that I have almost no personal experience with bias in the workplace. That said, I'm lawyer with some experience in human rights litigation and can speak from that perspective. The thing you notice again and again with human rights disputes is that bias flourishes in areas with poor evidence. It's hard to prove workplace discrimination, because this discrimination often happens informally and usually without witnesses. Claimants have a hard time reporting a discriminatory conduct, because they are justifiably worried that they won't be believed without some kind of smoking gun bit of evidence. Since the assholes of the world are well aware of this fact, they tend to do their harassing in circumstances where it will be hard to prove the conduct. Because remote work funnels more communication through channels which leave a paper trail, it reduces the amount communication which is amendable to this kind of discriminatory conduct. If someone harasses their female coworker through Slack or email, it's very easy for that coworker to forward that communication on to human resources or a labour lawyer. It's also easier to correct people for inadvertently saying or doing something discriminatory, because you have a record to look back on to identify what exactly was wrong with their behavior.

You can probably think of other ways that remote work helps with bias. For instance results-orientation might lead to more evidence-based promotion decisions, women might be better able to better integrate their professional life with gendered, non-professional work like child care, or text-based communication might ameliorate implicit bias. I have a suspicion that these factors are valid, but have neither data nor experience to support that suspicion so, will leave it at that.

Accommodating diversity extends beyond people who you typically think of as requiring accommodation. Almost everybody's work-life could be improved if that work fit their life circumstances a bit better.

Top comments (21)

bosepchuk profile image
Blaine Osepchuk • Edited

I've benefited from the 'support for diversity' argument.

I have a chronic illness and I've been working from home for more than a decade. I can only work part-time and if I was forced to travel to get to my job or any job, I probably would be pushed out of the workforce.

Many people in my support group have suffered that exact fate. They couldn't convince their employers to let them work from home and they were too ill to travel to the office so they lost their jobs.

There are millions of Americans too ill to travel to an office to work but not so ill that they couldn't make a valuable contribution to their company from home if they were just given the chance.

casen profile image

I work remotely full time and your post really hit all the marks. At Minerva there has been a company-wide effort to think "remote first." Doing so really helps everyone be on the same page when it comes to communication, and delivering results.

I think the largest hurdle to having remote employees is management style and company culture. I can see it being very challenging to be the only remote employee for a company where most folks work at the office, and no thought is put in to async communication.

damcosset profile image
Damien Cosset

Remote work is to me an amazing thing. The fact that you don't need to be in a certain place to work is so liberating. I don't live near any big cities in France, and interesting programming jobs in the region are rare. I can't afford to move too far away from where I live either.

But as soon as you remove this geographical barrier, what a relief to be able to work for certain companies without being in the area. I don't really like to think that I could work for a company, only at the low cost of moving away from my family and my friends.

I've been working remotely for 9 months now, and it's been amazing. It's obviously a lifestyle that has its own challenges. But in the end, I feel happier and more productive this way.

voins profile image
Alexey Voinov

I'm working remotely a lot. There's a problem though. When the team works mostly in the office, it is hard to organise communication process. People are just so used to go to someone's desk and interrupt them, so they don't really think that when someone writes to them, they expect the answer within some reasonable time. Sometimes it could take days to get an answer, even on messengers.

But it still, I'm able to do so much more remotely, so it worths every minute of it. :) Maybe because of less interruptions (even with two children playing around)

nathanheffley profile image
Nathan Heffley

Life Pro Tip: If you use Slack, just keep pinging the #general channel with something like " Hey @channel, this will continue every 30 seconds until @AnnoyingNoResponsePerson replies to my DM!"

Real Life Pro Tip: Don't do this if you want the office to like you.

voins profile image
Alexey Voinov

Oh, that is a really bad idea. :) In Oracle this means half of the world will not like you. :)

antonemery profile image
Anton Emery

I can work remotely on occasion and love it. My goal is to get a fully remote dev position. Being able to get up, avoid the commute, make a great cup of coffee and just get to work makes me so much more productive. Any tips on actually getting a remote dev job? Are they really only realistic for mid and senior level devs? I apply to alot of them, without any luck.

kaydacode profile image
Kim Arnett  • Edited

Your dog's input was incredibly necessary <3 More dogs should have more input on their owners blog posts! Great read, makes it less intimidating to even consider working remotely 100% of the time.

gshotwell profile image
Gordon Shotwell

She's the primary beneficiary of working remotely so I thought she should have her say :)

cactus_fran profile image
Correa J. Francisco

Great article. I have just one question, how do I get a remote job? Recommended sites to visit?

conjja profile image

my last job was remote. it was great, w certain challenges (namely, running errands). but i found mgrs did NOT like it, for the very reasons you named (as a good), more things had to be documented and communication had to be intentional. but i loved it!

erebos-manannan profile image
Erebos Manannán

I've been working mostly remotely for several years and there are a few extra benefits that can be gained from it.

As you will likely have people in different timezones, you can usually additionally scrap the requirement to work at the same time and people can choose their own working hours as they best fit their day. This means you don't have to drag yourself out of bed after a poorly slept night and crawl to the office to be unproductive the whole day, but sleep in until you feel great and work when you feel productive. If later during the day you feel your energy levels are dropping, you can stop working and continue later when you're more energetic again. Similarly moving work around days you have other things to do on is easy, as there's no need to worry about access to the office. Not having to use an alarm clock almost ever is such a wonderful feeling.

At least in many tech areas you are required to improve your processes a lot from what they would be if you had an office. A new employee comes in, at an office you can hold their hand to get their stuff set up, remotely you need to have clear documentation and as much automation as possible set up for that.

It tends to be guaranteed that you can work on the go as well, I regularly work from the backseat of a bus, on a ferry, etc. as all the processes and tools are set up to support working from any remote location. I have Slack calls with team mates when walking to the bus stop or something as that tends to fit my schedule best.

marbru profile image
Mar Bartolome

The same thing is true for geography. A small or midsized company tends to pick office locations based on where their current employees want to work, and so tend to hire people from particular neighborhoods, because that office location is convenient to those neighborhoods. This embeds a fair amount of socioeconomic and ethnic bias into your workplace because neighborhoods tend to be ethically and socio-economically segregated.

Great point!

fernikolic profile image
Fernando Nikolic

Couldn't agree with you more on absolutely everything! Appreciate the fact that we live in a world where more and more companies are coming to grips with the fact that having remote workers is an exclusively positive thing.

I'm sure articles like yours helps. Thanks!

lukaszkuczynski profile image

I totally agree, it's about result orientation. When it comes to regular offices, you can easily spot guys doing nothing :)

jasonpalmer1971 profile image

Doing nothing is better than doing the wrong thing. Ommm ommm

diegoponciano profile image
Diego Ponciano

Doing the wrong thing is more productive than doing nothing =P

Thread Thread
lukaszkuczynski profile image

As long as tests are passing, you're doing the good thing

butter_bridge profile image
Jonny Rathbone

Curious about how you mitigate the impact of not being able to do any paired programming?

jasonpalmer1971 profile image

Everyone has different ways of being so it just depends on what it works for you and your employer.

I have Aspergers and even people like me differ, we all unique beings. Ommm ommmm