Remote Done Right

24 May 2020

The future is remote. This has become clear in the months since COVID19 disrupted our entire way of life, but there are still plenty of people who argue that remote work is not conducive to a productive workplace. There are people who believe that employees must be tracked to drive productivity, that relationships cannot be built when co-workers are no co-located.

Let's get a major caveat out of the way right now: *Remote work is not possible for many jobs. That's clear, not debatable, and hopefully it's obvious that this post does not make reference to those types of jobs. *

When I was getting my MFA, I chose a distance program because I was a working adult. It wasn't until I was in my 30s that I could afford to get a "frivolous" advanced degree in Creative Writing. And to be able to afford that degree (and keep a roof over my family's head), I could not quit my job and go attend classes full-time. Fortunately, many graduate programs have adapted a hybrid style learning model where the majority of classes are taught online and they hold a few "residencies" throughout the program. For my program, we had three residencies over the course of the two-year program. Two were located on the university's campus. One was in Edinburgh—a place I fell so much in love with that my wife and I travelled there for our 10-year anniversary.

While the distance part of the education was totally immersive and helped me improve significantly as a writer, it was the residencies that helped me create bonds with my cohort that still exist to this day. I did not need to be sitting in a classroom with these folks for two years. All I needed was a few days out of the year to see them in-person, to work alongside them, and to drink with them. Complete immersion is not a necessary component of relationships.

And that brings me back to remote work. One of the most common arguments I see from employees is that they won't be able to bond with their co-workers. That may be true of the company is remote without onsite get-togethers or company retreats. But if the company structures their remote work like my MFA program, where the whole company gets together once or twice a year, I promise you the bonds you expect to build by working in the same place as your co-workers can still be built without seeing them in-person everyday.

How does this work for large companies, though? I worked for GEICO for a number of years. They now have somewhere in the range of 50,000 employees. Google has over 100,000 employees. How can you possibly manage a remote workforce of that size? And how can you have the occasional meeting of the entire team?

To those questions, I pose two more questions:

  1. If you worked at a large organization like this, were you managed by the same person who managed all 50,000 or 100,000 employees, or were you managed by someone who was in charge of your subset, your much smaller group of employees?
  2. If you've worked at a large organization like this, who did you interact with? My guess is you interacted with a sub-department within a regional office in which you worked. My guess is you didn't have much in-person interaction with the other 49,950 employees within the company.

Large organizations already have a governance structure and a hierarchy that supports remote work. You can't ever interact with all 50,000 or 100,000 other people working at the company. You can, and probably do, interact with the 10-30 other people that work within your department or team. Your boss manages those same people, and your boss could manage those people remotely. Your boss could organize onsite meetings throughout the year to build up the camaraderie. I'd argue that this is all easier to do within a large organization. All the organization has to do is choose to do it.

Coinbase is choosing. Shopify is choosing. Facebook is choosing (albeit in an underhanded, take your San Francisco-based pay rate away kind of way).

There are many other things to consider when it comes to remote work, and I hope to cover them in future posts, but there are some phenomenal resources already out there. Here's a list: