Remote work is not for everyone

Designers can’t do their job properly if they aren’t in the same room with the people they work with. Good collaboration is preconditioned by collocation. That’s what I used to believe. In fact, I believed it so much that I turned my life upside down to go from freelancing remotely, moved abroad to work in-house and in one of those cool open-plan offices.

It would take me years to realise that the open-plan offices suck. It would take me even longer to understand that a designer doesn’t need to be collocated with the team they’re working with to do their job well. Working remotely doesn’t hinder collaboration. Ok, that’s only partially true. Let’s dig deeper into this.

When I worked for Auto Trader in the UK, I had to commute to their London-based office. One hour to get to work, another to get back home. And by London standards, that’s an easy commute! But here’s the most absurd thing—I commuted to this office in central London, only to work remotely with people from Manchester. From all the departments that worked on product at Auto Trader, only the design team was based in London. Engineers, Product Managers, UX researchers, were all in the Manchester office where the HQ was.

There I learned that being the only person to work remotely with a team that is collocated elsewhere is the worst type of remote work. I was always left out of standups and crucial meetings. I had to make an extra effort to be involved with the work we were doing. I had to take two-hour train rides to Manchester (on top of the one-hour commute) every other week in an effort to be more involved with the teams I worked with. So when I did the journey there and back in a single day (I didn’t like to stay overnight), I spent six hours commuting. Insane!

Being the only person to work remotely with a team that is collocated elsewhere is the worst type of remote work. 

— It didn’t take long to learn this

Because I was the only one working remotely, there were no guidelines for how to work synchronously and asynchronously. Meetings were never recorded, key discussions happened on-site, in-person in the Manchester office. I was left out of course. So design decisions were made without me being involved and that was completely ordinary. They’d let me know through an email, if they remembered or bothered to inform me.

I have mixed feelings when I read articles like these because of my experience with different types of remote work. Yes, remote work can be a lot more comfortable for the employees. Just the fact that it eliminates the need to commute alone makes it worthwhile to them. But that can’t and shouldn’t be enough. Companies need to adopt remote work fully and well if they want to make it work. And that means a lot more than just employee comfort.

So yeah, overall I agree with Betsy from the article above when she says that Americans need to go back to work in person. Her reasoning sounds kinda bullshit to me though. Let’s take a quick look.

More than 1,000 Apple employees signed an open letter declaring that “office-bound work is a technology from the last century,” and “commuting to the office, without an actual need to be there, is a huge waste of time.”

That sounds about right. She replies:

Sorry. Working together in an office fosters innovation, say Glaeser and Cutler. Working remotely discourages collaboration and information-sharing, a study of Microsoft employees found.

Does working together really foster innovation? We already know that open-plan offices don’t work and don’t make people more collaborative (research suggests that the opposite is more true), so this boils down to which research you want to believe. Besides, what type of remote work was it? Did they establish practices that make remote work work? Or did they do a half-assed job of it? She goes on and finds the next statement “laughable:”

… there’s no correlation between working more hours and better productivity.

Again, this depends on what you mean by “productivity.” Is sitting in a crowded and loud office for 8 hours replying to emails and going from one meeting to another productive? Or is it better to work from home, and work deeply for 4 hours and spend additional 2 hours in meetings and emails? This too depends on the company and how well remote work is practiced. I’d argue that the latter is more productive, especially in a company that does remote work well.

Betsy’s view of remote work seems one-dimensional and uninformed. But so is of all these people who suddenly demand to continue working remotely. Remote work doesn’t mean lazy, or half-assed work. It just means that you need to find alternatives to being collocated. Alternatives that will make collaboration possible and seamless. And today’s technology, thankfully, offers us these alternatives. So to turn this post from a rant into something more productive, let’s take a look at what I believe are the basic requirements to make remote work work:

  • Everyone needs to be remote
  • Guidelines for synchronous and asynchronous communication
  • Establish a Single Source of Truth (SSoT)
  • Hire the right people
  • Trust your employees

How to make remote work work

I joined GitLab in April 2018. Back then it was one of the few companies that were remote-first (everyone works remotely by default). After my experience of working in London I decided to go back to working remotely but I knew that I wanted to work for a company where everyone’s remote. That was my main requirement because I was fed up of feeling unequal just because I was in a different location than my team.

Based on my experience with different types of remote work and comparing it to being collocated, here’s my list of things that I think are the basic requirements to embrace remote work fully and to make it work.

Everyone needs to be remote

I described my experience from Auto Trader above. Being the only person, or one of the few, that are working remotely will always lead to feeling left out and actually being left out. Remote workers will be privileged and unequal at the same time. Privileged because they’re more comfortable working from home, but unequal to everyone else in the office. They’ll be forgotten about and not included in key meetings and decisions. That can have destructive effects on their career progression possibilities and could also lead to psychological problems.

Fig 1: One person remote, others collocated versus everyone remote

So the first requirement for good remote work is: either everyone is remote or nobody is.

Guidelines for synchronous and asynchronous communication

Synchronous communication: zoom calls, in-person meetings

Asynchronous communication: meeting agendas and recordings, chat, discussion boards, documents shared in the cloud.

Ok, now everyone’s remote at your company. What is your policy when it comes to synchronous versus asynchronous communication? Which one is the preferable one? Do employees always need to attend meetings or can they watch recordings of them? Where do discussions about work happen? How about decisions? Do you have tools and processes established to allow and enable your employees to work well asynchronously? For example, here’s GitLab’s guide to asynchronous communication.

No matter which type of communication is preferred, you’ll always end up with a combination of both. Acknowledging that, and writing down guidelines for both is a key step towards good remote work.

Establish a Single Source of Truth (SSoT)

To make remote work productive and efficient, you need to establish a Single Source of Truth for how you work, what you work on, and what your processes are. SSoT is simply a source of information everyone can use and it makes sure everyone uses the same information and data. There can be different SSoT for different areas or levels of work. For example, GitLab’s top-level SSoT is its handbook. For projects and initiatives we use Epics and Issues from our own tool. Here’s an example of an Epic for a project we’re working on. Whoever wants to learn more about that project, that Epic is the SSoT. It’s the job of my team to keep it up-to-date.

SSoT enables remote work by cutting through the confusion of what needs to be worked on, why and how. There’s no more “sorry, I didn’t know what to do because I was waiting for an answer from Jim.” SSoT, combined with guidelines for asynchronous communication allows people to be proactive and intentional.

Hire the right people

This is a simple guideline but the hardest one to implement. For remote work to work, you need the right people. And by right people I mean people who are enthusiastic about work, possibly even about your product, passionate, they believe in remote work because they see it as a true alternative, not as something where it’s easier to slack off. The reality is that people will always slack off. They do it in offices as well, they just need to be more discreet about it. It’s true that remote work makes slacking off easier, especially if the right processes aren’t in place. If you hire effective and productive people and have established processes to keep them effective (rewards, 360 feedback, performance check-ins) you’re 80% there. You need a really solid hiring process to do that. More on that in a future blog post.

Trust your employees

Once you find the right people to hire, you need to get out of their way and allow them to get work done. If you hired the right people, there’s no need to force them to be on the call with a camera for eight hours while they work. No need to spy on their screens to see if they’re actually working. Trust goes both ways, if you trust them, they’ll trust you and this alone will make them more productive and efficient. But this only works if you found and hired the right people. Hire too many people who slack off too much, don’t fit your culture, or simply aren’t that good, and everything could start crumbling down.

Conclusion

These are the basic requirements for remote work that works. If you aren’t willing to adopt these, go back to work in person as Betsy arrogantly suggests. It’s as simple as that. The problem is that large companies can’t or aren’t willing to change overnight. So they did a poor job switching to remote work in the first place, now it’s not working out that well and they want to go back. Perhaps they should. Their best employees who want to continue working remotely will find jobs at companies that do remote work well and that’s that. Remote work is not for everyone.


Get my next blog post in your inbox

Join more than 20,000 designers already on my personal mailing list.


Leave a comment