Why I’m cautious about remote work
For all its many virtues, the remote work trend could be making light of human development in the workplace. Does it impede your growth in management skills? Is it preventing the formation of career-lasting connections? Is it creating organizational "bubbles" - silos, rather - akin to social media?
To clarify, I’m not referring to flexible work-from-home arrangements. This is about full remote work, i.e., you don’t get to share a room with others ever, or you do so infrequently during company retreats, conferences and other once-in-awhile events.
Tech isn’t lossless
Getting to know and understand each other in “real life” is a big part of management. I’m not entirely convinced you can replace the social and interpersonal cues you get in a shared workspace with video and emoticons on a screen, no matter how good the tech has become.
Maybe experienced managers can somehow overcome this by simulating good habits they picked up years ago. But are we undermining the opportunities of a high-potential junior to grow into a good manager by letting them work remotely?
Organizations that scale beyond a dozen or so people rely on serendipity and natural socialization to widen people’s lens about what’s going on. Lunchtime conversation, work-related or not, may be the most unappreciated management tool we have. Remote makes you blind to this. It also renders the tool useless and ineffective.
Let’s be fair: tools facilitating informal/transitory socialization do exist in place of the absent in-person lunchtime conversation. HR tech will continue to evolve to support high-five, show-and-tell and such types or “peripheral vision” interactions. Slack (for all its discontents) is loved by remote workers, precisely because of their visceral need to connect.
Yet, I’m still skeptical about the inherent structure of workplace socialization tech. Its makers have incentives that don’t always align with the people and companies using them. We’ve seen this story before with social media. What drives engagement is not always what’s good for us.
Getting the job done isn’t where it should end
The most valuable part of workplace relationships extends past a single employment cycle. My co-founder, as well as some of my best colleagues, mentors, friends, and other social connections, are people I’ve met in a previous job. Are we willing to trade this for the convenience of not having to commute to the same office space every morning?
Truly remote companies will tend to be geographically spread out – or else, what’s the point? This is not incompatible with the modern business, but real life is very geographically driven. In remote work, are we sacrificing the opportunity to form lifelong friends and intellectual partners?
I struggle to articulate the last point. I can’t help but feel there’s a certain naïveté in thinking that an organization can be reduced to process and structured touchpoints. Maybe it works for some types of projects, but humans tend to resist the objectification that comes with it. We aren’t livestock, after all.
There’s an ideological underpinning to this trend. Many corporations put results on a pedestal. Meritocracy advocates insist to focus on “pure skill”, looking at personal relationships and human dynamics with some suspicion. Skeptics like me are seen as “touchy-feely” and parochial.
Is this an inadvertent return to Taylor and the dehumanization of the workplace? The advocacy certainly does bring up some memories of 1990s business process consultancy bullshit – at least in its simplistic depiction of organization in boxes and processes. There’s more to it than that.
So, can remote work be part of an organization? Absolutely. Can you build long-lasting organizations primarily on a remote workforce? It has been done, but it may be situational or limiting in some ways. One has to be very conscious about what they’re giving up.
I’m not just an old fart, just a bit skeptical. Like many, I enjoy work from home. I often produce my best work this way. I love how it forces people to put extra structure in their work. I run a transatlantic company. I’m not a stranger to multinational teams.
What I’m trying to say is we don’t know enough about the effects of remote work. It will take time to see how it behaves at scale and what its long-term effects are. Companies taking a cautious stance are not “backwards” or parochial – perhaps they are just very thoughtful about breaking things that potentially have larger after-effects on people and organizations.
I know successful companies built on remote. I admire them. I notice they put a lot of effort to make it work and often remote is a flagship part of their corporate culture. I don’t deny their success. On the contrary, I don’t assume that their achievement is easily replicable.