Where has all the remote work gone?

To continue my series chronicling my current job search, I come to this interesting observation:  “What happened to remote work?”

Back 2-5 years ago, Remote Work was the upcoming ‘killer feature’ of job listings.  The nature of ‘programming’ leads itself really well to remote work and that’s why I’ve worked remotely for the last 4 companies/positions that I’ve had.

Programming (and related tasks) tends to focus around semi-regular checkpoints (weekly, daily) where everyone needs to understand the tasks at hand and what they personally need to do.  But then those people need solitude to sit down and crank on actually producing the code.   It leads to the funny situations where in actual offices, everyone drives in, sits down in front of their computer, types for hours, all get up together in concert to head to lunch (organized by IM), then come back, sit in their cubes again for 4 more hours then go home.

Remote work was the perfect solution.  Not only does it VASTLY increase the pool of employees you can draw from.  But it allows you to save costs, you need far less (if any) office space which always comes at a premium.

But I digress, the main issue here is that back in 2008 when I was looking for a position, 80% of the positions I was running into were immediately OK with Remote Work.  Perhaps in many of those cases I’d be the only (or close to it) remote employee.  But they were perfectly OK with that, and had been talking about doing more of that to get the ‘right employees’.

Fast forward to today however, remote work has completely dried up.  Very few companies are open to it.  Even brand new startups, are immediately rushing out to buy office space and prepare themselves for an office full a people.  A massive outlay of money.   Suddenly for some reason, no one wants remote anymore.

The interesting twist is that more and more companies now are pushing ‘Telecommuting’.  But not remote.  That is to say, they are fine with the idea of someone who is only in the office a couple days a week, but that lives close enough to drive in for those days, and just works from home the other days.

The ones that are willing to discuss remote often end up wanting to treat it like a telecommute situation, where they want you to fly in on a very aggressive schedule, every other week perhaps for a couple days.  Or for a full week every 3-4 weeks.  And honestly that’s not being remote.  That’s an attempt to get the feeling of someone local and/or telecommuting.  That’s not embracing the benefits that remote employees can bring to your team.

Anyway, I don’t guess I have a witty end to this post.  I’m just surprised that we’ve moved backwards in these regards in the last 5 years.   5 years ago remote work was the future.  Today, it’s in the past.

There are so many tools & technologies that make working remote so easy and effective.  Yet for some reason, all the companies have decided that they need local people only now.

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11 Responses to Where has all the remote work gone?

  1. afilina says:

    Companies were excited at first. They hired a lot of people remotely. But most people that they hired wasted their money. Employees were not experienced enough to work remotely, wasted time going in circles and lead the development in the wrong direction. Contractors billed five contracts at once while working on one at a time.

    Companies had a lot of bad experience with remote work and got cautious. They now want time to know and trust you before they can let you work remotely. You can convince them faster with credentials and references, but it’s harder than it used to be.

    • Eli says:

      It also seems that companies have troubles distinguishing between contractors (who are often remote in nature anyone) and on-staff employees who are remote. They equate them mentally and any negativity to one rubs onto the other.

  2. > There are so many tools & technologies that make working
    > remote so easy and effective.

    Maybe exactly that’s what they thought before. and failed.

    I’m working from home now for quite some time now and there are cases when it soooo much more effective if you can meet around a flipchart/whiteboard/… and discuss some ideas. Way better than any technology I’ve found. If all are in driving distance to an office this can be arranged easily.

    Secondly you easily miss a part of the communication happening once there’s a group working in some office and others remote. It has to be “either all remote or none” else some will miss the “kitchen talk” or “after work beer talk” which will happen, which you can’t avoid and is (like the point mentioned above) usually the most effective.

    Thirdly some people need the control “real live” seems to give them. Yes the employee is actually sitting on his desk (and playing computer games) and not out relaxing and maybe thinking 😉

    And then there’s the whole economy thing … if there are many open positions and few candidates companies are more likely to present benefits, whereas in times when a person is happy to find a job at all companies can define the rules.

    • Eli says:

      > soooo much more effective if you can meet around a flipchart/whiteboard

      I’ve worked remote for 6 years now and I completely agree. However at the same time, this level of interaction can easily be handled by an all-hands meeting, flying everyone together, once a quarter or once every couple months.

      You don’t need to be whiteboarding your future every week. In my experience at least, if you are doing that, then you aren’t working correctly, because you are adjusting your course completely too often.

      Of course that’s also part of the give/take. By allowing remote workers, you gain some efficiencies, such as the ability to have people focus better. The drawback comes at it being a little harder to do ‘whiteboarding’ sessions. Which means that you need to change a little bit how you work. Plan more upfront, let people execute, instead of replanning every day.

      > It has to be “either all remote or none” else some will miss the “kitchen talk” or “after work beer talk” which will happen

      Actually this is a very good point. You are right that people need to be ‘all remote’ or not. Well, with one variation. I’d say that people need to be ‘remote centric’. That can be accomplished by being all remote. It can also just be instilled into the culture. When I was at Digg (in the beginning), even though I was one of a few remote employees, it honestly didn’t matter, because the company had a ‘remote-centric’ culture. If any office/beer chat started, it would stop before any decisions got made, and taking to our internal IRC channel. People sat in their cubes, chatting constantly on IRC and continuously brainstorming ideas. Heck, my interaction with my peers was the same when I was in town, or not.

      But the company had to install that culture. It came with benefits for the in-office people as well, as they were free to work from home when they felt the need, and often did for off-hour pushes, flexible schedules, etc.

  3. mlemos says:

    I don’t know if you are aware, but at PHPClasses I actively do prospection of jobs that may be of greater interest of PHP developers. I have focused on prospecting remote jobs because those interest much more developers than those only targetted to developers of a certain region.

    It is true that many of the jobs that allow remote work are for partial telecommuting, as they require eventual in person meetings. But there is a regular supply of purely remote jobs as it interests you.

    Some are really for not a skilled developer as yourself, but I have seen quite a few that require advanced PHP developer skills. If you did not check before, take a look now and try to follow the RSS feed.

    http://www.phpclasses.org/jobs/

    Other than that, for me, the best way to work at home is to work full time in your own business. That requires that you take chances and build your products or services, but in my personal experience it was totally worth taking the chances. It is the only way I see preserving your life quality, being your own boss.

  4. I’ll try to give a french point of view. Here, there is a lot less remote work; it’s cultural, but there is some reasons.

    First of all, as long as the given advantages for remote workers are the same than the advantages of contractors, don’t be amazed if they are treated equally.

    Yes, alone time leads to better productivity. But this mentality shows only one thing: only the immediate completion of tasks is glorified. And it must be done by accomplished and experienced computerists.

    But in a real company, we have all sort of people. Some of them are young, some of them are experienced a lot. You know, the value of a company depends of its employees’ value. In fact, the value of a company should be greater than the sum of its employees’ value (and it should increase with time).
    To get that, you have to create a team; not only hire a bunch of workers. That means:
    1. Mix “juniors” and “seniors”. Young people would become more skilled thanks to experienced guys.
    2. Experience must be shared. If individual success and failures are discussed by the whole team, every member of the team will be more experienced. If all technical specifications are challenged by the team, you get better results.

    I hope you see my point. Even with all modern communication technologies, nothing is more efficient than a group of people in the same room, sharing their knowledge and experience, communicating face-to-face when needed. Agile methods works better in this kind of environment.

    • Eli says:

      I guess I somewhat disagree with you Amaury. Having been a 100% remote worker for 4 companies now … I’ve seen both the good and the bad.

      And I truly think that in many ways, electronic communication can be/is more efficient than face-to-face in a room.

      For one thing, when face-to-face, you can only have 1 topic being discussed sanely. And you end up wanting ‘everyone even slightly involved in that project’. So you end up with 80% of the company sitting in a room together, wasting many people’s time.

      Instead when that discussion could have been an email thread, or an IRC/Skype/etc chat, multiple conversations could be (and are) happening at the same time. All while additional tasks are being taken care of. Even the ubiquitous ‘walk down to someone’s office’, ends up wasting much of your time, the person you are interuppting, and then everyone around them who gets distracted by your conversation.

      When the entire company is connected thusly, you gain a huge benefit of being able to just snag anyone, at any time, and communicate.

      The communication is actually better, and experiences are shared much easier as well.

      • Agree to disagree.

        But… There is a mismatch between some common “pro-remote” arguments:
        1. Less communication equals less distraction equals more work done. It’s good.
        2. Walking down to someone office is intrusive and distracting. Same with phone calls.
        3. So, let’s use a forum! One thread per project, I can manage many conversations at the same time! Wonderful! I am 100% focused on my actual work, and still 100% dedicated to each thread I am participating on.

        Really? Face-to-face (one-to-one or a meeting) is a waste of time, but chatting on multiple topics like a juggler is the solution? Well…

        Nervermind. For me it’s not the most important thing.
        Like I said in my previous comment, creating a team is something special. Most of remote workers are doing their jobs like contractors: They have a task to do, they are able to do it, they do it, everybody is happy, they switch to the next task. (yeah, I know, it’s not so simple, but you see what I mean)
        The purpose of a company is to generate value. And − as I said it before − the value of a company depends of its employees’ value. People’s value raise by getting more skilled, more experienced. And the experience of a team is easily shared between its members when they spend time together. Physically. (I’m not sure to express myself clearly in english; sorry if I do mistakes)

        It’s not a shame to say it: Remote working is about workers’ comfort, which leads to better productivity, and then to better profitability.
        But many companies choose long-term value (creating an experienced team) instead of immediate short-term profitability (do the job now). It’s not a surprise, and it seems a good choice for me. Otherwise, it’s always possible to hire contractors…

        Last thought: Even 37signals guys, who are strong remote-working evangelists, are proud to say that their new office is so marvelous (some rooms for alone time, some rooms for collaboration work), more and more employees are coming there to work instead of staying at home.
        Maybe the problem is not to work in the same building, it’s the way the work itself is done. And every aspects of it are important: communication, collaboration tools (eletronics and not electronic ones), organization, distraction, adapted rooms, etc.

      • Eli says:

        I think you may have slightly missed one point of mine.

        1&2 plus 3, are not mutually exclusive, because 1&2 are not controllable when you are in an office environment. 3 is controllable. I can choose when to take time to go through email/forums/etc, plus the distraction level of background conversations like IRC, is far less (and again, ignorable) than in-office chatter.

        But I too digress 🙂

        I do believe that I’ll have to agree to disagree on the Building a Team point you have. Most of the remote work I have done, the members were definitely part of the team, and no, were not treated like contractors. The one time they were mentally treated that way, the setup failed, and yes, they would have been better off just having contractors in the first place.

        So I see remote workers as part of the team, and all the benefits you describe still happening, in the teams I’ve been involved with in the past.

  5. […] une perception un peu différente des choses, comme relaté récemment par Eli White sur son blog (Where has all the remote work gone?). J’aurais tendance à dire que les gens reviennent à la raison après une […]

  6. Where has all the remote work gone? | Eli

    […]Wow, amazing blog layout! How long have you been blogging for?[…]

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