A Year of Working Remotely
It’s been exactly one year since I joined InVision, and after learning the ropes of remote work at an 800+ person all-remote company, I wanted to share some thoughts on how placelessness may affect the way we work in the future.
First, let’s dispense with the easy part: despite what you may read on Twitter, remote work is neither the greatest thing in the world nor the worst. We are not moving to a world where offices go completely away, nor are we going through some sort of phase where remote work will eventually prove to be a giant waste of time. In other words, it’s complicated.
The way to look at remote work is that it’s a series of tradeoffs. You enjoy benefits in exchange for disadvantages. The uptake of remote work over the next decade will depend most on the minimization of those disadvantages rather than the maximization of the benefits. Reason being, the benefits are already substantial while many of the disadvantages will be lessened over time with technology and process improvements.
Instead of writing about the advantages and disadvantages separately, I’m going to cover several aspects of remote work and discuss the tradeoffs involved with each.
There is a certain amount of “overhead” involved in having an office job. You usually need to wake up at least an hour or two before the workday begins, put yourself together (often a much more arduous process for women because of the gender-specific norms we’ve set up), commute to work, and any number of other things involved in just getting to your desk every day. Then, when the day is over, you often do the same thing in reverse. To make things easy, let’s call this 90 minutes on each end. That’s an extra 15 hours a week! For reference, there are days when I wake up 10 minutes before my first meeting of the day and it’s no problem at all.
Lopping that 15 hours off is probably the part of remote work that is the most unconditionally positive. You could try and rationalize your commute by saying it’s when you catch up on all of your great podcasts or whatever, but you don’t need an actual commute to do that. You could spend that time in the morning on a walk and then go for a run in the evening and it would be a lot healthier.
Math-wise, if you assume that most employers do not consider overhead time as part of the ~40 hours you’re getting paid for, working remotely can reduce your true work week by about 27%. If you already work remotely and you were to consider taking a traditional job again, you’d be agreeing to a whopping 37.5% longer week!
Anecdotally, I’ve heard that some people actually do miss their commutes and in some cases have set up “fake commutes” for themselves. They’ll wake up, drive 5 minutes to the coffee shop for an espresso, and then drive back. I do this occasionally, but it’s just for the coffee.
The advantages of remote work get less clear when you evaluate your “daily habitat”. If you compare a Google office, for instance — full of perks like on-site massage therapists, crepe stations, and basketball courts — to a tiny apartment shared with two roommates and a screaming baby, I bet most people would choose the Google office. On the other extreme though, what if you compare a cramped office with poor ergonomics and bad lighting with a comfortable home on a ranch with alpacas and a nice fish pond out back? In other words, there are a wide range of variables that will determine whether your home office habitat is more enjoyable than an office would be.
If you asked me “would the average tech worker living in San Francisco prefer to work from home, in San Francisco” I would probably say no, due to the combination of office perks and small living quarters. If you asked me the same question but for Denver, I might say yes. We have a lot of people at InVision who have traded cramped, overpriced apartments in tech hubs for more comfortable situations across the country and the world. This seems like it will be a common outcome in the near future.
So… in order to answer the question of whether you’d like office life better than home office life, you need to ask “what is the office like” and “what would my home office be like”?
On the question of how optimal your home office would be, I can’t really say I’ve nailed this yet, much to the chagrin of my wife. I take video calls from all around the house, and I can see how that would be highly inconvenient for everyone else in the house. If your work activity is limited to one room, the rest of the house remains off-microphone and off-camera. I need to get better at this and stop taking so many meetings from the living room couch.
InVision also issues everyone $100 auto-refilled coffee cards every month to encourage people to change up their surroundings frequently. While I take advantage of this once or twice a week, I also don’t want to be the person in the coffee shop loudly conducting their business in public every day.
The aspect of remote work I was probably least excited about was video meetings. I’ve never been big on video calls in general (even personal ones), and all of the video conferencing I’ve done in the past has been rocky. Flaky connections, unwieldy software, and uneven power dynamics have generally made for a poor experience.
Happily, however, internet connections have gotten more reliable, and with Zoom, the software is pretty good now too. As for the power dynamics, that’s where working at an all-remote company has helped tremendously. Instead of 9 people in a room together, reading each other’s body language, and one person halfway across the world stuck behind a screen, everyone is in the same boat. It’s a nice equalizer. In fact, during one conversation we were having around inclusion, a couple of people cited videoconferencing as one of the big reasons they felt more empowered in meetings. Since everyone is just a postage stamp sized video on everyone else’s screen, there is very little raising of voices or aggressive body language. It’s harder for one or two people to dominate conversations this way. It’s a rare instance of a technology’s shortcomings providing an accidental benefit.
I will say this about video meetings though: I have a very hard and sudden limit I reach with them. My first hour or two of video meetings every day are a joy. But the days when I have to do 4 or 5 hours on Zoom, it gets tedious. This is not the case for me with in-person meetings. I feel like in an office full of people you genuinely enjoy, sitting down in a conference room or taking a walk with them is refreshing. It’s part of what makes office life enjoyable… for me at least!
I think the evolution and improvement of video meetings — especially in remote work situations — is going to be a huge lever in pushing companies towards more remote work over the next decade. Although video meetings aren’t nearly as bad as they once were, there is a LONG way to go here. I’m sure in the next several years, we’ll see things like three-dimensional holograms and other stuff that will blow our minds.
One other thing about meetings in remote companies: working remotely has made me realize how unimportant and ritualized so many meetings are. Often times, I will get 90% of the way through scheduling a meeting in Google Calendar only to ask myself “can’t we just update each other on this project throughout the week via Slack?” Even staff meetings seem unnecessary sometimes.
Countries and Time Zones
One of my favorite things about working at an entirely remote company is interacting with people from entirely different cultures every day. Over the past year, my team has included people from Washington, California, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Israel, Colorado, New Jersey, Australia, Spain, England, Mexico, Germany, and the Fake Washington… and that’s just my direct team. The rest of the company employs people from almost every continent. Although we are all still subject to our natural bubbles associated with tech work, it’s great to work with people outside your culture on a daily basis. We even have an ordained rabbi on our team, who leads our education programs!
There are challenges with hiring and getting hired internationally though. The first is local employment laws. It’s much easier to hire people in a country if you’ve officially set up a corporate entity there. That’s a bit of work. Even if you’ve set up an entity, it’s also a bunch of work making sure you are in compliance with local laws because they differ so greatly across the world. As a small example, even though we have an unlimited vacation policy that doesn’t require documentation in the United States, there are some countries where employees must enter all time off requests into a system; not because we want them to, just because laws require it. It’s a bit easier to hire people on contract in countries where you don’t have an entity set up, but there are downsides to that too. The bottom line is: even in all-remote global companies, it’s going to be easier to employ people in some countries than others.
Time zones are another challenge, and it’s almost all downside there. The simplest rule of thumb is that the further away people are, the more challenging it’s going to be to coordinate with them. I would consider our “fairly convenient time zones” to be everything from PDT to GMT. Anything outside of that and you are getting into territory where people may need to shift their work days a bit in order to accommodate the rest of the company. For instance, the person on my team who works from Israel actually time-shifts his day so that he works from 4pm to about 12 or 1am (local time), and that’s the way he likes it. He spends the first half of his waking hours with his family and the last half at work. Kind of a swing shift. It’s also doubly hard for people in managerial roles to be outside of core time zones.
Connection to Teammates
It’s a privileged thing to be able to say, but almost everywhere I’ve worked as an adult, I’ve felt a strong connection to my teammates. When you are fortunate enough to work in a field that you love, in an industry that’s booming, around people who share similar goals as you, you can’t help but feel like you have a second family at times. I know there are a lot of people who say the whole family metaphor of work is wrong and exploitative, but I believe in it in some situations. While I do believe that an employer can attempt to trick you into thinking you’re family in order to keep you loyal, I’ve also been in plenty of situations where my team DID in fact act like a family; looking out and sacrificing for each other, spending time with one another outside of work, and just generally helping each other through a lot of tough shit.
While it may not be “family” in the genetic sense of the word, going on stressful missions with people is bonding in a very similar sense. Every win and every loss brings you closer. I feel a sense of closeness with my old team at Twitter, for instance, that I’ve never felt with most other people in my life.
While I love the ~800 people I work remotely with at InVision, it feels different than what I’ve experienced in the past. On the one hand, I am in awe that I get to work with amazing people from Australia, Europe, Africa, Asia, and both Americas every day; people who I would never have even met if the company was headquartered in Seattle or San Francisco. But on the other hand, I’m only interacting with two-dimensional electronic representations of them on a daily basis.
Once a year, the entire company gets together for a week and it’s fantastic to see everyone in-person. In addition to that, between smaller team get-togethers and one-off work trips that I take, I probably see at least one teammate a month… sometimes many more.
I’m able to cope with having predominantly digital relationships during the day because I have a healthy social life outside of work, but if I didn’t, it might be rough. A lot of people look to office life for a good percentage of their real human interaction every day, and if you’re one of those people, I could see remote life being not fun at all.
Even though we have tools like Slack to help us keep up with what all of our teammates are doing, it’s different than being in a building together. It’s better the more independently you can work, but it’s worse if you need to be in communication with teammates for most of the day.
Importantly, this is also one of the reasons why it’s risky hiring junior people into remote roles. We tend to hire the most experienced people we can find, because in a remote company, you have to be able to paddle your own boat most of the time.
I do worry that if it is true, it may have a negative effect on our ability to coach up the next generation of designers, engineers, and other knowledge workers. In other words, a world in which every company works 100% remotely is probably a world which is less hospitable to people just starting out. There is no substitute for in-person tutelage.
I’ve spent a long time thinking about whether remote work is more or less productive than in-person work, and I can’t say I know for sure either way. The complete answer is probably “it depends”, but my gut is that remote work is probably “almost” as productive as in-person work, hour-for-hour. In some cases, it may be 50% as productive and in other cases, it might be 200%, but if you told me the average was like 90%, I’d believe you. This number, however, is based on if you had the same group of people in one room together vs. across the world. Part of the beauty of remote work is that you have access to people you’d never have access to if you required they live in a certain city.
Let’s say, for instance, that you wanted to start a tech company in Lebanon, Kansas — the geographic center of the contiguous United States. You’d be hard pressed to find 20 A+ designers, engineers, and other employees crucial to your success (sorry Lebanon, nothing against you!). If you started your company in Lebanon and hired remotely though, you could hire top talent from all around the world.
This has interesting implications for SF and other tech hubs vs. the world. People in SF would tell you they would still have the talent advantage over you because they can hire A+ talent AND co-locate everyone together. This may be true right now, but a) it’s very expensive, and b) it may not be as true in the future when living in SF becomes even more cramped than it already is.
In terms of being super-productive in remote environments, the biggest lever is to work as asynchronously as possible. Carve off large chunks of work that you can do on your own without having to check in every hour or even every day. For design reviews, do some of them over video, but collect as much feedback via asynchronous comments as you can.
I’ve spoken with several startups over the last few months who are trying to make remote work more productive, so I expect a lot of innovation here shortly. I’ve begun using Navigator to help with my meetings, but there’s a lot more that will be done in this space.
The thing that has taken the most getting used to at an all-remote company is all of the communication that gets done over Slack. To be perfectly honest, I am not sure if Slack has made me more or less productive. It is likely that it has had effects in both directions.
On the positive side, it’s a very well-designed product for what it does and it makes non-face-to-face communication a snap. If you want to have a sporadic conversation with multiple people over the course of hours, it’s great for that. If you want to chat quickly with someone, it’s also great for that. If you want to broadcast interesting things to channels that the whole company can view and participate in, it’s great for that too.
On the negative side, it does feel like a second inbox to me. It also feels like an excuse not to document decisions properly. One of my least favorite workflows in Slack is:
- Chat with Sara, David, Rachel, and Frank about something for awhile.
- Make a decision at some point and stop chatting.
- Wake up days or weeks later and wonder what became of that thing you were talking about.
Did the thing actually get done? Did you have an action item? Where is that conversation again? Was it with Sara, David, and Rachel? Or David, Rachel, and Frank?
I think Slack as a tool has the same core problem that Twitter has: it’s too easy to use it in a way that isn’t helpful. I think Slack has done a good job of trying to lightly push you in healthy directions, but I still haven’t had the aha moment where I couldn’t imagine my life without it. Often I do imagine my life without it, in fact.
To Slack’s credit, I think they provide a service that is so flexible that it’s really up to you and your company to use it in a way that adds the most value. I think if you visited the company with the worst Slack hygiene in the world, you would be appalled, but if you visited the company with the best Slack hygiene in the world, you would be beyond amazed. Stripe, for instance, maintains good hygiene by automatically deleting all Slack messages older than, I believe, six weeks. I really like this policy. It forces you to use Slack as a conversation medium and not a system of record.
The two things you want most in a job are impact and happiness. While I’m very happy myself, I can absolutely see why remote work is not for everyone. Building on the aspects above, the three factors I think would most determine happiness are:
- The qualities of your home-office habitat.
- The qualities of your company’s office habitat.
- What sort of human interaction you want/need from co-workers on a daily basis.
You probably need at least two of those things to fall in your favor to enjoy your chosen path. Additionally, all three could change at any time, and the second one is very dependent on what company you’re talking about.
I think another important factor in determining happiness is how hard of a line you want between work and home life. One benefit of traditional office environments is that when you physically leave the office, it’s not too hard to flip the switch and go into “home mode”. Sure you may have to deal with the odd email every now and then, but it’s relatively straightforward to set up the work/home boundary. In remote life, it’s not always as easy. Personally, I am ok with this, as I would happily trade several hours of evening or weekend work for the ability to take off and go on a two-hour run in the middle of the day if I don’t have any meetings.
Whether individuals are better suited for co-located or remote work, one thing that seems like a happy medium is offering employees the ability to work from home a lot more often. For instance, a workweek that included Mondays and Fridays as home days and Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays as office days would be fantastic. You’d get the benefit of everyone being available for face-to-face time three days in a row, but you’d also reduce commutes and potentially lengthen weekends. A lot of companies are already doing this for one day a week, but in many cases, two would be even better.
While hybrid setups like this will become more popular, it’s also pretty clear that more companies will try the all-remote route. In addition to advancements in collaboration and telepresence technologies, I imagine there will be entire companies set up around helping organizations work remotely. I could see something like Stripe Atlas addressing this opportunity directly. Just enabling companies to pay employees across many different countries is an entire company in itself.
I also wonder what other innovations we will see in co-working spaces. Although InVision offers co-working space in several cities, I don’t make use of it myself, so my experience with them is limited. I’ve talked to people who love co-working spaces and also people who hate them. Seems like there’s a big opportunity to create more cross-pollination between companies in the same co-working space. One of the surest ways to dream up new ideas is to mix with people who are nothing like you, and co-working spaces of the future could be one such way of doing just that.
Finally, I’m excited for more best practices to emerge around remote work. I still feel like we are all casting about in the dark a bit. We’re making it work, but are we as efficient and effective as we could be? Surely not. I haven’t gotten a chance to dig into 37Signals’ “Shape Up” yet, but I’m thinking something like that but specifically geared around collaborating remotely. Someone will write the book on this, and it will do extremely well. Additionally, it will need to be updated every year because of how swiftly remote work is progressing.
It’s been an exciting year learning to work in this new, distributed way. I can’t say for sure that I’ll be working 100% remotely for the rest of my life, but it does seem difficult to imagine going completely back to full-time office life.