Remote Work: Not As Simple As It Seems
I have read many misinformed and poorly conceived views on the remote work / working from home (“WFH”) debate. I tweeted about it a few times and that made me feel better for about five minutes but didn’t really solve my problem.
Framing the debate as “is working in-office better than remote work?” is hopelessly foolish. The primary determinant of success and failure is not (Jesus wept) what percentage of your staff work in the office! I can’t believe that needs to be said, but it apparently does.
Successful companies need to attract and apply people & other resources to problems and get good commercial outcomes. Transitioning to fully remote (for example) will at best be an input into that equation (e.g. affecting the ability to hire talent), and not the decisive one.
What I want to do first is talk about the two broad types of work and how these fit into the debate. Second, I want to explain why I think the in-office vs remote debate is pointless and ultimately has no meaning.
First, some qualifiers:
I worked fully remote and asynchronous for five years for an online business from 2013-2018. For three of those years I lived in Fiji with intermittent internet. Afterwards, I became an employee at a small software company, and later led a team there. During the COVID period, I led that team in a transition from in-office to fully remote and new ways of working. I am not an expert, but I have experienced both sides of the debate (WFH and in-office) from both an employee and a management perspective.
Second, some exceptions:
Roles that need to be in-person (plumbers, supermarket shelf packers, surgeons etc) are not able to be remote. Yes, they might be automated in the future, but it’s already clear there are no universal answers to the “WFH/In-Office” debate. I can’t believe that needs to be said either, but we shall continue undaunted.
Understanding Remote Work vs In-Office
The first thing to understand is that there are two types of work. “Do Tasks” (e.g. pull lever 100 times a day) vs “Seek Outcomes” (improve ROI on a marketing budget by X%). Understanding this difference is critical to understanding whether work is ideally fitted to be remote or in-office.
- These are discrete and well-defined units of work with specific outputs. Writing an article, attributing investment performance, responding to emails, reading reports, etc. If you look at the world sideways, there are a lot more Tasks than you think.
Seek Outcomes / Solve Problems
- Outcomes are more open-ended and the goal is to get a result, not to produce a specific piece of output. So if the objective is to acquire 100 customers, how do you do that? Well you could cold-call, advertise on Google, make a Youtube channel, set up a billboard, distribute flyers, etc.
- When Seeking Outcomes, you are more likely to run into cross-disciplinary challenges (e.g. distributing flyers might require marketing and design disciplines). Remember this point, we will return to it later.
Many roles combine elements of both. An investment analyst does tasks (“listen to a conference call”, “update this model”) and seeks outcomes (“find good investments”, “evaluate a situation on the balance of probabilities considering known & unknown information”). Depending on experience and seniority, analysts might lean more towards doing tasks (updating models) or seeking outcomes (finding good stocks to buy).
Most roles lean predominantly one way or another.
Task-focused roles: Remote
Task-focused roles with clear expectations and measurable outputs are more likely suitable for remote work. This frees up productivity and requires clear expectations which reduces friction. If your daily target is respond to 100 emails and you can do that in three hours while maintaining quality, why wouldn’t you? Why commute and spend nine hours at a desk when you could work intensely and asynchronously for three for the same outcome?
People are capable of considerably more when incentivised in the right way. While roles typically lean one way, often the tasks are attached to the outcomes so it’s not easy to achieve a clear split. The potential gains here make reviewing this worthwhile, but that process is outside the scope of this discussion.
Outcome-focused roles: In-Office
Outcome/Problem -focused roles are more likely suitable for in-office work, especially if they need multidisciplinary skills. Here it’s important to have a well-aligned and tight-knit team that knows each other well, understands their strengths and weaknesses. Teammates will watch each other working and iterate based on new learnings and inputs disseminating throughout the organisation.
I only have software examples to draw on, which is a bit limiting. For example this might be highlighting misconceptions that users are forming about the product based on market/user research. The solutions might be better messaging & positioning, requiring a combination of design, marketing, product & engineering.
I firmly believe that both types of role can be used effectively both in-office or remote. In practice, decisions depend the type of work being done, the culture of the company, the pace of iteration, and a whole host of other variables. If you go fully remote, you need to grow new organisational muscles to maintain org culture, coherence and alignment and reduce silo-ing, but so what? Doing that is not any harder than any other challenge an organisation will run into.
Shared resources vs cross-functional teams vs siloed teams
These nuances are further complicated by whether you are a shared resource, part of a crossfunctional team, or if you are part of a “siloed” team.
- Shared resources are centralised services like analytics and design or studio work. Projects might not require a full-time designer for example and so these teams perform ad-hoc projects and requests as they come up. Requests are a lot closer to task work (and thus might be tempting to have remote) but the work can be highly technical and require significant collaboration.
- Crossfunctional teams are more-or-less self contained teams of professionals that can drive part of a business forward with minimal dependencies. There might be an engineer, product manager, marketing, and SEO expert in order to create and iterate rapidly with a self-contained feedback loop. Best practice in the technology industry is for these teams to work very closely together. The crucial ingredient here is not physical proximity but mental proximity, i.e. a very high level of collaboration & alignment of the team.
- Siloed teams are where teams are aligned by function (all the marketing people on one team, engineers on another team, all the analysts on a third, etc). Everyone is essentially a shared service of everyone else. I have an opinion on this structure, but I have limited experience with it so I will avoid commenting.
So we can again see that depending on the team & org structure, the nature of the work, and the level of collaboration required, there’s no obvious answer to “is remote work better than in-office”.
Why the in-office vs remote work debate is ultimately meaningless
The core, existential question of most companies is “how do we sell products people want” (and be ~financially sustainable). The bottom line is always the same. Companies exist to make things people want. The right question is never “should our staff be remote or in office?”.
The better question is something like: “Based on the constraints & opportunities we face, what is the best incremental decision to take in light of new information [COVID & subsequent surge of remote work] that will optimise our ability to deliver things people want?”
To be fair, it is a lot easier to just ask “why can’t people work from home” but if I thought that question would get you a useful answer I wouldn’t have written this post.
Every organisation and team within an organisation needs a “north star” metric or goal. Whether this is customers acquired or 5-star ratings in the app store or number of levers pulled or whatever, goals keep the organisation focused. You can then make “ways of working” decisions to optimise your ability to deliver those goals. Without a clear reference point for decisions, your thought process will be woolly and ill-defined. Exactly like most of the media coverage on remote work.
Don’t make organisational decisions based on tripe you read on the internet (this post included). Take a detailed look at the environment & how the company operates:
- What is the goal
- What is the current state of affairs
- Considering opportunities & obstacles, what is the desired future state
- How will you get there, accounting for all of the constraints specific to your role and organisation?
The battle lines are not drawn around what percentage of your staff works in an office. The dividing line between success and failure is always the organisation’s ability to apply resources to commercial problems. Remote work is at best an input into this process.
Do you want my personal opinion? Remote work is great. If you get a chance, do it, especially if it comes with autonomy over your time. There is nothing better than getting up early, doing a day’s work in 4-5 hours and then going to the beach. Doing all the household chores during the week is a recipe for great evenings and weekends.
By comparison, when leading a team or trying to push a business forward, you need to be “closely aligned” with your team. Whether that’s in person or not is immaterial. In-office, remote, or hybrid working are just tools that can be used to achieve desirable outcomes.
Yes, it is interesting that my view as a manager is different than my view as an employee.
And yes, it’s more complicated than what people write on the internet.