As a long-term remote worker I’ve seen a lot of trends come and go in the world of working from home / anywhere. I’ve taken in-person roles that ended up being remote, I’ve been hired, fired and rehired in the same day because I don’t live in the right city, and I helped grow Linktree from a small 8 person engineering-led team to massive 100+ person product group.
Out of all my years of being a remote worker (13 and counting), the most interesting trend I have noticed is return to office orders. My assumption had always been that if companies saw the value in remote work they would embrace and love it, so I find the resistance to continued remote working somewhat confusing and self-defeating.
About my remote work history
At the start of my career in tech I lived and worked in Sydney. I liked house-sharing with friends, and being a young person in the city and working in tech made my life feel pretty great. I even engaged in snobby city behavior like “not crossing the bridge” for work and declined numerous interviews because the commute would exceeded 15 minutes door-to-door. Life was good, if not a little pretentious.
In 2011 a friend reached out about a technology role within his company and I decided to have some calls with the team. I was unhappy in my current role and working close to the music industry at We Are Hunted seemed like a dream. I went to two interviews and got hired in the same day, then tendered my notice to serve out a waiting period before starting my new role.
At some point during my notice period I had a hilarious conversation in which I learned that the company was not based in Sydney, but instead in Brisbane, approximately 800km away. “We’ll work it out,” was the response from the CEO. “A bunch of the team don’t come to the office much, it won’t be a problem.”
I finished out my notice period, set up my home office, flew to Brisbane for onboarding, and never looked back. The team had daily catch ups on Skype, we ran an IRC channel for chat much the same way as Slack is used today, and location was rarely an issue. I was a remote worker and I loved it.
Remote working during COVID-19
By the time Covid forced millions of people into remote working I was already a veteran. I had earned the stripe for 10,000+ hours of remote work, the stripe for being the first remote hire in an office-based team, the stripe of being rejected for roles at the final stage because someone lived in a certain city, and I was ready to take on huge challenges in technical leadership and remote teams.
Covid was the glory days for existing remote workers and a huge growing pain for new ones. But the really cool thing, for me at least, was that it was actually working. Companies that were full-time in the office were transitioning their workforce to their homes, many of them doing it with style.
Networking events and presentations went online and remote, teams started focusing on outcome and delivery as a core tenant of working (it wasn’t enough to just be in the office anymore), and companies like Slack and Zoom started taking off as work became a predominantly online affair.
So what happened? First, let’s chat about the value of being in the office.
The argument for in-person work environments
If I am going to write a fair article I need to quickly acknowledge that remote work doesn’t translate for every company. Many companies just aren’t set up for it, many jobs don’t support teams, and if you own a company and don’t want a remote team that’s actually your choice.
Imagine trying to run a coffee shop, climbing gym, or supermarket without any in-person workforce. I get it, some things work, some things don’t.
Also, remote work isn’t for everyone. Not everyone wants to work from their home or finds it productive, and not everyone is suitable for remote environments. It’s tough and not for anyone.
I also don’t think that remote teams should be remote 100% of the time. Hybrid is possible, although that’s another article as I think Hybrid is a pretty difficult ask, but I actually just mean that sanctioned on-site days and some company sessions are actually a lot of fun to run in-person.
There are loads of reasons companies or individuals want to work in-person and I support many of those reasons. But if we’re honest with ourselves about why companies are insisting on returning to the office it’s because they want control and observability over the team. Most companies, I believe, feel that they can further increase productivity and value if they could just get everyone in a room.
If not in-person, then what?
The answer to returning to the office, in my opinion at least, is to funnel that towards creating great work practices and a more flexible and inclusive workforce. Rather than going through the pain of churning staff and reforming the ones who stay, many companies will likely see a far better return on making things better for their already established remote teams.
The effort to take an existing and performing remote team and bring them into the office is likely to be quite large. There will be inevitable churn from those who are unwilling to return, office spaces will need to be set up again, coffee machines will need restocking, and all the hard work of transitioning to remote can be undone in a few short weeks.
This effort and energy can, and should, be used elsewhere: improving remote work practices.
Office perks in the tech industry are at meme levels — ping pong tables, “cool” offices, fancy ergonomic chairs, > 1:1 monitor to eyeball ratios, free snacks, and in-house chefs are all commonplace in many companies. These perks uto be a way of coaxing talent to new roles, but they’re becoming less and less a differentiator.
Whether you like remote work or not, it’s hard to ignore that flexible and remote-friendly work environments have joined the ranks. Employees enjoy the freedom of a Work From Anywhere culture (thanks Atlassian for this moniker, I love it!) and why wouldn’t they?
As a remote worker being asked to return to the office I think it’s a good time to assess whether that is what you want and making your choice your own. I’m not convinced that the tech industry is the blood bath it appears to be right now, and there are still a lot of companies supporting remote-first.
As a company considering return to office policies, I really think it’s a good time to ask yourself why it’s important. Good leadership teams and management structures should work well across boundaries and even country borders, so it’s likely a good time to look at your remote practices and ask yourself what else you could be doing instead of forcing workers back to their desks.
Ultimately remote work is always going to be down to personal preference. As a worker it can be incredibly hard being the only remote person, and as a company who wants a face to face work culture it can be hard to support remote workers. But there absolutely are remote jobs for those who want them and there will continue to be for some time.