Since mid-March, in order to give tools to people starting working remotely, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson offered to refund their book “Remote: Office not required” to anyone who purchased it. We’ve summarized this book if you didn’t get the chance to buy it.
Our mustread will help you managing remote workers, which may seem difficult to those who are used to seeing their employees work in 9-to-5 schedules at the office. But in fact, managing remote workers is more effective as it is about the work and nothing but the work! Remote: Office Not Required (2013) targets all managers—‘old-school’ as well as ‘enlightened’ ones—in an effort to convince them that remote work is a trend they should embrace. The book is full of practical and valuable HR advice. In a world where remote work is gaining quick momentum, can managers still afford to ignore it?
Remote is Fried and Hansson’s second bestselling how-to opus
The authors of Rework (2010) and Remote (2013) are also the founders of the web-based software firm Basecamp, founded in 1999 in Chicago. With Remote, they gave themselves another opportunity to promote Basecamp, their project-management tool designed to help people work more effectively.
The book may be related to the authors’ business, it is nevertheless a useful management book. They draw from their own work experience: as founders of 37signals (Basecamp), they have had first-hand experience with working, hiring and managing remote. Their advice is of value, regardless of the book’s ‘product-placement’ design. It is probably even more relevant today as many new collaborative tools are now on the market. The book was published in 2013, more than one year before the launch of Slack, three years before Facebook developed Workplace and Microsoft rolled out Teams. If anything Fried and Hansson’s book makes even more sense now that their product has been made a bit redundant!
Increasingly Jason Fried and David Heinemeier’s work is about giving management and productivity advice as much as it is about developing productivity software. And the fact is, they’re quite good at it: Jason Fried’s blog about collaboration, productivity and the nature of work is as popular as ever.
Remote’s essential message is that remote work comes with numerous benefits: access to the best talent, freedom from commutes, and mostly increased productivity outside the traditional office, whose days of glory are now clearly in the past.
The time for remote work has come
Work doesn’t happen at work:
“The office during the day has become the last place people want to be when they really want to get work done (…). That’s because offices have become interruption factories”.
The creative workers who fuel our digital economy—developers, writers, designers, etc—need long stretches of time to accomplish valuable work. Instead their workday is often “shredded into work moments”.
Technology has made working remotely decidedly easier. Basecamp was among the first collaborative tools developed to enable remote workers to work together. But each year more tools have been added to the list: Dropbox, Google Doc, Google Hangout, Skype, Slack, WebEx, Facebook Workplace, Microsoft Teams, etc. There is very little that can’t be done remotely! These new tools make asynchronous collaboration possible: not only do people no longer have to be in the same spot but they don’t even have to work at the same time anymore. No set schedule is necessary: a good remote work policy accommodates people in different time zones, also night owls, early birds and family folks…
Meanwhile as real estate has become more expensive in the most dynamic urban centres where creative workers flock, more workers have been sentenced to increasingly long commutes. On average, workers lose roughly 400 hours a year commuting, which represents a lot of wasted time for the businesses that employ them. Commutes make people stressed and miserable. They destroy motivation and productivity.
In the future the big city could lose its monopoly as the original talent hub. “Not everyone wants to move to San Francisco”. In places like San Francisco, job hopping in the norm: workers tend to think the grass is always greener somewhere else. Whereas talented people who are allowed to work remotely in areas that are less dense, like Idaho or Utah, tend to remain more loyal to the companies that employ them.
Fundamentally, it’s not about the money! More and more workers seek a higher quality of life, flexibility and fulfilling work. And more and more employers find it harder to have access to all the talented workers they need to hire. For both remote work is a solution worth exploring.
Letting go of no good excuses
The authors debunk a series of arguments usually put forward by those who oppose the idea of implementing remote work. Here are a few of the most common ones:
- “Magic only happens when we’re all in a room”: in fact, big ideas are not that common and they require serious follow-up. Making in-person meetings more rare only makes them more precious.
- “If I can’t see them, how do I know they’re working?”: many workers develop cunning strategies to pretend to be working while at the office. There’s no guarantee of productivity, but a lack of trust is certainly toxic for productivity. Most people want to work, as long as the work is stimulating and fulfilling.
- “Who will answer the phones?”: different employees in different time zones or with different schedules can cover all the “shifts” to answer customers. It requires good coordination.
- “Others would get jealous”: this is a common excuse used by reluctant managers. If some jobs are indeed not a good fit for remote execution, why should everyone in the organisation work the same way? People do understand that different jobs come with different requirements.
- “What about culture?”: culture is often presented as the “fun” people have together, but it is really all “the spoken and unspoken values and actions” of the organisation. You don’t need everyone physically together to create a strong culture. “Having people work remotely forces you to forgo the illusion that building a company culture is just about in-person social activities”.
- “I need an answer now”: it takes some adjusting to realise that not every question needs an immediate answer. Emails are good enough for most questions. Instant messages are for urgent messages. And the telephone can be used for crisis-mode live-or-die questions. And fewer interruptions will mean higher productivity. “Breaking your and others’ addiction to ASAP won’t come without withdrawal”.
How to collaborate remotely
To be successful, teams of remote workers need a series of tools and common-sense principles, which the authors try to list. Here are the most critical ones:
- “Thou shalt overlap”: there ought to be some overlap with the hours the co-workers put in. Ideally 4 hours of overlap are necessary to avoid excessive collaboration delays and still feel like a team.
- “Seeing is believing”: it’s now so simple to share a screen with tools such as WebEx, Join,me, GoToMeeting… It’s like sitting next to each other in front of the same screen! Except it’s just about the work.
- “All out in the open”: important documents should not be locked up in one person’s inbox but should be out in the open. Dropbox, GitHub, etc. are all about making them available for everyone to see.
- “The virtual water cooler”: “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”; it’s essential to provide a chat room where everyone can goof around, share cat pictures, talk politics and connect the way they would around the water cooler at the office.
- “The work is what matters”: with remote workers, only the work itself can be the yardstick to judge someone’s performance. Politics and personality come second.
- “Easy on the M&Ms”: the further away you are from meetings and managers (M&Ms), the more work can get done. Meetings should be regarded as a “rare delicacy”.
Hiring and keeping the best
Being able to recruit beyond one’s geographic area is an excellent way to extend the talent pool and grow a more diverse staff to tackle global markets. It’s also a good way to keep talent: sometimes people want to move even if they love their jobs. Those workers who have been with the company for a long time make the best remote workers: they know the culture, the team, the requirements… Why let them go?
It’s wrongly assumed that the human connection matters less when it comes to hiring remote workers. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s even more important to survive the distance. Relations can be difficult without the face-to-face. Remote work requires people with a lot of common sense, goodwill, benevolence, patience… No “asshole-y” behaviour can be allowed. The bad vibes would jeopardise teamwork.
Recruiting can’t be based on ‘parlor tricks’. One’s ability to solve bogus puzzles is not correlated to one’s ability to solve real problems at work. So looking at the work is the best recruiting method. The best way to do that is to start with a test project. Pre-hiring can take the form of a one- or two-week mini-project. Remote workers should also be good writers as being a good writer is an essential part of being a good remote worker. The cover letter can be used as the first recruiting filter. Only after all that is sorted does meeting in person become relevant.
Workers who live far from the big city should not be paid less! “Equal pay for equal work” is not just a universal claim, it’s also a sound HR policy to make talented individuals loyal to the company.
Managing remote workers
In general, it’s best to start going remote as early as possible in the life of your company. It’s a lot easier if your company culture is defined by remote workers. But otherwise a good place to start is to allow your current employees to begin working remotely a few days a week. Tiny steps are best.
When it comes to managing the workers, it’s no longer possible to just “manage the chairs”: it’s all about the work and nothing but the work, so to effectively manager a team, some knowledge of the work itself is required. Managers should be able to understand why delays might happen, be creative with solutions to sticky problems, be able to divide the work into manageable chunks, etc.
Many precious lessons can be drawn from the world of open source.
What the success of open source demonstrates is the power of intrinsic motivation. Programmers do it for love, not money!
All roadblocks should be removed for work to be effective. Remote workers should not be treated like second-class citizens but be empowered to ‘sit at the table’ (figuratively), have a voice, make decisions… By default every worker should be given access to everything they need. Mistakes will happen and that’s ok: they’re the price of learning and self-sufficiency.
“In reality, it’s overwork, not underwork, that’s the real enemy in a successful remote-working environment”, especially with teams across multiple time zones. For remote workers the line between work and leisure are completely blurred. It’s everyone’s responsibility to check work doesn’t become all-consuming. Otherwise burnout is a risk. Long term, the best workers are people who put in reasonable hours. 40 hours a week is a reasonable and sustainable average.
Being a remote worker
Remote workers have freedom and flexibility. Without boundaries and routines, life can get difficult at times. Most people need some kind of routine. Therefore it’s critical to figure out ways to demarcate work and fun: separate devices, separate room, routines and rituals…
Remote work isn’t black or white: there are many hybrid forms that can be preferred, like mornings at home and afternoons at the office, or three days at home and two days in the office. For those who don’t have an office, coffee shops and coworking spaces can be good places to work and stay motivated.
Changes of scenery lead to new ideas. More perspectives on a problem make it easier to solve it. Work-life balance and increased family time make workers more well-rounded and healthier. Ultimately they’re better at work too.
For remote work, the tipping point is coming. The old office is clearly on the decline.
Illustration : Pablo Grand Mourcel