Our remote work future is going to suck

Why are we always assuming a distributed workforce is a good thing for the worker?

Our remote work future is going to suck

As COVID-19 continues to alter the way we live, there is a scramble to predict what our “new normal” will look like. After the virus fades away or, God help us, becomes a constant in our day-to-day life for years to come, which change brought on by the pandemic will stick?

There is one consensus prediction that is emerging, especially among knowledge workers and those in tech: The distributed workforce is here to stay. And, furthermore, this change is a good thing for workers and welcomed by all.

To which I say: Um, have you ever worked remotely?

I have understood and enjoyed the perks of working remotely before. From 2009 to 2016 I wrote about entrepreneurs and creatives, many of whom were early proponents of remote work. And from 2017 to 2019, I worked remotely for a small, privately-owned e-learning company and then a 1000-employee SaaS company.

While the upsides to remote work are true, for many people remote work is a poison pill — one where you are given “control” in the name of productivity in exchange for some pretty nasty long-term effects.

In reality, remote work makes you vulnerable to outsourcing, reduces your job to a metric, creates frustrating change-averse bureaucracies, and stifles your career growth. The lack of scrutiny our remote future faces is going to result in frustrated workers and ineffective companies.

Let’s tackle these issues one at a time.

Remote work “democratizes talent” for everyone. Even you.

In May 2020, a Gartner blog post summarized a common argument in favor of remote work: “Democratizing access to resources lowers the barriers to innovation and enables everybody to partake in the ensuing prosperity.” Not everyone can (or wants to) live in an urban commercial hub. Remote work, the thinking goes, allows people to live in whatever environment they’d like — depending on their own circumstances.

These remote technology jobs don’t just go to a version of you living on a cute farm in the Hudson Valley. Those jobs go to anyone, anywhere.

This is good for global prosperity and perhaps arguably inevitable. However, if you’re working in technology today as an American, you have tremendous earning potential. This earning potential may not be possible forever. It’s baffling to me that American workers would cheer an acceleration of this trend that would place downward pressure on their wages.

When you, the American worker, share this belief you are being blinded by an erroneous belief in American exceptionalism. When your company goes all-remote, it is starting a clock that ends in you eventually competing with the global talent market — especially if travel and visas continue to be restricted by the federal government.

A tech optimist will likely (and correctly) point out that more innovation and new technologies will replace any outsourced jobs. While my academic brain wants that to be true, I can’t help but see the devastating effects globalization had to our manufacturing workers and communities — many of which have never recovered or benefited from new innovations.

Innovation in the American economy didn’t get transferred one-to-one. Every manufacturing worker did not suddenly receive a tech job. Every technology worker outsourced will not receive the benefit of the next wave of innovation directly.

Remote enables you to be forgotten

Remote work advocates often praise the focus that remote work enables. No longer will you be judged by the time you spend at the office, they say, you’ll instead be judged and rewarded on whether you “get things done.”

These “benefits” are always used to sell remote work to an imagined audience of Dilbert-like cubicle dwellers who are imprisoned and subjected by annoying coworkers and an oppressive boss. The key to freedom, they say, is to work remotely. Basecamp co-founder Jason Fried writes in Remote:

What you're left with is "what did this person actually do today?" Not "when did they get in?" or "how late did they stay?" Instead it's all about the work produced. So instead of asking a remote worker "what did you do today?" you can now just say, "Show me what you did today." As a manager, you can directly evaluate the work--the thing you're paying this person for--and ignore all the stuff that doesn't actually matter.

First, being more productive isn’t the only goal of working, but let’s put that to the side. Second, Fried is right, you do gain a bit of freedom from your boss (which doubles as a loss of a mentor, but we’ll get to that). You also gain “freedom” from your colleagues and collaborators. Which means you’re effectively on your own.

This is empowering to some, but the isolation can mean your contributions are easily overlooked or misunderstood. As a result, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend at (especially larger) remote companies: Some managers often have no clue what their direct reports are doing and how they are doing it.

Performance reviews are difficult enough under normal circumstances. But how do you judge someone when you can only see their output and never their process? Marketers, project managers, product managers, growth marketers, and others spend their days supporting or maintaining existing things.  

This a difficult problem that predates any shift to remote work. But when applied to remote work, a manager loses several of the inputs needed to judge a direct report’s output — including, yes, who is physically (and mentally) present when actual work is being done. But also: Do the other team members appear to enjoy working with this person? And, if they are struggling, is it due to a lack of effort/focus or something outside of their control?

Employees who “do the right thing” spending extra time and energy supporting their teammates receive absolutely no recognition for doing the little things needed for a smooth-running, collaborative organization. It’s usually a quantifiable fact whether a sales departments reaches their goals. It’s not as clear that the social media manager had a good quarter.

With the removed context of a real-life office, your team’s output is difficult to individualize for your manager — especially if work is done in private DMs or one-on-one Zoom calls. The manager sees the end product with no visibility as to who did what, who pulled their weight, who made tough choices, and who made things more difficult. This has a nasty side effect of the leader viewing you less as a person who they have to empathize with and understand — and more as a talking head on a Zoom call or Slack who does things for them.

This will cause your work to “flatten.” Whatever soft skills you bring to the table will be minimized when working remotely. This will lead to companies and processes relying less on things like creativity and collaboration and more on simple inputs and outputs. Which, again, makes your work easier to outsource.

We bemoan the loss of empathy and context created by solely getting our news and interacting via social media … and we then turn around and set up our working lives in their image.

This has a pronounced effect in large organizations.

Remote work breaks large companies

Remote work supporters often return to the “interruption culture” at an IRL office as an argument for distributed work. First, clearly people that believe remote work creates an interruption-free zone have never used Slack or email. Second, those interruptions often exist for a reason: They often communicate information that ensures everyone is working on the right thing.

For companies that have strong product/market fit, have reached scale, and have a clear product roadmap, remote works swimmingly. A distraction-free environment means everyone can focus on “what matters” because “what matters” has been clear and consistent.  

But what happens when “what matters” changes?

Because it will. Eventually, the market shifts. There’s a competitor or a Black Swan-style event in the industry (like, say, a global pandemic). Suddenly the well-oiled machine needs to adapt and change course. For companies larger than 100 people, this is tremendously difficult in an in-person environment. Working remote, it’s damn near impossible. Twice-a-year in-person meetups are not enough to disseminate brand new strategies.

And I'd bet that as formerly IRL companies go remote, it will have a negative effect on their ability to iterate and adjust to market conditions making them vulnerable for a smaller, co-located upstart.

Remote work can stifle your career growth

Think back to your first job in your current field. I’d bet there is a person or group of people who were tremendously important in shaping your career. They gave you candid advice and were able to passively observe and critique your behavior.

When you work remotely, mentorship is stifled because there is no learning via osmosis. You can’t model your behavior on your successful teammates because you only see them on Zoom and in Slack. Whatever process they are using to achieve their results is opaque to you.

Much of the language used around remote work (and remote events) assumes that one is in the mid-to-late stages of their career. When you’re young, you don’t need “focus” or to “get things done.” You need exposure to new ideas and people. You need the serendipitous fortune of sitting in on the right meeting, attending the right happy hour, or earning the respect of the right observer.

All of the above is more difficult in a remote environment. As a result, we are in danger of having a generation of new knowledge workers who are never properly onboarded and hastily told to work remotely with nothing but an OKR to chase. They have no context for how to do all of the messy office-ready skills like building consensus, having productive disagreements, and advocating for their ideas.

Additionally, the professional bonds created in the early parts of your career end up becoming a large fraction of your total professional network. That’s the group of people who will stay in touch with you as you develop and those are the people most likely to share new opportunities with you.

Most people praising remote work tend to focus on the “convenience” for this reason. They talk about no commutes and spending more time with their families. These are worthy lifestyle benefits! But you rarely hear a remote work proponent share how they’ve maximized earnings, career growth, and influence because of remote work. Sometimes, people want to “go for it”. And most executives at these remote companies often made their money and network working in-person at a prestigious technology or financial company.

This, again, allows the work of an individual contributor (i.e. disproportionately people new to the industry) of a technology company to be minimized, un-mentored, and oftentimes forgotten. It’s the Mechanical Turk-ziation of white-collar work.

The blind spots of remote work advocates

Those boosting remote work are often not entirely straightforward about their intentions — to themselves or their audiences. I’m not referring to meaningful deception, but instead a convenient alignment of incentives and some blind spots oftentimes fueled by class and circumstance.

The next time you see someone advocating for remote work, ask yourself: How do they pay their bills?

Chances are they work at, fund, or own a technology company that would benefit tremendously from asynchronous work or a future where humans are geographically dispersed. Think of your collaboration tools, e-commerce companies, and your communication tools.

These companies are doing exactly what I would do as a content marketer: supporting every customer persona that uses their products, and that includes remote workers. However, the marketing from these companies is often citied by news outlets without much skepticism or pushback — creating a cycle where remote work seems to be an inevitable outcome that every single worker would benefit from. It isn't, and they don't.

Oh look! A video conference company sharing positive remote work stats!
Buffer, a (wonderful) company that is fully remote and that makes tools for marketers claims that NINETY NINE percent of workers want to work remote.

Digital transformation is a wonderful, net-positive trend but it has the side effect of shifting dollars spent elsewhere to a handful of tech companies. In person, you and I can have a conversation in the hallway. In our remote work future we have to pay Slack for that. Instead of dining at local downtown eateries, we are cooking our own lunch or using a delivery app. Instead of giving the team update at a conference table, we pay Zoom.

This is not to say whether that’s “good” or “bad” but that thousands of technology companies view remote work as a way of encouraging you to pay them money for things you previously paid other industries and companies. This is normal business behavior, which is good for the people that profit from the growth of those companies! But it’s a bit like McDonalds telling us we should take more lunch breaks: We’re not getting a full view.

Secondly, those advocating for a remote future tend to erroneously assume several things are true for most workers:

1 - They assume that remote workers prefer to tightly wrap their identity in their work. When your office is in your house, your personal life, family life, and working life all are compressed into a single space and each of those worlds can intersect at inconvenient and undesirable times. It can range from the trivial (a child “interrupts” a Zoom call) to the destructive (no division between work-induced stress and home-induced stress). These lead to burnout, an inability to turn off, and a feeling of being “trapped.”

2 - They assume that everyone has a dedicated working space. Many individuals have set up their home lives to be augmented by the services provided by working in a “second space” — mainly a separation from the rest of their lives. Ask any large family or person with four roommates, working uninterrupted at home can be impossible. Congrats, you’ve replaced getting interrupted by your boss to being interrupted by your roommates upset you didn’t take out the trash.

3 - They assume that parents have reliable child care outside of the home.  Working at home is one thing, working at home with a child who is not of school age is another. When one parent is required to work from home, they require the other parent to shoulder the child care duty full time despite being in a spare bedroom or basement office. The cognitive dissonance can be exhausting for the parents, to say nothing of explaining to your crying three-year-old that Mom is here but she can’t see you right now for hours on end.

If your answer to any of the above is “find a coworking space” — wonderful. Now I’ve swapped my in-person collection of coworkers who live in my city and are all working to the same goal with a loose collection of strangers who have no incentive in being my friend or helping me succeed. And I might even have to pay out of my own pocket for the privilege.

What instead?

To insist upon remote-only working is to think of your job as if you were a computer. Input in, output out. But, something I’m proud to share with you for the very first time: you are a human being.

You are the science AND arts department. You are the theory of relativity AND the Sistine Chapel. This is not to say that every single worker out there should believe they are saving the world one spreadsheet at a time. But work is not strictly transactional. It’s the way we spend half of our waking lives.

We derive more from our careers than simply a paycheck. We find meaning, community, and connection to others. We gain a needed context for seeing the world. We cannot completely decouple the working experience from being in the physical presence of others without causing a slow-simmering existential crisis in its participants.

The future doesn’t need to look this way. I’d prefer a future-of-work conversation that focuses less on remote work and more on:

1. Localism

There’s an aversion to thinking of our technology companies as local businesses. But they are. Local economies and amenities usually depend on dense collections of workers. That bar you like and your favorite restaurant are likely possible because they are located adjacent to a commercial corridor where people work IRL.

Let’s instead encourage companies to invest in the cities in which they are based. That means paying taxes, investing in local education, and generating wealth that can be used by workers to create more companies or fund more amenities where they live.

2. Flexible work > remote work

If remote work depresses the wages of white collar workers, the opposite extreme also has its consequences: requiring everyone to be in the office every day at the same time can suppress the wages of new parents, especially new mothers. I wish those in the technology sector would put more pressure on governments to fund subsidized child care options to enable working parents to not have to pick between shelling out 50% of their salary for child care and becoming a stay-at-home parent.

Additionally, on-campus day cares, pumping rooms, and other services for new parents should be a legal requirement for companies of a certain size. Governments and the private sector should be supporting the working parents who want to continue to grow their career by providing services to facilitate in-office work — not eliminating the office entirely. And managers should trust employees to manage their own schedule: show up when you’re required, leave if you need to attend to personal matters.

3. For companies that choose it, remote work should be opt-in, not required.

Even considering all of the above there are workers that will choose to work remote. They accept the negatives because the positives are worth it to them, or they have a personal circumstance which makes remote work more appealing. This is the kind of personal choice that every worker should be afforded.

Remote friendly offers each worker the choice that works best for them. Remote required (especially after being IRL) forces everyone to adopt working styles that may be damaging to their personal lives and/or productivity.

I don’t want to live in a future of “cloud kitchens”, Zoom happy hours, remote jobs, and distributed colleges. At its best, technology augments — but does not replace — what happens IRL.

And if we’ve learned anything from the great pandemic of 2020 it’s that being in the same room as people is pretty great.

Thank you to Andrew Thompson, Christopher Wink, Tom Critchlow, and Jovian Gautama for reviewing this draft.