Remote vs in-office work is a false dichotomy

Johnathan Nightingale, who I know from when we were both at Mozilla, recently wrote about Why More Companies Don’t Do Remote Work (and probably shouldn’t).

How we talk about “Remote vs. In-Office” work

I agree with much of Johnathan’s analysis. I don’t think those who favor in-office work are monsters. I don’t think companies shy away from remote work because they hate freedom. Nor do I think such companies should be shamed for their decisions. Mostly what struck me about Jonathan’s post, and many like it, is that we still think of remote vs in-office work as either/or.

At best, we talk about it as if it were a continuum. On one side, there’s flexibility, greater access to talent and the added benefits that come with building the infrastructure and communication practices required to make remote work possible. On the other side, there’s the efficacy that comes with being co-located, the ability to share central, office-based resources, the convenience of your co-workers being visible and in close physical proximity during business hours. Hybrid companies, as Jonathan refers to them, fall somewhere in between the two ends, slightly favoring one mode of work or the other.

What if they aren’t mutually exclusive?

What if, instead, we recognized that what we’re really talking about is modes of work that people naturally alternative between, depending on how they’re feeling, what’s going on in their life, the type of work they are trying to get done, and many other external factors? What if we design work places and processes that took this into account?

Why I hardly ever went to Mozilla’s Portland office

To explore what I mean, it’s helpful to look at some real-life examples. When I first started at Mozilla in September 2011, it was as a remote employee. Later Mozilla opened a Portland office, but I still did most of my work from my home office. When I did go in, which was about 2-3 days a month, it was mostly to be seen and to catch up with co-workers.

Why didn’t I go into the office more? Couple of reasons:

  • The office environment was exceptionally distracting. All of Mozilla’s offices have an open-plan layout, which I find it nearly impossible to concentrate in. The Portland office also has a very limited number of conference rooms and they were nearly always booked. I couldn’t count on being able to use one for a quiet workspace (or even a meeting for that matter).
  • None of my direct team members were based out of the Portland office. While I always enjoyed talking with fellow Mozillians on other teams, going into the office didn’t give me the direct benefit of sitting side-by-side with whom I was directly collaborating.
  • It cost time and money. I’m one of those people who loathes commuting, even when transit options are timely and plentiful (which they aren’t from my home). A daily commute of 30 minutes each way is 5 hours a week I could better spend on any numbers of things. Meditating, doing yoga, walking our dogs, reading, writing, gardening, etc.

That said, I very much miss having access to the Portland Mozilla office. It’s incredibly useful to have a go-to, well-appointed space for collaboration. Offices are great for that.

I also think it’s great to have a go-to, well-appointed space for deep work. Unfortunately offices, particularly those with open plans, are terrible for that.

The drawbacks of remote work apply to in-office work

Regarding some of the supposed benefits of in-office work and the drawbacks of remote work, we are likely mistaking correlation for causation. The three drawbacks that Johnathan specifically mentions all apply to in-office work too. They are just sometimes more apparent with remote workers:

  1. Remote Work Exacerbates Performance Problems. Remote work is going to put strain on some worker-organization relationships and for others it will lessen that strain. Likewise, in-office work masks certain kinds of performance problems. Simply showing up each day and appearing to get shit done, doesn’t actually mean you are.
  2. Remote Work Often Creates Two Tiers of Employee. While I agree that remote workers are more easily left out of the loop, all organizations have tiers of workers, regardless of where they work. Unless the core groups of organizations work exceptionally hard at it, there will always be some employees more in the loop and with greater access to opportunity than others. This disparity isn’t eliminated when you’re all co-located and it’s a trap to think otherwise (because you’re then less likely to continue doing the work of including everyone).
  3. Marginal Drag Matters. Having remote workers may cause marginal drag in one direction, but what about the marginal drag created by requiring everyone to come into a central office in order to consider that real, focused work is being done? To assume there is none seems to ignore how people actually live their lives and do their work.


What would it look like to support both kinds of work?

What would it look like to recognize and fully support both remote and in-office work, allowing everyone the freedom to select which mode is appropriate at a given time?

I believe it would include:

  • Having well-appointed, accessible offices with flexible seating and plenty of meeting and private workrooms alike. I would like workplace to be much more like university libraries. The office should have great shared infrastructure, including all the tools and reference material you need to get work done. You should be able to go to it when it’s the best place for you to work, and when you need to collaborate in person, but not be required to be there any kind of set hours. Likewise, if you want to work only at the office, you can.
  • Great collaboration infrastructure that enables remote and in-person ways of working alike, at the same time.
  • Good, multi-modal communication and documentation is valued, supported, encouraged, and practiced at all levels across the organization.
  • Managers are trained and supported in leading inclusive and diverse teams, including how to deal with issues related to flexible schedules and work environments.
  • Team members’ expectations of one another are clearly communicated and there is a clear and supported process for resolving conflict when it arises. There is agreement about when and where people will be available, and people follow through on those agreements. The team meets regularly in person and remotely according to its needs.
  • Ample opportunities to socialize, both on-line and in-person, and in structured and spontaneous ways.

Such a setup would allow people and organizations to benefit from both kinds of working situations. So, rather than judging and vilifying the different ways of working, we can realize that each has benefits and drawbacks depending on the situation. And we can work to maximize the benefits and minimize the drawbacks of each .

You still have to make decisions

All of the above requires that an organization’s leadership recognize that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach. It requires they lead more and control less. It also requires a certain level of investment in technology infrastructure, though much less now that things like Skype and Google Hangout are ubiquitous. So, by far, the first requirement is the much harder one to meet.

And organizations still have to decide from how far away they are willing to hire. This should in part be a function of how much in-person collaboration is needed for the role, where the rest of the team is located, the annual cost that employee’s travel, and their willingness to travel.

Actually, now that I think about it, I would love for every job description to specify how much in-person collaboration is required. A job where I’m expected to spent half my time in meetings is very different from one where I’m expected to spend half my time pairing one-on-one, and different still from one where most of my work will be solitary.

And, even if you’re comfortable with remote work, hiring employees who live in different states, let alone countries, creates additional overhead.