Danger!! Remote Work

Before we fully embrace Remote Work, we must understand what might lie ahead.

What I’m about to write will sound crazy to some of you. That’s not my goal. I just want to make sure that before we fully embrace Remote Work, we understand what might lie ahead. 

I’ve been working remotely for more than 2 years. I run a boutique innovation consulting firm. We have a core team of 6 people and then we work with a network of consultants that support specific projects. By design, remote work fits us well. Our work requires focus, concentration and deep work, something easier to obtain when we don’t have distractions. Until COVID-19 hit, we met once a week to update each other on projects, connect and brainstorm ideas for new initiatives. Now, we just do everything online. 

I’ve always been eager to adopt new trends and ideas. By nature, I’m very pro-change and an early adopter of new ideas and technology and I’m always looking for better ways to do my work. But with time and with continuous disappointments, I became very sceptical of whatever the latest trends are (maybe this is what people call growing up). I still like to try new things, but I have no problem stopping, change course and have a critical view about them. Even when everyone else sees it differently. 

So, with no surprise, my first cautionary tale for remote work comes from our collective experience with the “Open Space”. Chances are that you have worked in an Open Space, at least in the last 10 years. Chances are, you didn’t love it.

For the past 20 plus years (maybe more), companies have been switching to an Open Space Office layout. The arguments for it were more and better collaboration, transparency and cooler offices.  

It all started in 1939, when the very influential architect Frank Lloyd Wright, designed the Johnson Wax Headquarters. 

Since then, companies decided to take on themselves the challenge of designing more open and bigger Open Spaces. For a great example, see Facebook HQ, with its massive open space that fits 2800 employees. 

Lots of studies show how hard it is to do deep and meaningful work in an environment like this. The more deep work your job requires, the hardest it is for you to work in such an environment. Lots of studies also show that most people, then take their work home and it’s there they are the most productive. 

Of course, people started developing strategies for dealing with the “Open Space”. Noise-cancelling headphones, working earlier or later in the day, all-day booking of meeting rooms and I even know people that developed a desk traffic light system to avoid distractions. I have to admit, that I used some of these strategies myself. 

By now, It would be great that everyone would accept that the Open Space experiment failed. Especially in the context of a tech company and for software development, an Open Space Office layout doesn’t work. Of course, you’ll always find people that love it, but that doesn’t make it a good solution. 

Because we all knew that the Open Space was a fad, companies started looking for solutions. But of course, moderate and balanced solutions don’t make headlines and we started hearing more and more about Remote Work. Companies like Auctomattic, Buffer, Basecamp and GitLab became the poster children of Remote Work. They have been doing it successfully for more than 10 years and in the past 3 years, we’ve seen more and more companies following their steps. 

But, we know that humans and companies are lazy and that takes me to my next point. With the pandemic, companies were forced to adopt Remote Work. From one day to the next, millions of companies closed their offices and launched initiatives to better accommodate their employees in a Work From Home environment. 

The stories we hear vary quite significantly. For some people, productivity increased. Distractions decreased, no more commute, time to and from physical meetings was saved and people were able to deeply focus on work. This has been heaven for the introverts. 

For others, the story has been quite different. Their calendars are filled with meetings, one after the other after the other. Their slack notifications don’t stop buzzing. Collaboration is harder. Companies assumed that people knew how to collaborate, which is not true. And some companies went to the extreme of deploying tracking software (welcome to the workplace Big Brother), to make sure their employees are working. On top of these, we can’t forget the challenge of having kids at home and its impact, especially on working mothers. 

To my point of humans being lazy, what happened in most companies was the transition of the bad habits of the physical workplace, to the online. Most companies don’t have processes or a support infrastructure in place. It’s easy to say that you are now a Remote Company, the hard part is to document your processes and build the context for the workers to do their best work (see the GitLab handbook for a great example). What happens is that everything becomes a meeting, decisions take longer and are only made that way. 

When I hear people claiming “The future of work is here”, I cringe. The system that most companies have in place might lead to some short term productivity increase but will lead to burnout, a decrease of innovation, a decrease in employees satisfaction and a more detached way of work. 

And that leads me to my third point. Do you remember all the rage about the Gig Worker and the Gig Economy? The freedom1!! The freedom of working from anywhere, whenever you want. 

I believe, over the past years, we saw the price of all that freedom. Talk to any gig worker and all you’ll hear about is the instability of not knowing what’s happening tomorrow. The lack of a safety net and long hours. People take these jobs not because of freedom, but because they can’t find any other job, even in the booming economy of 2019. They also mention the lack of understanding of the algorithm dictating what and when they are doing their job and all the fears of insecurity that brings. 

I believe that remote work will lead to an even bigger dehumanization of work. COVID-19 is the perfect excuse to double down on automation and robotization. Remote Work just makes things much easier, because work becomes increasingly faceless. 

Studies show that relationships that don’t happen IRL are weaker than the ones that do. So, hiring, firing and replacing workers will become a lot easier. This is globalization 2.0. You no longer need to move your factory to places with lower salaries. You just need to hire them and plug them into your remote worker systems. When you can find cheaper labour, you replace the one you have.

The next few years will be filled with news headlines about the individual stories of remote work success. That software developer from a remote area somewhere, that learned to code in Udacity and now works in a big international tech company. We all have seen those stories and even though I’m happy for them, on an individual level, what will happen on a global scale? 

The competition will become fierce. The number of opportunities will grow, but the number of people applying to those opportunities will also grow, even more. People will be seen as a cog in the machine, easily replaced by someone or something better and cheaper. And you can imagine the rest. 

For many, this looks like a meritocracy dreamland. The best will be rewarded awesomely, the others will need to fight for their survival. But by now, most people already realized that we don’t live in a black or white world and this approach will only lead to more inequalities

I know it’s a big jump from where we are, to this world I’m describing. But the world is accelerating. Everything happens much faster and it will be the case here. I want to live in a world where people, no matter where they are, can access a world of opportunities and improve their livelihood. The chances of that happening, in this context, are slim.

I used to be an optimist. 10 years ago, I looked at the future and all I could see was opportunities and a better world because of technology. Now I’m a pessimist, not because I stopped believing that the world can be a better place and technology can help us get there, but because over and over again we either choose or are forced to choose the wrong path. Adam Smith described the Invisible Hand of the Market. Even though we now know that very few markets work as he was describing, I came to believe that there is an Invisible Hand, one pushing companies to make money above everything else, with little regard for the health and well being of people and the planet. 

By writing this article, I’m not saying we shouldn’t embrace remote work. For many people and in many contexts it can work amazingly well. I, for once, will keep working remotely. All I’m saying is, be careful with the way we embrace these trends. Find middle-ground solutions. If we don’t look at the world and whatever is pushed on us with a critical eye, we will one day wake up in an Orwell novel. Maybe, we are not that far.  

1

The USA and Europe have very different understandings of what freedom means. Maybe I’ll explore that in a future post.