The Coronavirus pandemic created a need for companies to shift to remote work very quickly. In virtually every case there was no intent to do that, and no plan to implement the change smoothly. Initially, there was a lot of thrashing. Then people started to get a handle on how to manage the work-from-home situation.
Not all the challenges come down to a question of “getting a handle” on it. People with school-age children have had to adapt to home school or at least monitoring remote school attendance. People with younger children had to adapt to keeping the children at home all day, as day care services were closed.
And working from home isn’t the only source of stress. For instance, we have a friend who needs a heart operation, and she can’t get it scheduled because hospitals are overloaded with COVID-19 patients. She’s having to try to keep the situation stable through medication and very, very careful behavior. No doubt there are many other people who have issues they can’t address very well under pandemic conditions.
People who found themselves “locked down” by themselves, alone in a small apartment, experience very high levels of stress. Those who already had issues such as depression found the situation exacerbated those problems.
Such issues can only make the stress of working from home even greater. At the same time, however, both employers and employees discovered that remote work could be just as “productive” as working in an office. A lot of the worries about “allowing” employees to work from home proved to be unfounded.
Based on my own social media participation, I would informally guess about half of the “instant” remote workers discovered they liked working from home better than going to an office every day, while the other half disliked it. I don’t know how accurate that is, but in any case there’s a difference of opinion with a significant number of people on each side of the question.
Overselling remote work
More and more articles came out lauding the benefits of remote work. More and more people migrated from expensive cities to more affordable and more pleasant locales, knowing they no longer had to live close to their employers. More and more companies embraced the idea of remote work, sometimes even adjusting salaries downward to “compensate” for cost-of-living differences. More and more companies announced the intention to continue using remote work even after the pandemic has passed. Similarly, more and more workers in our field stated their intention to avoid jobs in future that required them to go to an office every day. The trend seemed to be gaining momentum rapidly.
Half of software workers loved it. But what about the other half? They felt as if they were being pulled along against their will into a world of remote work that didn’t suit them, as if pulled underwater by undertow. There was a backlash against remote work.
Like every other backlash against every other trend or change, this backlash is characterized by overstatement and exaggeration of the downsides of the change. Anti-work-from-home articles tend to emphasize the negative aspects and omit the positive aspects. The negative aspects are quite real, but they don’t define the entire situation or consider the needs or preferences of everyone.
A relatively well-written and well-thought-out example is Sean Blanda’s July 6, 2020, post, Our remote work future is going to suck. The title makes his point of view pretty clear from the beginning.
Articles like this resonate with those who already agree with the author, but tend to be ineffective for convincing others. There are usually two main reasons: First, the author writes as if speaking for the entire community, ignoring the fact that many colleagues don’t share the same concerns; second, these pieces don’t mention any counterbalancing factors or relevant context, but only push the negatives as hard as they can, typically from an individual perspective.
Democratization of opportunity
One such negative point that Sean brings forward is the so-called “democratization” of companies’ access to “resources” (by which I think he means people – don’t get me started on that). He observes, “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.”
Let me begin by saying he’s right. In principle, your job is now available to anyone, anywhere.
There’s a bit more context to consider.
Remote workers and timezones
As I write this, I’ve recently transitioned from one work-from-home situation to another. (Yes, I’m going to write from an individual perspective, just like everyone else.) The previous engagement was with a client in the Central European timezone. Our teams had people in timezones from UTC-7 to UTC+5:30. On the new engagement I’m still working from home, but my colleagues are in the same timezone. The difference is dramatic.
Why is the difference so dramatic? I do software-related work. I can’t speak for other lines of work. In software-related work, such as application development, infrastructure management, software testing, etc. contemporary methods are heavily based on very tight collaboration. That means techniques such as Mob Programming and Pair Programming are used for the majority of the work day. When team members are separated by 12 1/2 hours, it’s very challenging to run remote Mob Programming sessions. You can hardly even find 30 minutes to touch base together.
Mob Programming, Pair Programming, and other forms of collaboration – brainstorming, JAD sessions, team coordination meetings, collaborative planning, Exploratory Testing sessions, troubleshooting/debugging, etc. – are challenging in a remote setting even when the conditions are favorable, but collaboration is feasible if people take certain steps. Having team members spread across the world makes it close to impossible to work in an effective manner.
What this means on a practical level is that it makes sense to recruit remote workers who live within, say, three timezones of one another. While in principle your job could go to “anyone, anywhere”, as a practical matter it will not. This is only stoking fear, to try and convince others to reject remote work categorically.
Remote workers without timezone issues
Now, you might point out that timezone issues occur from east to west, and not from north to south. Sean is focusing on US software workers. That means “offshore resources” are available within 3 timezones of any place in the US; they live in South and Central America.
If you fear competition for jobs and wages from that region, then I guess you’ll have to keep your skills sharp. That was already true, you know; it isn’t caused by remote work.
The counterbalancing factor in this case is the language difference. The amount of time saved by avoiding communication issues can be quite significant. Employers in North America would prefer to have native English speakers, even if they have to pay a little more.
There’s an emerging and vibrant community of software professionals in Africa. They can offer the same services to European clients as South Americans can offer to North American clients, without any timezone issues.
Yes, more work will go to Africa and South America, but on balance it won’t break the economies of Europe or the US. There will still be linguistic and cultural preferences by region. Besides that, there are times when we must go into the office for one reason or another, even if the majority of the work can be remote. Local jobs won’t just evaporate.
If you need or want to reject remote work, that’s fine; it’s your life to live as you choose. But I suggest you make that choice for reasons instead of fears.
Remote workers and 20th-century work styles
What if your team doesn’t work in a tightly collaborative way? Well, I’m sorry to say it, but you can’t lose productivity that you didn’t have in the first place. Working alone at a table in your home is just as “good” as working alone in a cubicle in an office building. The differences are you don’t have to fight traffic to go to and from, and (at the moment, anyway), you won’t catch COVID-19 at home.
Other than that, you aren’t doing any more in the office than you can do at home or at a coffee shop, park, co-working facility, or library. You can work alone equally as effectively no matter where your body is located. Collocation becomes a significant factor when teams use collaborative work styles.
If you don’t use, or don’t like collaborative methods, then this might actually be good news. Your difficulties with working from home probably stem from multiple causes. If you don’t need collaboration, that eliminates a whole category of issues at once. Maybe that brings you just a little closer to resolving the issues. You’re welcome.
Remote work is not new
American companies have been using “cheap” offshore “resources” for many, many years. Managers who haven’t yet figured out that it’s false economy will continue to do so. It will not be “caused by” the trend toward more remote work. It will be caused by the managers’ misunderstanding of the economics; the same cause as before the pandemic.
Sean writes, “When your company goes all-remote, it is starting a clock that ends in you eventually competing with the global talent market…”
No, that’s fear-mongering. The clock has been running for quite some time already. You’ve been competing with the global talent market from Day One of your career. It didn’t start with the pandemic, even if you weren’t aware of it before then. I’m not saying it’s all unicorns and rainbows, but it’s also not a real-life Saw movie.
It will do you no good to complain. You can’t restore the status quo ante no matter how nice it was for you. Accept reality. Don’t panic. Think and adjust. And yes, “adjust” implies “change” – not change the world so that remote work goes away, but change yourself so that you won’t chew yourself to death from the inside out, pining away for a bygone world.
Your mileage may vary, but one thing I’ve learned from the Coronavirus situation is that our accustomed lifestyle is very fragile. The high pay that we’ve enjoyed lo these many years has always been artificial.
My new engagement pays about the same as a contract programmer could get in 1985. (I know that because I was a contract programmer in 1985.) It’s significantly below the salary I had a couple of years ago. I’m sincerely grateful for the work. I understand my market value is based on today’s market, not yesterday’s or tomorrow’s.
The days of easy money are over, and it isn’t a direct result of work-from-home. It was already happening, and probably would have happened anyway. The job market is saturated with bootcamp graduates and the like. Did you really think artificially-high salaries would survive that kind of change in the labor supply? Did you really think the cost of living in San Fransisco was ever anything more than an unsustainable economic bubble? Did you really believe if you moved to Waco your company should maintain your New York salary because you’re a nice person? If so, then this isn’t an assault on your economic value, it’s a wake-up call.
On the same topic, Sean also comments, “It’s baffling to me that American workers would cheer an acceleration of this trend that would place downward pressure on their wages.”
That’s a fair point. But there’s context around this point, too. What the hell have we been doing with our lives all these years? Coronavirus granted us a moment to pause and reflect, as we couldn’t leave our homes as freely as before.
In our case, we’ve had to cut back on expenditures considerably in an effort to stay in our home. We’ve had to simplify our lifestyle, eating at home, fixing things ourselves, and so forth. And you know what? It’s better. It feels better. The time we spend together as a family to plan, prepare, eat, and clean up after meals is bonding time, conversation time.
In the pre-pandemic world, that just didn’t happen. Each individual ate when and what they pleased, and had their own schedules, their own entertainment, and so forth. We spent a lot of money at restaurants. In hindsight, I can’t justify it. Having canceled TV service, we read more, and we discuss what we read. I’ve learned how to do all sorts of “handyman” things that I couldn’t do six months ago.
On the whole, this is a more fulfilling and less stressful lifestyle than the old “maximize consumption” lifestyle.
If you’re stuck alone and away from your family, that’s a different matter, of course. That was a common problem in the early weeks of the pandemic, although I think most people have had a chance to reconnect with family by now. In the general case, the pandemic offers us an opportunity to reconsider our priorities and our life choices.
Before the pandemic, people in our line of work were like hamsters running on a wheel. When you moved from your first home to a larger one, you were still running on that wheel. The only difference was the wheel was spinning faster. As you advanced, did you move from that second home to an even larger one? Better run even faster, just to stay in the same place! Isn’t that absurd? Isn’t it obviously absurd, in hindsight?
If you can’t make your mortgage payment in the new world, that first home sure looks cozy. You can’t get anything equivalent for the same money today, and wait till you hear what your lender says when you tell them your new, lower salary. I don’t want to spoil the punchline, but it rhymes with “debt to income ratio.” Many (most?) of us are in a position to lose everything we’ve worked for.
But what if we intentionally adopt a different perspective: We aren’t losing anything by slowing down and simplifying our lives. We’re gaining.
I’m coming around to the idea that if you can’t take care of your own stuff, it’s possible you have too much stuff. Do you need a house so large that you can’t clean the floors and toilets yourself? You have to pay someone to do it, and pay someone to maintain the landscaping, clean the pool, pay for security, pay more for insurance and taxes, more for heating and cooling, more when you need a new roof or a new water heater because everything is big.
You’re “advancing” in your career and earning more money, and you’re also hemorrhaging money for upgraded this and cooler that, and to pay people to take care of all the things you can buy but don’t have time to enjoy, because you’re running on that wheel, running on that wheel, running on that wheel. Can’t let that wheel slow down even for a moment!
A (bizarre?) bright side
Over the years, I’ve seen many debates online and heard discussions offline on the topic of “passion” for the work. Some insist we must have passion and dedicate ourselves whole-heartedly to our careers. Others say the job is only a paycheck; they went into software work because the pay was relatively high.
If we are to experience a general decline in remuneration for software-related work, then it could be seen as good news for both camps in that debate. Admittedly, the good news is a little odd, and not entirely “good.”
If you really really really really love this work, then you’ll continue to do it and to obtain personal and professional satisfaction for doing it even if your rate of pay declines. As the monetary rewards shrink, the non-monetary rewards grow proportionally greater. There will be more opportunities to feed your passion because the cost of your services will fall within budget constraints for more potential clients and employers.
If you really really really really see the work as nothing more than a paycheck, then you will now have many more career options available that pay roughly the same as software-related work. You can find a way to make ends meet without having to do a type of work you claim to hate.
I know that’s kind of a strange way to look at it. I suspect, but can’t confirm, that most people in the field enjoy the work even if their emotions fall short of “passion,” and they also appreciate collecting a nice paycheck even if that’s not their only or primary motivation to work in this field. I suspect, but can’t confirm, that those who call for “passion” and those who insist it’s only a paycheck are exaggerating for effect. When it comes down to feeding their families, those in both camps suddenly become a whole lot more practical-minded.
But if you literally and honestly believe what you say (and you say one of those two things), then I guess it’s all good, right?
Remote work enables you to be forgotten
Another concern Sean raises is that when you work remotely all or most of the time, “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.”
He continues, “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?”
I think this is a very interesting point. It speaks to the nature of the work environment at the organization where you’re working. It also relates to the type of work you’re doing.
Note the following wording:
- contributions…overlooked or misunderstood
- managers have no clue what their direct reports are doing
- difficulty of performance reviews
In the software field, those who are accustomed to working in the “new” way, using contemporary collaborative methods in a supportive environment, may remember working in organizations where these concerns were central to everyone’s success, recognition, and professional growth. I can’t say these concerns are irrelevant today just because they aren’t characteristic of up-to-date organizations. After all, most organizations are not up to date.
If you’re not in the software field, then my comments don’t apply to you. I am only familiar with software-related work.
This may be a significant challenge and a source of stress for remote workers. You have to assess your own situation to decide whether you need to deal with these issues, or avoid them by electing not to work remotely after the pandemic.
With collaborative work, including remote, you’re not “isolated,” there’s no way your manager would have no clue about what you’re doing or how you’re doing it, and performance reviews are falling out of favor as a management practice. You’re in a much more favorable position to get value from remote work if you are working in this sort of organzation.
Sean has a separate section about how remote work “breaks” large companies when things change. I think this again relates to the use of collaborative methods and high-trust, high-transparency management practices characteristic of contemporary organizations. And again it may not be your reality, so you should take it into consideration with respect to your own situation.
I would say, as well, Sean’s section about how remote work can stifle your career growth opportunities, especially early in your career, really depends heavily on the way things are done in your organization. What I’ve been calling a “contemporary” organization really includes people quite well, and wouldn’t have this stifling effect on a young colleague’s growth.
I suspect Sean has not worked in that sort of organization before, and this may be the reason he makes absolutist statements about factors such as isolation, invisibility, getting left out of the loop for changes, performance reviews, and career growth options. Everything he says corresponds with my experience prior to learning and embracing contemporary ways of working. He’s completely right…in those cases. The danger for the naive reader is to assume he’s completely right in all cases.
Warnings about remote work advocates
Much of what Sean has to say is accurate and relevant in many, if not most cases. However, when he projects his assumptions onto the motivations of remote work advocates, he goes too far.
He writes: “Chances are [remote work advocates] 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.”
Those people certainly exist, and would certainly benefit from remote work. However, most of us out in the world don’t “own” anything or “fund” anything. We just work and pay our bills.
I’ve done remote work for large, established, and one might even say “stodgy” companies that don’t have the characteristics Sean mentions in this section of the article. I’ve done remote work to help companies change in the ways that Sean say they can’t change via remote work.
It’s easy to make assumptions about other people’s experiences. It’s hard to get those assumptions right.
Things are changing for a variety of reasons that are impervious to our approval or disapproval. They were already changing before Coronavirus. The pandemic may have accelerated the change, but it isn’t the cause.
For many of us, the changes mean a reduction in material lifestyle. That’s what it means for me and my family, and I suspect many others, too.
There’s no way we can reverse this trend. Like it or not, we have to adapt to it. The question for each of us individually is “How?”
You might not agree with my conclusions, but at least you have a chance to pause and reflect on the situation. Beware of fear-mongering. Think clearly about what you want to do, how you want to live. Find a way, even if it isn’t as easy as it used to be.