Why I'm skeptical about remote work moving forward

The COVID-19 pandemic forced me, like so many other office workers, into a remote work situation. The messaging was that this was temporary:

  • Prepare for 3 or so weeks at home
  • No office equipment budget, since we’ll all be back
  • Try to keep cool and calm, this will be over soon

But as those few weeks went by, it became clear that this was going to be more of a forced year of remote work, not just a few weeks. I had to more or less retrofit a back room in my home into an office out of my own pocket, because using a laptop and hopping between the couch and dinner table wasn’t sustainable.

The first few weeks genuinely sucked for a number of factors, but eventually I realized that when I wasn’t doing meetings, I had incredible focus. I don’t usually goof off when nobody’s watching, and since I almost always hate meetings I relish the hours at work where I can simply focus on designing a feature or fixing a bug or whatever. I think I work better in a remote environment, and so I look forward to a future where remote work is more of a norm. But I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon.

Employees vs. Contractors

A central premise of working remote is that you can work for a company regardless of where you are in the world. It’s the great equalizer! You don’t have to relocate to San Francisco or Shanghai or wherever. And employers get to pick from the global talent pool, not just the local one, and they don’t need to pay huge sums of money to convince someone to upend their life and move to the office!

Eh, maybe not so much.

Companies often times move slowly. Very, very slowly. It’s extremely difficult to change processes at larger companies, and we live in an era of larger companies that get bigger and bigger by acquiring smaller ones. These companies often have policies around employees vs. contractors. One such policy that I’m quite positive is common everywhere is that you can’t actually be an employee unless the company has an office in the country you live in.

Governments also move slowly. Even if a company is willing to upend its complex processes around employment to let anyone count as an employee no matter their location, they may not even be allowed to do that by law - either based on their own country of origin or local laws governing this sort of stuff where you live.

So what’s the easiest way forward for a company? Hiring someone as a contractor, not an employee. This is significantly cheaper for the company so long as they’re doing it legally (and it’s not hard to do it legally). Company policies for contractor money are usually not that hard to follow, they’re more flexible, and they’re not subject to the same level of legal scrutiny as employment is worldwide. No healthcare benefits to set up, no financial benefits, nothing. Just a contract and some cash.

Would you be willing, as a current employee somewhere, to give up employee benefits to work for the company of your dreams? Since I live in the US where we don’t have things like affordable, universal healthcare, that’s a tough sell for me. It’s a huge risk to trade benefits for cash, and I know that it’s always going to be a company that comes out ahead financially on that kind of stuff, not me. What incentive do I have to take that risk?

Executives and their power

This next section might seem cynical. I don’t believe executives when they talk about remote work and it being a positive for them unless they were already working remotely before the COVID-19 pandemic. Why?

They made their careers on in-person work. They are experts at “reading a room” and utilizing nonverbal cues to, well, execute. They have power and authority and the pandemic, with forced remote work, upended that. I don’t think they’re interested in having to permanently adjust how they operate, especially not when their work is so critical to the business. I believe that in workplaces where there isn’t disgusting employee surveillance, executies lost some degree of power and authority. They don’t have a physical kingdom right now.

I don’t believe for a moment that someone who worked their way up a corporate ladder is willing to permanently give up the power and authority they earned with their incredibly hard work. When they’re vaccinated, they’re going back to the office, which is why this matters so much.

It doesn’t matter what an executive says or writes down: not being “in the room” with people who are high up in a corporate hierarchy means your career will stagnate. When the important people are all physically together and you’re behind a screen, you might as well not even be there. Everyone would like to think that it’s a meritocracy and that it shouldn’t matter if you’re remote or not, but that’s just not realistic. Humans are social animals and the ones who are together in person will have the most impact, make the primary decisions, and be rewarded for it long-term. The people sitting behind a screen will be passed up.

If you care about your career and rising up a corporate ladder, you’ll be back in the office so long as the executives are.

A lot people prefer being in the office

COVID-19 was a big “told you so” moment for a lot of people who prefer remote work, even if they understand that it’s not as good for their career. I think the pendulum is about to swing hard back the other way when enough people are vaccinated.

Many people have spent this past year being drastically less productive than when they were in the office. They probably still live in a home where remote work isn’t all that great. They have had to take care of kids, other family, do more grocery shopping, do more house care, and so on. Some people actually have a decent environment to work, but simply can’t keep the distractions at bay. They’re more productive when they have a physical space they commute to. Speaking of the commute, some people also like it! They can listen to podcasts or read books or ride bikes or just get their steps in. Commutes aren’t necessarily evil.

For some people, remote work has been horrible. Check out Project Include’s report on remote work and how it’s actually making harasssment and exclusive behavior worse for a lot of people who aren’t cisgendered, white, and male. Microsoft’s report on hybrid work lays it out pretty clearly that new hires are doing horrible with all-remote work right now, people are in more meetings, and people are generally working longer hours. And if you think that a new hire will fare better in a “hybrid” environment where they’re remote but their team isn’t … hah, right. As both reports note, there are huge problems to solve here, and I don’t think anyone running companies today knows how to solve them right now.

And let’s not forget that being in-person with your coworkers has very real social perks. I think that working in the office kind of sucks when you need to actually do work, but getting lunch and coffee breaks with cool people every day is great.

COVID-19 was a scourge, not a blessing

Literally millions of people have died due to COVID-19. The world is currently in an all-out race to vaccinate as many human beings as possible. Government restrictions are often times not followed, even when it leads to death, because people are desperate for social interactions.

Everyone is desperate for things to get back to normal. People aren’t stupid; they understand that some things will be different. I won’t ever eat birthday cake that someone blew the candles out on. But am I going to stay locked up from the rest of the world when I’m vaccinated? Hell no!

The reality is that I didn’t invest in an expensive home office environment. I just sort of made do with what I have in a home I bought so that I could be close to my work (I would often bike into work). My life is not optimized for remote work, even if I prefer it. And I do want to return back to normal, for some definition of normal. If enough people are in the office, I’ll be biking and bussing back into the office like everyone else. Why would I live nearby and purposefully isolate myself except for days where I know I need to focus? And although there are nicer places to live, I have a small community where I live and I’m not willing to drop that all immediately.

I think this factor is probably the biggest one. People aren’t treating COVID-19 as an opportunity, nor should they. It’s a scourge that upended everyone’s lives and killed millions of people. Getting back to normal (for some definition of normal) sounds great to me.

For what it’s worth, I would prefer to work remote or mostly-remote except for in-person lunches and coffee breaks with coworkers who I enjoy being around.