Is the future of work remote?

Laptop, coffee and phone with picturesque backdrop

Long before our new routine of enforced work from home and socially distanced walks, the number of companies working remotely was already on the rise, with remote work often being touted as the future of work. Now that so many Tech companies have quickly pivoted to allow their employees to work remotely, have we arrived at the new normal?

The likes of Google and Facebook have already extended their remote working policies until next year, Twitter have announced the extension of their policy indefinitely, and plenty of other companies have now pledged to abandon their offices altogether. It’s clear that attitudes to work have been profoundly changed through this experience, it’s afforded us all the opportunity to pause and consider if there is a better, smarter way of working. It’s true too that this (unexpected) remote work experiment has confronted many people with both the potential and the challenges of remote work.

I do think we will start to see an increase in the number of Tech companies incorporating remote options into how they work. This will be a significant development for our industry and has the potential to usher in some much-needed change. Put simply, remote work democratises opportunity, moving entire industries and workplaces away from homogeneity and towards a more diverse (and more productive) workforce. There is a famous quote that states simply that while “talent is evenly distributed, opportunity is not”. Remote work allows employment and opportunity to be location independent. It removes arbitrary barriers to employment for people with chronic illnesses and disabilities, and provides a more accommodating work environment for those of us who are parents, carers, or who are simply balancing competing priorities that may otherwise prevent us from working.

Remote work can also be a more sustainable way to grow your business and your workforce, providing companies access to new talent pools and removing the challenges or limitations of localised hiring. Limiting your company's recruiting pipeline to a certain geographic region, or sourcing employees who are able and willing to relocate, is an obvious competitive disadvantage. Not only does it create a less inclusive hiring process which reaches a less diverse set of candidates, it forces the company to compete primarily on the basis of salary.

Adopted at scale, remote working also has the potential to create a system that better supports secondary and tertiary economies while relieving the pressures on big cities and tech hubs. There's evidence that remote work can reduce the effects of urban crowding for many cities around the world, with some US states and countries even offering incentives to encourage remote work. What’s more, for global companies, the ability to bring better-paying jobs to low-cost regions can have a significant economic impact and serve to reverse the trends of depopulation in rural regions.

I, much like the folks at Manchester Codes, believe that technology is for everyone, and that a career in Tech should be available to anyone, regardless of their background, geography, gender, orientation, age, ability, or socio-economic status. For this reason remote work, and remote study, can be understood as a powerful platform from which we can begin to address many of the inequalities of our industry (and our global society).

View from my office in Central Bali...working remotely doesn't always mean working from home

I started working remotely a little over a year ago. It was an intentional move away from the traditional open-plan office and a more restrictive 9-5 working day, but it was one that I felt I wasn’t particularly well prepared for. Effective remote working requires you to really challenge your prevailing assumptions around what it means to be productive and to find new ways of approaching and thinking about your work.

Automattic is one of the largest and longest established remote companies in the world, with over 1000 employees across 75 different countries. We actually refer to ourselves as distributed (rather than remote) because we don’t have an office to be “remote” from. Structured in this way, we really have to embrace transparency and adopt a culture of communication that prioritises asynchronicity and the written word (even my interview for the job was text-based and carried out over Slack).

As with any workplace, remote work is not without its challenges, and it’s important we acknowledge this fact. One of the biggest challenges for me has been avoiding overwork. There’s a widely held assumption that remote work hurts productivity, when in reality it is overwork and not underwork that is the biggest danger of remote work. When the boundaries between work and home become blurred, it becomes all too easy to work longer hours or to allow your work to creep into other aspects of your life. There is also a tacit pressure to ‘prove’ your contributions. In an office, as long as you are physically present, your manager and co-workers are unlikely to wonder whether you’re really working.

This was, of course, a difficult adjustment and it’s not for this post for me to outline the very many ways in which we can overcome the challenges of remote work, but in time I came to understand that working remotely provided me with an opportunity to be smarter about how I worked, to optimise my work day for my own productivity and promote a healthier work-life balance. I will often (but not always) enjoy a non-linear work day, this means I can work during the times when I feel I am the most productive, increasing my output without needing to increase my hours.

Whilst my own experience with remote work has been incredibly positive, I know many have been struggling with the challenges of working from home under COVID-19. We should perhaps remember that remote working and working from home during a pandemic are quite different concepts. We need to acknowledge and accept that our output and our productivity will be curbed and we can no longer hold ourselves to the same expectations or standards. We need to adjust to a new way of working during this time. When this is all over, I doubt that companies will return to their old ways of working. Even those who do decide to return to the office are likely to incorporate changes implemented off the back of lessons learned during this period of mass working from home.

Me (pictured left) and my colleagues at Automattic

Bio

Anna is a former criminal defence lawyer, turned Software Engineer, now working as an Internal Developer Advocate at Automattic. In this role she works at the intersection of her interests, dealing specifically with the human side of technology and prioritising and promoting the developer experience.

Having successfully transitioned into a new career in tech, she remains committed to democratising coding education and promoting a more diverse, inclusive and equitable tech workforce. Working at one of the earliest and largest fully-remote/distributed companies, she is also particularly interested in exploring the future of work and promoting the benefits of remote and flexible working.

Follow Anna on Twitter at @AHollandSmith.