Remote: Office Not Required

Publisher: Vermilion
Published: 10/31/2013
The "work-from-home" phenomenon is thoroughly explored in this illuminating new audiobook from best-selling 37signals founders Fried and Hansson, who point to the surging trend of employees working from home (and anywhere else) and explain the challenges and unexpected benefits. Most important, they show why - with a few controversial exceptions such as Yahoo - more businesses will want to promote this new model of getting things done.

Book Summary - Remote: Office Not Required by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

Key Insights

Remote work is on the rise, and it is a benefit that companies should embrace. The internet and new technology have enabled workers to collaborate and work from anywhere in the world. Tax law in the United States also does not penalize workers for working remotely from anywhere in the country. Thanks to these new developments, the number of remote workers had risen 73 percent in the years from 2003 to 2011.

Companies that embrace remote work have the advantage of recruiting competitive employees from anywhere in the world and improve the satisfaction, wellness, and productivity of current employees. Remote work is a benefit that can help companies attract the most competitive talent.

However, despite the rise in popularity of remote work, Yahoo made the controversial decision to end its remote work program in February of 2013. This is because in many companies, the corporate mindset has not caught up to new technological developments, and many company leaders are still stuck in the traditional office tradition. It is hard for these industry leaders to see the benefits of remote work and break out of the normal 9 to 5 schedule. However, industry leaders will have to embrace the advantages of remote work, in order to attract the best talent to their companies and improve employee happiness and productivity.

Employers should openly assess the pros and cons of developing a remote work culture and will have to address the challenges of employee motivation and the cultivation of company culture with remote employees. However, companies that are able to address these challenges and take advantage of the benefits of a remote workforce will be ahead of the curve. Companies with a remote work culture will be able to attract top employees and increase productivity, while the traditional office set up will become outdated and unattractive to competitive candidates.

Key Points

Most Work Doesn’t Happen At Work

Most workers don’t do their best work at the office, because the amount of distractions in the average workplace makes it difficult for employees to be productive. Meetings and calls break up the workday into short segments, which makes it difficult for workers to devote long periods of time to concentrate on deep work. For workers to do good creative work, they need long periods of time, free from distraction, to get into a flow state and produce good, creative work. Remote work allows workers to set up their day so they can eliminate distractions and create a workspace that encourages concentration and creative work. Remote work also allows employees to restructure their schedules in the most efficient way for them. Some people feel more productive in the morning, while others are night owls. Others have other obligations, such as doing chores or dealing with childcare. Outside of a traditional 9 to 5 office space, workers can set up a schedule that is most productive for them.

In most workplaces, employees are aware of the risk of interrupting their colleagues and creating unnecessary distractions. Therefore, most employees use email and collaboration software as their main method of communication, even though they are communicating with workers who are in the same building. Workers try to avoid interrupting their colleagues when they are concentrating, and many see it as more courteous to send an email rather than go over to a coworker’s desk, even when it is nearby. The recipient is then able to respond to the message in their own time, which allows them to be more productive and reduces distractions in the office. However, this also means that most office interactions are already done entirely online, with no face-to-face communication.

The City Monopoly

Because many jobs are concentrated in big cities, like Wall Street or Silicon Valley, most workers must live in or near these cities for their careers, and they often have to endure a long commute into these cities to get to their places of work. While cities have some benefits, like public and social institutions, they are also crowded and have a high cost of living. This forces employers to pay more to enable workers to live in the city, which creates a burden on the company and causes an income disparity between employees in different regions.

With remote work, employees do not have to be concentrated in crowded and expensive cities. Employers also do not have to restrict their hiring only to the talent that lives in the nearby region. They can look outside their geographic area and recruit talented candidates from all over the country.

Employees who are recruited from outside their immediate geographic talent pools are also more likely to work for a company because they are genuinely interested in their work, and won’t simply see it is a stepping stone to another position. Workers who are able to live where they want will most likely also be happier because they can choose to live near wherever makes them happiest. For example, some people can choose to live near family, while others might be happiest living in a small city or by the beach. They will also not have to commute, which will make them healthier and happier.

Commuting takes up a large chunk of time that could be spent on productive work. The average worker commutes up to an hour and a half each day, which adds up to between 300 to 400 hours per year that they spend just on commuting. If workers were allowed to work remotely, that time could be spent more productively.

Commuting is not only a waste of time. It is also bad for the environment and causes congestion and stress on workers’ physical and mental health. Long commutes often mean workers will get less sleep, and traffic and other stresses can cause increased anxiety, higher rates of obesity, neck and back pain, and other negative health effects, including insomnia and depression.

Remote Work Is Not The Same As Outsourcing

Many businesses, especially smaller ones, already outsource some services, like payroll or legal departments, because it is easier and more cost-effective than to have these departments in-house. It is common practice for many companies to entrust their private information with an outside service provider. However, they are also often reluctant to extend this same trust to their own employees by allowing them to work remotely. Employers seem to believe that their employees will not work as hard if they are not under managerial surveillance in an office, even though they trust external contracts to do their work without supervision. Employers should allow their workers to work remotely, and trust that their employees, like their contractors, do not need direct supervision to complete their work.

However, remote work is also not the same thing as outsourcing. Outsourcing is often criticized because many people see it as an employment model that replaces expendable employees with cheaper workers who can do the same job for a lower wage. Remote workers, however, are not contractors, and they should be paid and treated the same way as on-site workers.

Employers should be sure to treat remote and in-office workers the same to avoid creating a caste system that incentivizes in-person work. Employers must make it clear that they value employee satisfaction over the need for in-office surveillance. Companies that value employee satisfaction have a competitive recruiting advantage, because they can attract and retain top talent. Flexible work is an attractive perk that can attract the best employees, even if there is a minimum amount of in-person attendance. Some employees may still choose to commute, but by giving workers the option to have a flexible work schedule, companies can improve the quality, satisfaction, and productivity of their workforce.

Four Myths Of The Traditional Office

There are four big myths that many employers believe about traditional office spaces, which make them reluctant to allow their employees to work remotely. First, they believe that employees working at home will not be as productive. However, workers will still waste time if they do not have enough to do, regardless of if they are at home or in the office. According to a study conducted by JC Penney, workers at their company headquarters used 30% of their internet bandwidth streaming YouTube videos in the office.

Workers respond far better to inspiration and clear expectations set by managers than they do to a culture of surveillance, which can be demoralizing. Instead of using surveillance as an external motivator, employers should inspire internal motivation in their employees, and encourage them to work on projects they care about, which will drive better performance and improve productivity, even if they are working remotely.

The second myth many employers believe is that in-person meetings are necessary to generate the synergy needed to come up with big, creative ideas. While collaboration is important, these big ideas that are sparked by in-person meetings are rare, and these types of meetings can also be draining on employees. Rather than promoting constant in-person meetings between employees in an effort to promote collaboration and inspiration, employers should limit these types of meetings, so employees do not feel burned out and exhausted. Leaders should also limit their own in-person meetings with their employees, to reduce the feeling that they are being surveilled. A good way to do this and reduce the chance of burn-out is to replace in-person team meetings with weekly email threads and remote status updates, and leave in-person meetings only for special occasions. Leaders should maintain a balance between setting up occasional in-person meetings, so employees can feel connected and develop personal relationships with their colleagues while ensuring employees do not burn out by making these meetings too frequent and demanding.

The third myth that company leaders commonly believe is the idea that employees will be faced with too many distractions at home, which will reduce productivity. However, offices are also filled with many distractions that waste time. Employees who are motivated will be productive and complete their work regardless of the distractions they face in the office or at home.

The fourth myth employers believe is that granting employees access to remote work is a security risk. They believe that, by granting remote access to their business information, they are opening their company up to potential security breach. However, employees can and should be educated in digital security practices as a matter of company policy. Regardless of if they work remotely or in the office, all employees should be trained in good security practices, including disabling automatic logins, web browser encryption, better password standards, and two-factor authentication. This will help ensure the company’s security regardless of where the employees are located.

The Perks Of Having A Remote Workforce

Many large companies, including Aetna, Deloitte, At&T, and Unilever, have recognized the advantage of allowing their employees to work remotely, at least some, if not all, of the time. These companies have embraced remote work in part because it reduces their overall risk if a local catastrophe takes place, such as an environmental disaster or regional blackout. If a company has a single point of failure, then any local disaster that takes place has the potential to collapse the entire company and halt productivity for hours or days. If a company’s workforce is spread out, however, then the risk of a total shutdown is much less.

Offering remote work also helps companies to attract and retain competitive workers. Attractive employees can consider opportunities at companies all over the world, even international companies if they do not have to leave their homes to accept the position. Alternatively, workers that may have been forced to leave their jobs because obligations forced them to move away from the region will be able to keep the positions if they are able to work from anywhere. For example, the media production company Jellyvision was able to offer remote work as an option to an employee who would otherwise have to leave his position to move with his spouse to another state. However, when Jellyvision opened up the possibility for remote work, they were able to retain a talented employee. Most employees acclimate well to a remote work environment, and it enables companies to build a competitive workforce by attracting talent from anywhere in the world.

Companies that switch to remote work will also enjoy the advantage of reduced office space costs. Companies with a reduced in-person workforce will not need as much office space, even if they blend both remote and in-person work. For example, IBM gained almost $2 billion dollars after selling off 60 million square feet of office space they no longer needed after implementing a flexible telework program.

Keeping Remote Employees Healthy

Remote workers can be at risk of developing health problems, due to lower rates of activity and a higher risk of developing ergonomic issues. Companies should encourage remote employees to remain active by implementing health and wellness incentives, such as free of discounted gym memberships, exercise and nutrition classes, or memberships to local fresh produce programs. Company leaders should also ensure workers have an ergonomically designed remote workspace, to reduce pain and discomfort that can come from sitting at a workspace for long hours. Employees with an ergonomically subpar layout can suffer from neck and back pain that can even require surgery, which causes discomfort, pain, and a loss of productivity.

Remote workers can also run the risk of burning out if they do not establish a regular routine for themselves while working from home. Otherwise, they might be tempted to work fewer hours when deadlines are far off, and then pile on the hours when deadlines loom closer. However, this leads to frustration and burnout, and often top-performing employees will end up overworking more hours than they are supposed to. Managers can help prevent this by offering extra days off to remote workers during certain months, or by encouraging their employees’ leisure activities and hobbies, such as travel.

Remote workers who stick to a set routine are healthier, happier, and more productive. It also helps for remote workers to establish a set workspace where they do their work each day, so they can easily separate their work tasks from the rest of their day.

Transitioning To A Remote Work Program

Companies that begin transitioning to remote work sooner rather than later will have an advantage over companies that wait. Companies with remote work programs will gain a competitive advantage in recruiting new employees, but they should begin transitioning to remote work with their current employees, before hiring new workers remotely. They can implement a remote work culture slowly, by allowing current employees to transition into remote work one or two days a week, or relaxing regular attendance rules. Companies who do not want to completely eliminate in-person meetings could allow employees to work remotely in the morning, and attend in-office meetings in the afternoon. Because current employees are already well-versed in the company culture, there will be a higher degree of trust on both sides. The company culture will remain intact as employees move into remote teams, which will help provide a smooth transition into a remote work culture.

For a remote work culture to be successful, companies should begin implementing remote work with multiple employees or whole teams, not simply one lone test-case employee. Having only one employee experience the benefits of remote work is not conducive to accurately assessing the pros and cons of remote work culture. More than one employee should transition into remote work in order to fairly assess the remote work experience.

The Main Take-away

Modern technology has enabled companies to embrace a remote work culture. Remote work is a benefit that will enable employers to attract competitive talent from across the globe while increasing employees’ satisfaction and productivity. If employers are able to successfully manage the challenges that come with building a remote workforce, they will enjoy significant advantages over a traditional office work culture.

About the Author

Jason Fried is the co-founder and CEO of the software development company 37signals. He is the co-author of bestsellers Getting Real, Remote, and REWORK. He is also a columnist for Inc. Magazine. Fried received his B.S. in finance from the University of Arizona.

David Heinemeier Hansson is the co-author of two New York Times bestsellers, REWORK and Remote. He is the cofounder and partner of the software development company Basecamp, and the creator of the software toolkit Ruby on Rails.

Hansson was born in Denmark and received his bachelor's degree in Computer Science and Business Administration from Copenhagen Business School. He moved to Chicago in 2005, and he now splits his time between the United States and Spain with his wife and two sons.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *