On Monday, Twitter and Square announced they were going remote-first as a company. Three days later Facebook and Shopify had similar announcements. Since then, Twitter and every one of my group chats have been lit up with discussions on what the implications of these changes will be on the future of work. I've been interested in this topic for a while now, even before going remote myself, so I thought I'd share my views on what we could expect to see in the next decade. Although this is largely speculation, it's informed by my last two years of working remotely at Kaggle (a company acquired by Google), and being a member of a partly distributed team before that. I've also written about effectively working as a remote-first team with my teammate Meg.
The first thing I thought when hearing these announcements was how drastic they sounded. Despite what being forced to WFH overnight due to covid seems to imply, remote is not a switch you can flip on for a company. A lot of teams that may be working effectively today may just be carrying the momentum they had built while being together in an office. Employees are under an enormous amount of stress during this switch, especially with spouses and kids at home, which may prove to not be sustainable long term. As much as I believe the future to be largely remote-driven, I have a hard time imagining tens or hundreds of thousands of employees becoming remote overnight being able to sustain that productively.
Working remotely is still in the early days. Though it's been proven to work at certain companies, they've tended to be small teams doing a small range of work (ie. web development). It may be the case that we find out that it actually works for most types of knowledge work and company sizes - but that's not yet the case. Don't get me wrong, I'm very excited about the prospect of so many remote opportunities coming online, and having a larger sample size to make conclusions on its effectiveness, but to make such drastic company shifts without more experience seems risky to me.
The two open questions I have about remote work remain 1) Can large companies continue to propagate their culture when employees are no longer in an office (for a cynical take on this, see Matt Levine covering this transition in banking culture) and 2) Is there a set of work that is untenable in a remote environment and if so how much of a tech company's work falls under that?
I suspect that the answer to the first question is yes, but only if they do so deliberately. Most companies will try to just enforce the same type of activities and processes they had before but digitally, what I call lift-and-shifting culture. Those might work short term, but will gradually produce unhappy and less productive employees. The companies that do best in this environment are the ones that consciously focus on recreating their set of values, expectations, and processes into remote-first ones. Everyone is still learning how to do this, and this was our best stab at documenting Kaggle's approach.
The second question, though, is anyone's guess. I don't think there's been enough evidence to determine whether distributed teams can be just as effective in all range of tasks. Most examples we have today of remote teams are small self-selected groups of people that likely bias towards more independent and effective workers. I'm looking forward to seeing the effects on the output of companies transitioning.
Much of the discussion going on has been dominated by absolutes: the future is remote, or this experiment will fail and everyone will go back to offices. The premise seems wrong to me, remote is more of a spectrum than a binary choice. My bet is on the future being much more heterogeneously remote than people guess. I suspect there will be dozens of remote configurations: extreme "nomad" companies (employees can work any place at any time), co-timezone-located (you can live anywhere within this timezone), office-centric remote-flexible (we expect you to be based in the office but can be remote for periods of time, ie. WFH fridays, month in Hawaii).
It's this diversification of work styles that will most benefit employees. You'll be able to pick - or at least apply to - whatever company subscribes to your ideal lifestyle. And that might even change during your life: perhaps in your twenties you prefer to be nomadic, but in your 40s you'd like to have the stable work hours of having teammates in your timezone.
The Office is not dead, but it will change. Even in my two years of being "remote", I still went into the office at least three times a week. I'd consider myself right in the median on the social spectrum, and tend to get a bit cabin feverish if I don't see people for a couple of days - having some sort of office is a requirement for me long term. It may not be the case for everyone, but the majority of people will still want a space where they can work with and around others outside of their home. WeWork is an obvious example of this trend, but you also see this with digital nomads living in group houses and planning trips together.
Corporate offices will have to adjust to this new reality, as employees come and go whenever it suits them. Offices will become more so spaces to collaborate and socialize, between the focused remote sessions. Events and internal conferences will bring distributed teammates into one space to reset the company's "half-life of trust".
I was lucky that Google had 3 offices in Seattle, which I could pick from. I had an official desk in one building, but would really just go into whatever office I felt like each day depending on which colleagues I wanted to meet up with or cafes I wanted to visit. The ability to change environments really helps me feel recharged while working. Having the ability to hop between offices, will give employees the freedom to pick the work environment where they work the best - whether that's a WeWork cubicle, loud coffee shop or their cabin in the woods.
The most contentious topic brought up in these discussions has been the impact going remote will have on wages. Personally, I can't see a way that this would increase wages: a larger supply of workers can only bring down pay. The only possibility for salaries to remain unchanged would be if all the best talent is already maximally hired for, despite location restrictions, but that seems very unlikely.
The other side of the equation is that employees no longer need to live in one of five cities to participate in 90% of the best paying jobs. Moving to cheaper cities, while being paid less, may or may not benefit you - it depends on the math for your particular case. That being said, I think the people who stand to gain the most are those with families or expensive cost of living, where the local rates dominate their spending.
Most young engineers who moved SF or NY, to live frugally in small apartments while saving most of their salary, had a comparative advantage to others with families or other ties that prevented them from moving to the highest paid cities. In the long term, that advantage will mostly go away, since at the margin people will move out of the expensive cities, bringing down competition for talent in hotspots. I suspect the multipliers companies use to determine wage per city will even out to the efficient frontier of wage to cost of living as employees allocate themselves to the optimal locations.
The one exception I can think of where this shift won't lower rates is where a person has a monopoly on talent or brand. As remote makes undifferentiated roles more competitive (ie. a "unit' of software engineer, sales person, or marketing manager), certain talent will find a way to stand out and be unique in their market. That might mean building up a personal brand that brings value to a company beyond the raw output of your work, things like Twitter recognition, conferences, writing, or open source contributions. It could also mean developing a strong network that will help you get hired before you even have to compete with others. This has been my biggest take away from thinking about the future of remote work: those with the highest wages will be the ones who invest in differentiating themselves since they will be of limited supply (only one "you") with infinite demand (every company in the world, not just those in your 100 mile radius).
Despite being extremely optimistic about the future of remote work, I find the current narrative around it fairly narrow, overrated and repetitive. There's a lot of focus on where people will live and how wages will change, but not enough on what work will actually look like and how culture needs to adapt to it. The transition to remote by so many companies, this quickly, is going to provide a lot of material for a future generation of company builders to study. However this goes, we have an exciting decade ahead of us.
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