Remote Work isn’t about Geography

It’s about Bureaucracy

Joel Gascoigne has done us all the favor of enumerating the different degrees of remote work from the viewpoint of a CEO in a ‘remote-first’ company, in a recent post. The list ranges from zero to infinity:

  1. Not remote / office-based culture
  2. Office-based with a work-from-home option
  3. A remote team, in a single time zone
  4. A world-wide remote team spread across numerous time zones
  5. A fully distributed team with nomadic team members

He touches on a few of the differences, and stresses that communication issues rise with the degree of remoteness, for example the complexities that being in different time zones raise. However, some of those issues arise in non-remote work cultures, like large companies with offices in different nations or continents.

Thinking analytically, I think there are two intersecting factors here, perhaps captured best in the old ‘time/space’ matrix commonly used at the dawn of collaborative tools:

Instead of starting with the conventional office (same time x same place), lets begin at the lower right (different time x different space), which I think of as the zero state. Imagine two people who work at the same company, but work at different times in different workplaces. They in general are then left with only the option of asynchronous, store-and-forward sorts of communications mechanisms, such as email, or chat in its non-realtime pattern of use.

As has been noted many times, this sort of communication has the effect of damping emotional nuance, and so it works better when the correspondents know each other well, are skilled in this sort of communication, or frequently add to their palette of communications other, more realtime, sorts of communications — like a weekly video call — even in one or both have to get up early or stay up late to overlap times. Note that exactly the same considerations pertain to the different time x same space cell in the matrix, although the weekly video call could be a face-to-face meeting, instead.

Since the discussion about remote work continues to center on being in the same place and not the same time, it’s not really about communications. What could it be about, then?

In the topmost same time row the affordances of the bottom row are available: the correspondents can act as if they are not in the same time, at all. They can send an email even though they could have a face-to-face meeting or a video call. But they have the added option of those realtime modes of communication at a low level of effort, since they are sharing the same time. And the high fidelity of the today’s video conferencing means that virtual meetings are getting closer to IRL meetings all the time.

At any rate, you may see where I’m heading. The big distinction in this communications-based analysis is not the being or not being in the same workplace or not: it’s instead about working at the same time.

But since the discussion about remote work continues to center on being in the same place and not the same time, it’s not really about communications. What could it be about, then? Maybe what’s at issue is not the efficiency of communication, but the needs of bureaucracy.

Sometimes the rhetoric against remote work is dressed in fancy clothes as increasing serendipity, or accelerating innovation, or developing a ‘strong culture’, and while some elements of those arguments have merit, often these positions are a smokescreen for a desire for greater management bureaucracy and control.

David Heinemeier Hanson offers this viewpoint:

In a Yahoo-ish move, IBM’s new CMO, Michelle Peluso, recently announced she’s rejecting Big Blue’s decades-old culture of remote work, ‘co-locating’ 2,600 members of the US marketing department into six locations: Atlanta, Raleigh, Austin, Boston, San Francisco, and New York.

This move is widely perceived as a layoff in disguise, since many remote workers will resign rather than uproot themselves — and their families — to hold onto their jobs, which might be cut later on, anyways. After all, IBM has reported 19 consecutive quarters of declining sales.

Perhaps Peluso has inherited an organization that has been buffeted by a decade of bad news, layoffs, and pivots, where many in marketing had become disengaged. As Frederic Laloux points out,

When people have little emotional investment in the organization and in its purpose, when employees consider work as a burden to be minimized, then don’t be surprised that given freedom, they take the freedom but not the responsibility.

The end of remote work is then a backlash to a backlash: disengaged workers are disinclined to go the extra mile for the company, to endlessly accept a culture of overwork and under-payback. So, new management, especially those with a same place/same time background, comes aboard and demands an ‘all hands on deck’ affirmation of cultural norms. That was Marissa Mayer’s mantra when she was trying to wake a sleepy Yahoo, and found that ending remote work didn’t do much, in the long run, to change organizational culture.

I think Peluso’s following the Cortés model: she’s drawing a line in the sand, and demanding that people sign up to a new bargain, or leave. Cortez scuttled his fleet in Mexico, essentially trapping his mutinous band of conquistadors there.

So this isn’t about remote work, really. It’s about rebooting the company with a different operating system, and making a bet on increased innovation and agility from colocating people, instead of the higher productivity and personal freedom of working outside the office. We’ll see if the bet pays off. It didn’t at Yahoo.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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