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That Remote Work Think Piece Has Some Glaring Omissions (A Rant)

Credit: Pixabay / Wokandapix / 357 images
Credit: Pixabay / Wokandapix / 357 images

When I started thinking about what would be next for me after my year of funemployment, remote work weighted pretty highly on my list. People who know me might think that it’s because of my geographical indecision, and yes, that was a consideration, but the biggest factor for me was not actually that.

I didn’t want to cry in the bathroom ever again.

I didn’t want to get to work early, start panicking and sobbing at my desk, and rush home before anyone else got in.

I didn’t want to walk out of the office at the end of the day and cry most of the walk home.

Remote work seemed like a great compromise on returning to tech. When I cried at work (which would surely happen, I hadn’t known anything else). I could sob on my sofa (or, if things were really bad, in bed), and then wash my face with facewash, and not worry about my mascara running because I wouldn’t be wearing any. Clearly this would be a vastly improved situation.

I have read a lot of think pieces (by men) about why Remote Work Is The Answer, but I’ve had a lot of conversations with women about the convenience of crying at home, and the physical and emotional distance from micro-(and macro-!)aggressions.

If you’re wondering why remote work is so often wanted by women, my unscientific survey says it’s nothing to do with kids and everything to do with not having to cry in the bathroom, not having to sit next to the guy who just stole your idea in that meeting, not having to eat lunch with that guy who always stares at your breasts.

That being said, remote work is not a panacea, and on reflection I was probably optimising for the wrong things in preferring it. Luckily other things I weighted (a manager who I could trust, and the culture of the engineering team) saved me from myself.

We throw around the words “remote work” like it all means the same, and it doesn’t. Sometimes we work remotely on similar timezones, a few companies (generally ones that can tolerate a higher degree of inefficiency) work genuinely across timezones.

For me, I spend ~50% of my time in Medellin where a lot of our engineering team is, and cowork ~2 days a week. I try and make it to NYC (where my boss is) regularly, where I get dressed and go into the office like a Real Human. I have appalling remote work habits in many ways – I work from the sofa (or the bed, if I’m in a hotel) in my PJs. West-Coast or Europe, I work roughly EST hours. Sometimes I crawl out of bed into my first meeting (I try not to do this, but make no mistake – it happens). In general, as a manager, I try to accomodate my team, rather ask them to stay late because (for example) I decided I needed to be Anglo in Seattle for a couple of weeks. These are all choices that I made, because they seem like the right thing to do, and the starting point for system I can iterate on, and weren’t forced upon me.

Some questions I have after every piece I read about how “remote work” is the One True Way and how we will invariably work in the future.

But not everyone is suited to remote work. What will they do in your utopian future?

Yep, I personally love working remotely, but I’m an ambivert (and in practice, I cowork ~30% of the time). Some people like a boundary between work and home, some people (extroverts?) are just much happier in an office. To advocate the One True Way Of Remote Work is no different of advocating The One True Way Of Co-Location.

What about junior developers?

How do junior devs fit into this world view? Junior devs need mentoring and supervision, and it’s much easier to notice they are stuck when you’re physically with them. Do you only hire junior devs who have the experience to pro-actively seek help? Or do you not hire junior devs at all?

Are you remote across timezones?

This is completely different than a global-remote team, and isn’t quite the constraint-free environment it’s presented as.

As a leader, do you accomodate your team or do you expect them to accomodate you?

Do they know when you will be around? Is it on their timezone? If you’re timezones apart who gets up early, or stays late? I’m pretty skeptical of the engineering leader who frames remote work as pure upside, because I suspect they are pushing time problems onto their team. When I was in Japan for a week, I would get up to have necessary meetings or catch up with people on Slack at 5am, because I don’t want my team to have to work past 6pm,or for us not to communicate, because I decided to go speak at a conference.

How much do you travel?

I don’t feel like I travel that much, but increasingly people make comments such that it’s clear that my life seems unbearable to them. Which is fine, because they don’t have to live it. The amount of travel I do is only feasible because I have no responsibilities.

When it comes to having a remote team, how often do people have to travel to be there in person? Do you have them come to you, or do you go to them? If you ask people to travel, what if they have life commitments or health issues that make that hard? How much notice do you give them? Do you allocate any of these massive $ savings of remote work to subsidising child, or elder-care (burdens that disproportionately fall on women) whilst people are away from home? What if the employee is a single parent? Do you ever arrange your team get togethers in places where employees face discrimination on the basis of their gender, sexual orientation, or race?

How do you deal with communication when things get hard?

OK, you turn on video for the Hard Conversations. But if you’ve never met someone in person, or you spent a week together surrounded by another 20-100 people and grabbed a 30 minute coffee 1:1, how good is your relationship with them, really? How are you going to handle it being tested? What are you going to do when you have to give them bad news? Or tough feedback? Yeah we’re all adults working in our PJs in bed (no? just me?) but that doesn’t actually mean that nothing is ever going to go wrong.

This is something that I wish people would write about more, because I feel like I’ve been making it up as I go along. I worked, and continue to work, really hard to get to know everyone on my team as a human being. I do bi-weekly 1 hour 1:1s, when I’m together with anyone IRL I make a point of us doing something (breakfast! dinner!) 1:1. I try to speak to everyone who reports to me via DM at least every other day (tech leads, every day). If there’s something that I think can cause an emotional reaction, I make sure we talk about it at least on VoIP. And I have hard conversations with the video on (unless it’s unplanned and I didn’t brush my hair that day – I’m kidding… mostly).

A final note on communication: Co-located teams often cite the need for good communication as a reason to co-locate, and I agree that communication is really important. But one observation I have from 4 months of remote work, with people, many of whom are communicating in their second language, is that sure, communication is easier when we are co-located, but it’s not as much easier as we think it is. On a remote team, where everyone acknowledges communication is hard, we work to be good at it (see the communication guidelines we open sourced). Co-located teams who assume that being in the same space is enough, no matter how busy and focused they are, can take it for granted and easily miss important signals, cues, and information.

So Remote Work Isn’t The One True Way?

I spent a lot of time thinking about what working in bad environments had done to me, but that one manifestation of this was thinking about convenience of crying rather than you know… not having a job that would make me cry, is not something I realised until months later. What I should have looked for – didn’t know I could – was lucky to find anyway (finger’s crossed, it’s been 4 months) – is a job that wouldn’t make me cry.

My job is stressful. Emotionally draining. Exhausting. But it doesn’t make me cry. I think because my work environment and my colleagues have never made me feel completely devalued and powerless – in fact, the opposite.

I love working remotely. After my realisation about crying, I can conceive of working in an office again, but yeah – it’d be great not to have to. There’s a lot of economic benefit, and also social benefit. One of the things I love about where I work, is that we have a huge LATAM dev team and we’re providing the kind of opportunity that isn’t that available locally – yet. I have spent years writing about and trying to advocate for change in tech, that an entire industry shouldn’t be dominated and defined by one small geographic area full of myriad social inequity, and this is probably the top thing I’ve done that I feel meaningfully contributes to it.

There’s a lot of upside. But it’s not pure upside, and it’s not magic. Some things are harder, some things have hidden costs, and everything we do well we work really hard at. I’m really tired of reading Think Pieces that don’t acknowledge that.

2 replies on “That Remote Work Think Piece Has Some Glaring Omissions (A Rant)”

Fantastic collection of so many wah issues. Great job starting with something that still happens (but now for completely different reasons): crying at work. It’s been a long time since I had to pull myself together under harsh flo lights and that judgemental full length mirror, bracing for the walk through cubefarm. I’ve been remote for 7 years, and have found the unicorn: a job where I cry in growth, not anger, wearing loungewear.

In solidarity and sweats, balsamiqVal

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