Career management

The Return of the Office

There has been Much Discourse over the past few days on forcing people to return to offices, and judgement of those who may not want to.

Has Remote Work… Worked?

I always wonder what’s on the other side of these edicts about returning to the office. How do the people writing them think the last year has gone? What is their view on the performance of their organizations? What metrics do they have and what do those metrics indicate? What was their personal experience?

It seems quite likely that for many organizations remote work has not been a success. There were a number of common ways in which the great remote work experiment of the 2020 pandemic was set up to fail.

  • Remote work was seen as a short term measure, with returning to the office always the long term goal.
  • Many companies just moved all their meetings online, and added more for good measure. Management didn’t rethink practices and rituals for the new world, resulting in meeting overload and zoom fatigue.
  • Remote work highlighted or exacerbated existing issues. Teams (or companies) with poor management practices (extremely common) no longer had the structure of an office as a forcing function for baseline communication.
  • Not everyone was set up to work remotely, with uncomfortable setups and a lack of boundaries between work and life. Employees weren’t “remote working”, they were trapped at home, working.
  • Generally life has been harder for most people, which makes management and team cohesion more challenging. If someone is less engaged, is it work, remote work, or the world burning?

From the management perspective, I am not surprised to see some leadership teams thinking that remote work hasn’t worked, that it’s been detrimental to productivity and engagement. This is likely true for some people, particularly those who didn’t have a reasonable home setup or had to struggle with childcare alongside their job. It’s likely also true for some teams who relied on the structure of an office for certain things, and didn’t figure out how to replicate them outside the office (e.g. collaboration and cohesion). At some level of abstraction it’s reasonable to conclude remote work is the problem.

The Hiring Manager Perspective

I’ve been hiring people into globally distributed teams since 2016. It has always been true that some people just wanted to work remotely (for whatever reason). At that time plenty of software engineers were already committed to remote work, and whilst they didn’t have as many options as they might if they were willing to relocate (or just lived in the Bay Area), there were options available. The job market for software developers has been sufficiently competitive for developers to have significant leverage for things that are truly important to them for some time now.

For people who had not worked remotely, I used to see some apprehension about it. People would want to know how they would collaborate, build a connection with co-workers etc. Now what I see is people who tell me they done it for ~12+ months, and want to keep at it. They often mention a desire to work in a place that was build remote first, rather than companies who went remote by necessity.

I thought the shift to remote work would make it harder for me to hire, but that doesn’t (initially) seem to be true. Firstly, because remote-first companies are more appealing to people who want to give remote work a genuine try. But secondly, in the nature of “the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed”, the reality of modern, global, employment. Many newly remote companies are in fact, “Remote – US only”. Even within the EU, there is no concept of an EU-wide employment entity, and companies have to decide how to navigate that – or not. The reality: either companies hire in a constrained set of countries, or most “employees” are legally contractors.

There is more competition to hire in the US, but there was always a lot of competition to hire in the US, which is why I’ve been prioritising hiring outside the US for years.

The Self-Serving Nature of Power

There was an article about the return to the office by someone in leadership at WeWork recently. I won’t link it, because I didn’t read it, and because do we really need to know more detail than the person in the business of renting out office space says that office space will still be in demand (and valuable under capitalism) as things return to “normal”.

Similarly, other big companies that have issued memos about how nice it will be to all be in the office again together. The people making these decisions are not the ones most impacted by the realities of office work that many people find so unenjoyable.

  • They do not spend their days at a desk in an open plan office.
  • They are sufficiently highly paid that higher property prices / costs of living are immaterial (or at least: dramatically less impactful).
  • Their days are constrained by a meeting heavy calendar.
  • Statistically, they are more likely to be men, and it is more likely that their partner doesn’t work.

Finally, I don’t believe remote management is harder than IRL management, but I do think that it’s more obvious and detrimental in a remote context when management isn’t being done well. If overall the quality of management in your organisation is poor, you can either opt to boost everyone by (total guess) ~20% by giving them the structure of an office, or set about addressing the root issue. One of those seems much easier than the other – at least in the short term.

If it seems like people are talking past each other on this topic, it’s because they are. People who are making the case for the office have more to gain from it, or don’t experience the loss. But people who are making the case for remote work are more focused on their individual experience and lack insight into the broader reality of the organization. Are software engineers “entitled” or are they just used to having a stronger negotiating position?

The Reckoning of the Job Market

In the short term it seems that some companies will embrace remote work, others will embrace the office. Individuals will decide what is best for their lives and careers, and act accordingly. I doubt my career will ever require me to work in an office again (not something I was sure of at the start of 2020), but I do think we will still have offices for a while.

I am skeptical that open letters and requests and feelings will change things. Individually, I think each of us has two powerful axes of impact.

The first is to create change within our environments. There are many things that managers, or even individuals within teams can do, to make those teams more effective. Ultimately, it is only proving the effectiveness of remote work to work that will change the minds of skeptics.

The second is to vote with our feet. Remote work can be a hiring and retention issue – I have seen that first hand as a hiring manager, and expect that trend to increase. The thing that is most interesting to me here is when we stop talking about working remotely – this has been possible for years in software – but building a remote career, and creating genuine opportunities for advancement. I am excited to see all the companies who have announced they will go fully – or partially – remote share how they plan to ensure equitable career progression and advancement. My prediction is that that will be the new competitive advantage.