Remotely Working: The Long, Unhappy History of Working From Home?

An article published this week at the New York Times claims working from home will never worked. Let's talk about that.

"Remotely working" is a weekly newsletter discussing remote work.

Hi guys,

First, housekeeping: most of you subscribed to my mailing list through the remote work communication piece. Good news on that, from now on this newsletter will focus on remote work on all of its aspects.

As for today's subject, I want to talk about a piece published at the new york times by David Streitfeld - The Long, Unhappy History of Working From Home.

In this piece, David attacks the remote work movement. Claiming that throughout history, attempts at remote work failed. He then goes through multiple examples to demonstrate his point.

The first obvious problem with this article is showing just failed attempts. Where is Automattic example? Mozilla? Wikimedia? Gitlab? Github? And those are fully remote companies. We have many corporate examples with huge divisions working remotely for years.

Second, every example he gives has obvious flaws. I’ll try to address some of them here - but these examples will not be exhaustive as each flaw can fill its own full-length article.

RLM Public Relations - management failure

RLM Public Relations is his first example. People there were allowed to work from home on Fridays. “He often couldn’t find people when he needed them. Projects languished.” says the article. “Every weekend became a three-day holiday”.

I found the original article by Richard Laermer from RLM.

Remote work is a different way of work. It requires a strategy for communication and expectation settings. Richard on the other hand describes it as a “perk” offered to employees.

What? We are talking about a fundamentally different way of working. This is not just a “perk”. Describing and communicating it to people as a “perk”, and not as another way of working is a big mistake.

“I found that too many employees treated their work-from-home day as paid time off. They rolled their eyes when managers tried to reach them in the middle of the day. ” says Richard.

Defining working from home as a perk will give you this result. Not setting any expectations. Not defining any communication system to adapt for this different environment. All of that, for a team that otherwise is always at the office.

This is not remote work. Remote work isn’t just letting people once a week work from home. Remote work is a system where your communications and management are fundamentally changed. Hybrids like this are the most error-prone. You can’t switch all your methodology every time for one day.

Moreover, this is a management issue. An employee tells you to “suck it” because they are on their perk day? You haven’t communicated what this day is. This is on you as a manager.

IBM - called off for lost revenue?

Next, the article claims that in 2017 IBM canceled their remote work option due to revenues going down because of it. Or at least that is what David tries to imply with the wording “But in 2017, with revenue slumping, management called thousands of them back to the office.”

And he has good reason just to imply. This is simply false.

Take a look at IBM's financial statement since 2005. It has around 20 Billion $ of revenue each quarter since 2005. Haven’t moved much. And was slightly down since IBM completely missed the cloud transformation. And they missed it as a strategy, that’s what IBM does. They miss trends and then catch up once the trend is an obvious success, using their brand name and trust within many huge market companies, to transform with them.

IBM’s revenue have nothing to do with remote work. I have no idea where he got his claim from.

Best Buy - I don’t trust my employees

Last, let’s talk about the Best Buy example.

Let me say this - if you don’t trust your employees, you have problems much bigger than employee effectiveness on remote work.

From the article itself:

Jody Thompson, a co-founder of the program who left Best Buy in 2007 to become a consultant, said the company was doing poorly and panicked. “It went back to a philosophy of ‘If I can see people, that means they must be working,’” she said.

He literally addresses the fuck-up that went on in Best Buy.

Management have been so weak, their mistrust bombed the operation. Let me say this - if you think your employee is tricking you, watching him at work won’t help. Employees can do nothing even when they are in an office. Shocking, I know.

Summary

I haven’t covered all examples here. And those I did, I left so much more unsaid. This newsletter issue is too long as it is already.

But it is obvious the examples given at this article failed because of the companies themselves, and not because remote work is somehow worse than office work.

Companies with bad managers who don’t communicate expectations and don’t set the right systems for remote work. Companies who don’t trust their own employees. Those are just 2 examples.

Remote work is great. But it doesn’t come free. You need to manage it, you need to communicate it, and you have to trust your employees.