The future of hybrid and remote work
As a software developer with many years of remote and in-office experience, I am excited by the current shift that's making remote and hybrid work commonplace.
The pandemic was a global tragedy and a big disruptor to every aspect of the lives of people everywhere. One of the few silver linings was that it forced a rethinking of the importance of location for the knowledge worker and what “office” actually means.
In my two decades of professional experience, I spent about half of it working remotely. The other half we had a small office (10 to 15 people), but mostly worked with clients overseas. In my time as both an individual contributor, and manager of dev teams, I had to handle the challenges arising from, and enjoy the advantages of, remote work.
My view is naturally colored by my experience. I am a software engineer and have worked in IT my entire career. While I believe most of what I say here can be generalized, there are nuances for every profession.
Location, location, location
Let's get obvious out of the way. Not all work is – or will be – possible to do remotely.
Although technology will continue to push the limits (remote truck driving, anyone?), many jobs, from surgeons to shopkeepers to street sweepers, still require people to be in a certain location to do their job. This does not mean those jobs are lesser, or that they will lose out in the “remote work revolution” – quite the opposite. Fewer people commuting to work and crowding in hot locations means less traffic, less stress and more room for those that choose to – or have to – be there.
My job as a software developer consists mostly of reading from a computer screen and typing on a keyboard, with the occasional use of a mouse. I can do that anywhere on the planet, provided there is electricity and an adequate internet connection. In reality, what I consume (as a work input) and produce (work output) is information, and that's easily sent across the world.
The same holds mostly true for most knowledge workers. When push came to shove (the pandemic lockdowns), a lot of people realized the work they do can be performed remotely.
Hierarchy of needs
Of course, that's not all there is. We still need information, often implicit, from our coworkers, about the problem we're solving, and the wider context our company, customers, and clients are operating on. Much of this is recorded poorly, or not at all. Remote interactions are harder than face-to-face and Zoom fatigue is real. And sometimes we need specialized office or lab equipment.
And as much as we love working in our pajamas, we might miss office chit-chat or getting that energized feeling from being a member of a well-oiled team of awesome people doing great work together.
Back to life, back to reality, back to the here and now
Now that things are normalizing a bit (I know it's a stretch to use that word in the middle of 2022), companies are starting to mandate back-to-office or hybrid work. Conspiracy theories about reasons are many, from wanting to micromanage workers better, to making sure expensive office leases are utilized, to being a sneaky way to lay people off without actually giving them the pink slip.
However this is resolved, the genie is out of the bottle. Remote work has previously been regarded as a unique perk or very specific work arrangement. Now, wherever it's allowed or not in a particular company, it's normal. I think that's a good thing.
Checking our privilege
Us IT folks have it easy. The job market is hot and there are plenty of opportunities for good engineers. Yes, there are hiring freezes and some companies are laying off people. In most of the cases I heard of, people were quickly snatched by the competitors.
This puts us in a position to demand the ability to work remotely, and if needed, to quit and join a company that will allow that. Not everyone is so lucky and there are legions of knowledge workers who have returned (or will have to return) to the office just because the bosses decreed it.
In IT, and especially in software development, the shift is real, and companies need to adapt.
In-office vs remote work
There is a fundamental divide between in-office and remote work, and that is how the information within the company flows. Companies where in-office work is the norm can get away with much larger implicit context and rely on employees communicating directly ad-hoc, as needed.
To take full advantage, such companies maximize the overlap between the employees' working hours (9 to 5 everyone!), and try to cluster employees together (if not all the company can be in the same location, at least the teams working together) and design office space to optimize for interaction (leading to unfortunate things like open offices).
Remote-first companies focus on async work (work on your own time, communicate asynchronously with coworkers) making it possible to hire globally. Instead of spending on office space, they give workers budgets to improve their workspace or equipment. But most of all, remote-first companies take communication at all levels seriously. From office banter to all-hands meetings, stuff is happening online and is often saved or recorded for the benefit of people who are not online at that very moment.
It's easy to contrast these two extremes, but many companies will probably lie somewhere in between.
Old-style hybrid work
“Hybrid” is a word that describes two different work arrangements, depending on where the company started from.
For traditional office-based companies that are introducing hybrid work, this usually amounts to a perk allowing employees to work from home a few days per week. Often, at least two days are fixed for meetings and any other work that must be performed on-site. This type of hybrid office can easily slip back into the “office is king” mentality, where the important things still happen in the office, not everything is shared with remote workers (not necessarily due to any malicious intent), and the more you're present, the faster you'll career trajectory will be.
This was mostly the status quo for remote workers before the pandemic. Except in rare enlightened companies, remote workers were de-facto second-class citizens. The more a company now stresses that being in-office is important, the more likely it'll fall back on this pre-pandemic default.
I believe that companies that are now requiring employees to be present at least three days a week will most likely fall back to this mentality.
If they combine this with hot-desking, where employees must find themselves a (possibly different) desk each day, it will only make things worse. I fear this may be a real possibility for many, to try to have the workers back but still save on office space.
Remote-first hybrid work
Another type of hybrid-location company is remote-first which recognizes there is benefit in getting people together or making it easy for people who want to work from the office to do so. These companies understand office is just another location. Hopefully, the environment is optimized for work (quiet environment, good equipment, etc) but in terms of work communication, it holds no special place.
A company I currently work with has such an approach. They're NYC-based, but have employees throughout the US, as well as people in Latin America and Europe. The main communication channels are all digital – Slack, Zoom, Notion, and email. Scheduling Zoom meetings across time zones is a bit challenging, but they manage and are looking to improve as they grow.
From remote-as-perk to remote-first hybrid
There's a tremendous opportunity for companies that are willing to switch from the office-based (or remote-as-perk a few days per week) model to the remote-first hybrid model. They can still make use of their existing office space (possibly downsized to reap financial benefits), reconfiguring it so it is support for people who want to work from the office, or who need to come to the office.
Essentially, they can turn their offices into a sort of internal coworking space. Employees that don't want or can't work from home can still come to the office. Coworkers or entire teams can independently or ad-hoc agree to come to the office for a day or a week for brainstorming sessions, project kick-offs, or just to socialize from time to time.
Remote-first, but not remote-always
In a few places I worked as a remote developer, companies had policies to bring everyone on the team together for a few days. This was sometimes combined with everyone going to a conference but hanging out in the off-times, or for everyone to be in the same place to start a new initiative. This was always a fun experience (even when paired with hard work) and I felt energized and ready to take on new challenges.
I believe fully remote companies should try to bring their people together at least once or twice per year. This can be company-wide (for smaller organizations) or per-team (easier to do with larger companies). If the company is fully remote and doesn't have an HQ, doesn't matter: pick a nice location and if there's a conference or another interesting event, that's even better.
Remote vs overseas
A lot of companies these days say they hire remotely but within a country. For example, a job listing may say “remote, US-only”.
This is understandable: it's legally easier to hire within the country you're incorporated in, the cultural differences are smaller, and time zone difference is more manageable. it can also be harder to find remote talent since you don't know where or how to look. The stigma of hiring overseas developers as “outsourcing to cheap labor” doesn't help.
Cultural differences are real and should not be ignored. Being cognizant of the different ways people communicate (or avoid difficult subjects) is important. I've found that (respectfully) overcommunicating helps, as it reduces the potential for confusion. Time zone differences can have a larger or smaller impact, depending on whether your team's communication is more synchronous or async. If you have daily Zoom meetings and your team is spread over Australia, Europe, and the US, you'll have a lot of unhappy people. Somewhat localizing the teams, and making most communication asynchronous help.
Remote doesn't mean cheap labor
If you pay peanuts, you'll get (code) monkeys. Good developers anywhere know what they're worth. That said, the differences in cost of living are huge, and people do take into account the (in)convenience of living anywhere. $100K means a very different lifestyle to someone in San Francisco than to someone in Vienna or Manila.
Developers are ambivalent toward location-based salaries – on the one hand, we'd prefer to be paid what we're worth (based on the value we provide), not based on where we live. On the other hand, we don't accept that there are talented and skilled people that can provide the same value for a slightly (or more than slightly) lower price, in lower-income countries.
If companies were completely oblivious to someone's location, it would be natural for them to want to pay a lower price for the same value, so they'd hire in lower-income locations (within a country or overseas). But they're not. They do prefer local (or nearby) employees, and they are willing to pay a higher price for that. A direct consequence of this is that at least some portion of the salary is going to be location-based.
As knowledge workers, we should get to terms with that fact. We are paid based on the value we provide, but not in isolation, and the job market will always have an impact.
The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed
The pandemic turned remote work from a fringe benefit to a normal, accepted, way to do your job, in cases, companies and jobs where that makes sense. The technology will keep pushing the boundaries where that's possible, and the knowledge workers will keep pushing to have that option.
Companies will have to adapt: by doubling down on office (and paying extra for it), embracing the new opportunity to broaden the talent pool, or finding a hybrid sweet spot that makes sense for both them and their employees.
There's no going back.