Not even remotely possible

Down with the tyranny of geography. Down with commuting,
daily activity most injurious to human happiness
.” Down
with allegedly “collaborative” open floor plans built such that
executives […] are exempt from this collaborative
.” Up with more time, greater flexibility, and,
believe it or not, higher productivity.

I’m talking about remote work, of course, a subject that
provokes surprising vituperation
whenever I write about it
. (Armchair-psychologist theory:
people get very angry at notions which imply they have spent
much of their lives needlessly making themselves very unhappy.)
It’s also a subject I know more than a little something about:
we at HappyFunCorp have been building
software with all-remote and/or partly-remote teams for seven
years now. I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t.

What doesn’t work includes confusing physical presence
with checked-in code, or in-person meetings with productive
communications, or valuing the starry-eyed magic of
“serendipitous collisions” above all else and/or common sense.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying remote work is a panacea. It
too has its failure modes. But the assumption that its failure
modes are worse than those of office work, just because office
work is the historical default, is sheer intellectual laziness.

We at HFC do have a headquarters in Brooklyn, where a plurality
of us labor, but I’ve worked successfully with teams scattered
across New Delhi, Milan, New York, Berlin, Campina Grande, and
San Francisco. In this era of Slack, Skype, and Github, a team
of a dozen capable people across a dozen time zones can run
like a well-oiled machine.

Quite apart from the time and rent saved, there’s growing
evidence that remote teams can be more productive than
in-person ones. Consider: “We
found massive, massive improvement in performance — a 13%
improvement in performance from people working at home
Consider companies like Automattic, Gitlab, InVision, and
Zapier, all of which thrive
as fully remote companies.

And if still seems bizarre, weird, or experimental, consider


Surveys done by Gallup indicate that in 2016, the proportion
of Americans who did some or all of their work from home was
43%, up from 39% in 2012. Over the same period, the
proportion who only work remotely went to 20% from 15%

The biggest transition from office to remote work isn’t the
geography; that’s incidental. The biggest transition is the
mode of communication, which goes from default-synchronous
(walk over to your colleague’s desk) to default-asynchronous
(PM them on Slack.) I certainly concede that certain forms of
work, and certain people, benefit more from synchronous
communications; but I put it to you that “most kinds of
software development” is not among them1, and that
an ever-increasing fraction of the world’s work can be
described as “most kinds of software development.”

However. Having said all that. Remote work is not without its
flaws and challenges. Some people prefer a tight-knit work
community to the broader but more loose-knit ones that remote
work fosters, which is fair enough. “Serendipitous collisions”
can and do happen among asynchronous communicators, too — posts
on shared Slack channels can snowball into full-scale internal
projects with surprising ease — but I think it’s fair to say
that they’re more likely to occur in-person. And even the
largest of all-remote companies have populations measured in
the hundreds, not the thousands; once you hit a certain size
you need a physical footprint.

The biggest problem of all, though, is that it’s much harder
for (many) junior people to learn from asynchronous rather than
synchronous communication. There are exceptions, the kinds of
people who learn better from textbooks than from classes; but
as a general rule, in my experience, remote work is for people
who are already fairly capable and experienced. That’s fine for
HFC and companies like us, we have the luxury of limiting
ourselves to senior developers and/or the exceptions among
juniors, but that solution doesn’t scale.

Looking at the increasing numbers, though, it seems awfully
apparent that remote work is the future for a substantial
fraction of the modern work force. I still find it bizarre that
the notion apparently makes so many people so angry.

1Pair programming has its place in this world, but I
spent six months working at a 100% pair-programming shop once,
and it was one of the least pleasant experiences of my
professional career. I recognize and celebrate that for many
people it is excellent! For most of the rest of us, however, it
is the polar opposite.

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