Remote: Office Not Required


Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson

Good overview of how and why more companies can switch to a remote workforce. It covers dealing with the major objections, common pitfalls, how to convince your company to try it. Definitely worth your time if you want to figure out how to switch to remote working or if you’re trying to convince your company (or team) to switch.

Buy it

Highlights and notes

If you ask people where they go when they really need to get work done, very few will respond “the office.”

What they’re trying to tell you is that they can’t get work done at work. The office during the day has become the last place people want to be when they really want to get work done.

Offices have become interruption factories.

The ability to be alone with your thoughts is, in fact, one of the key advantages of working remotely.

commuting is associated with an increased risk of obesity, insomnia, stress, neck and back pain, high blood pressure, and other stress-related ills such as heart attacks and depression, and even divorce.

The big transition with a distributed workforce is going from synchronous to asynchronous collaboration. Not only do we not have to be in the same spot to work together, we also don’t have to work at the same time to work together.

So here’s a prediction: The luxury privilege of the next twenty years will be to leave the city. Not as its leashed servant in a suburb, but to wherever one wants.

The new luxury is to shed the shackles of deferred living—to pursue your passions now, while you’re still working.

The new luxury is the luxury of freedom and time. Once you’ve had a taste of that life, no corner office or fancy chef will be able to drag you back.

Star employees who work away from the echo chambers of industry spend far less time brooding about how much greener the grass is on the other side and, generally, seem happier in their work.

Letting people work remotely is about promoting quality of life, about getting access to the best people wherever they are, and all the other benefits we’ll enumerate. That it may also end up reducing costs spent on offices and result in fewer-but-more-productive workers is the gravy, not the turkey.

Cutting back on commuting also means huge savings for the environment.

Embracing remote work doesn’t mean you can’t have an office, just that it’s not required.

Remote work is not without cost or compromise.

At first, giving up seeing your coworkers in person every day might come as a relief (if you’re an introvert), but eventually you’re likely to feel a loss.

Losses when you switch to remote working:

Something you lose when remote working: imposed structure and regimen. It’s not always easy to set boundaries. Kids will be kids, demanding your attention right now, and your spouse, just like a coworker, might not realize that an interruption to show you the Internet’s latest hit meme is not what the productivity doctor ordered.

Dealing with objections

Magic only happens when we’re all in a room

Let’s assume for a second that’s true: Breakthrough ideas only happen when people meet face-to-face. Still, the question remains: How many breakthrough ideas can a company actually digest? Far fewer than you imagine. Most work is not coming up with The Next Big Thing. Rather, it’s making better the thing you already thought of six months—or six years—ago. It’s the work of work.

Only about three times a year does the whole company get together in the Chicago office.

If I can’t see them, how do I know they’re working?

Most fears that have to do with people working remotely stem from a lack of trust.

People have an amazing ability to live down to low expectations. If you run your ship with the conviction that everyone’s a slacker, your employees will put all their ingenuity into proving you right. If you view those who work under you as capable adults who will push themselves to excel even when you’re not breathing down their necks, they’ll delight you in return.

“If we’re struggling with trust issues, it means we made a poor hiring decision. If a team member isn’t producing good results or can’t manage their own schedule and workload, we aren’t going to continue to work with that person. It’s as simple as that. We employ team members who are skilled professionals, capable of managing their own schedules and making a valuable contribution to the organization. We have no desire to be babysitters during the day.”

if you can’t let your employees work from home out of fear they’ll slack off without your supervision, you’re a babysitter, not a manager. Remote work is very likely the least of your problems.

“To successfully work with other people, you have to trust each other. A big part of this is trusting people to get their work done wherever they are, without supervision.”

People’s homes are full of distractions

Between soap operas, PlayStation, cold beers in the fridge, and all the laundry that needs doing, how can you possibly get anything done at home? Simple: because you’ve got a job to do and you’re a responsible adult.

the number one counter to distractions is interesting, fulfilling work.

Sometimes, distractions can actually serve a purpose. Like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, they warn us—when we feel ourselves regularly succumbing to them—that our work is not well defined, or our tasks are menial, or the whole project we’re engaged in is fundamentally pointless.

Most people want to work, as long as it’s stimulating and fulfilling. And if you’re stuck in a dead-end job that has no prospects of being either, then you don’t just need a remote position—you need a new job.

Only the office can be secure

Security is a big and serious deal, but it’s also largely a solved problem.

Who will answer the phone?

you may well have to assign “regular working hours” to those employees whose chief function is to answer customers. But why subject everyone in the company to those hours? False equality benefits nobody.

Big business doesn’t do it, so why should we?

The whole point of innovation and disruption is doing things differently from those who came before you. Unless you do that, you won’t stand a chance.

In fact, you should be happy if the 800-pound gorilla in your industry is still clinging to the old ways of working. It will just make it that much easier to beat them.

if you hide in the herd, you’re not likely to get ahead of the pack.

Others would get jealous

First of all, if working remotely is such an obvious good thing that everyone would want it, why shouldn’t we let everyone do it?

Second, of course it’s true that some jobs simply aren’t a good fit for remote execution.

The guy sending packages from the warehouse already has a different job from the girl running the books in accounting. Different jobs, different requirements. People get that.

What about culture?

culture is the spoken and unspoken values and actions of the organization.

having people work remotely forces you to forgo the illusion that building a company culture is just about in-person social activities. Now you can get on with the actual work of defining and practicing it instead.

I need an answer now!

When everyone is sitting in the same office, it’s easy to fall into the habit of bothering anyone for anything at any time, with no regard for personal productivity. This is a key reason so many people get so little done in traditional office setups—too many interruptions.

First, it takes recognizing that not every question needs an answer immediately—there’s nothing more arrogant than taking up someone else’s time with a question you don’t need an answer to right now. That means realizing that not everything is equally important.

Questions you can wait hours to learn the answers to are fine to put in an email. Questions that require answers in the next few minutes can go into an instant message. For crises that truly merit a sky-is-falling designation, you can use that old-fashioned invention called the telephone.

you’ll quickly realize that 80 percent of your questions aren’t so timesensitive after all, and are often better served by an email than by walking over to someone’s desk.

Breaking your and others’ addiction to ASAP won’t come without withdrawal. You’ll be frustrated the first couple days as your brain adjusts to matching interactions with others to the appropriate medium. You’ll also have to resist the temptation to just transfer your expectations to a new medium you’ve chosen. Handling 80 percent of your questions with email won’t work out well if you get upset when people don’t answer within ten minutes.

But I’ll lose control

It’s rarely spelled out directly, but a lot of the arguments against working remotely are based on the fear of losing control.

The thinking goes, If I can see them, I can control them.

Wresting that antiquated notion of control away from managers isn’t a logical or rational process. It’s often something that needs to be slow-walked—until the person calling the shots gets comfortable with the concept.

So if you’re fighting against someone’s fear of losing control, you have to start small and show that the world doesn’t fall apart if you start working from home on Wednesdays. Not only didn’t it fall apart, but look at all this extra stuff I got done! Then you can ramp it up to two days, and more flexible hours, and before you know it you’re ready to move to another city and the wheels just keep on turning.

Even equipped with all the great arguments in this book, you may still fail. In that case, it just might be time to saddle up and consider another place to work.

We paid a lot of money for this office

This probably ranks up there as the most foolish excuse to forbid working remotely,

Sunk cost means that the money spent on the office is already spent. Whoever paid for it is not getting it back whether it’s being used or not. So, rationally, the only thing that matters regarding where to work is whether the office is a more productive place or not. That’s it.

That wouldn’t work for our size or industry

Working remotely, if it is to be successful, usually requires some overlap with the hours your coworkers are putting in.

At 37signals, we’ve found that we need a good four hours of overlap to avoid collaboration delays and feel like a team.

When someone wants to demonstrate a new feature they’re working on at 37signals, often the easiest way is to record a screencast and narrate the experience.

Here’s the key: you need everything available to everyone at all times.

The wonderful thing about a chat room is that it doesn’t require constant attention. People check in and check out during the day at natural break points.

This means that you, the remote worker, are in control of your social interaction—when it happens and how much of it you need. At first it might simply seem like a waste of time, especially if you’re not already used to reading Reddit on the side, but it’s a quality waste of time with your coworkers. We all need that.

To instill a sense of company cohesion and to share forward motion, everyone needs to feel that they’re in the loop.

At 37signals we’ve institutionalized this through a weekly discussion thread with the subject “What have you been working on?”

It also serves as a friendly reminder that we’re all in it to make progress.

We all have a natural instinct to avoid letting our team down, so when that commitment becomes visual, it gets reinforced.

It’s also a lot harder to bullshit your peers than your boss.

One of the secret benefits of hiring remote workers is that the work itself becomes the yardstick to judge someone’s performance.

When you can’t see someone all day long, the only thing you have to evaluate is the work.

When it’s all about the work, it’s clear who in the company is pulling their weight and who isn’t.

Remote work isn’t just for people who are out of town, across state lines, or on different continents. You can work remotely from down the street. Remote just means you’re not in the office 9am–5pm, all day long.

If you’re an owner or manager, letting local people work remotely is a great first step toward seeing if remote will work for you. It’s low risk, it’s no big deal, and worse comes to worst, people can start working at the office again.

But here’s the thing: if you’re going to give it a shot, give it a real shot. Try it for at least three months. There’s going to be an adjustment period, so let everyone settle into their new rhythm. You can even start with two days remote, three days in the office. Then, if all goes well, flip it—two days in the office, three days remote. Work up to a full week out of the office.

In systems design there’s the notion of a Single Point of Failure, or SPoF.

Forcing everyone into the office every day is an organizational SPoF.

American Fidelity Assurance (AFA) cited the ability to continue helping customers even during disasters as a key reason they’re sticking with remote work. When they needed to close their headquarters in Oklahoma City for inclement weather, their remote workers all worked from home and customers never knew the difference.

The company also encourages everyone to stay home during the peak of flu season or during scares like H1N1.

personal “disasters” strike with regularity, and at such times the ability to work remotely is essential.

Most of the time when you hear people imagining why remote work won’t work, they’ll point to two things in particular: One, you can’t have face-to-face meetings when people aren’t in the office. And two, managers can’t tell if people are getting work done if they can’t see them working.

We believe that these staples of work life—meetings and managers—are actually the greatest causes of work not getting done at the office. That, in fact, the further away you are from meetings and managers, the more work gets done.

Meetings should be like salt—sprinkled carefully to enhance a dish, not poured recklessly over every forkful. Too much salt destroys a dish. Too many meetings can destroy morale and motivation.

Meetings are major distractions. They require multiple people to drop whatever it is they’re doing and instead do something else.

Management, like meetings, should be used sparingly. Constantly asking people what they’re working on prevents them from actually doing the work they’re describing. And since managers are often the people who call the meetings, their very presence leads to less productive workdays.

Part of the problem is the perceived need to fill a whole day with management stuff, regardless of whether it’s called for or not. All those dreaded status meetings, interruptions for estimates, and planning sessions have a curious way of adding up exactly to a manager’s workweek.

While monitoring output is sometimes quite important, it’s rarely a forty-hour-per-week position. Ten hours maybe, but few full-time managers have the courage to limit their presence to that.

Working remotely makes it easier to spot managers drumming up busywork for themselves and others. The act of pulling people into a conference room or walking to their desks leaves no evidence of interruption, and it’s all of the synchronous “drop what you’re doing right now to entertain me!” variety. But when management is forced to manage remotely using email, Basecamp, IM, and chat, its intervention is much more purposeful and compressed, and we can just get on with the actual work.

Cabin fever is real, and remote workers are more susceptible to it than those forced into an office. Fortunately, it’s an easy problem to address. Remote work doesn’t mean being chained to your home-office desk.

That’s the great irony of letting passionate people work from home. A manager’s natural instinct is to worry about his workers not getting enough work done, but the real threat is that too much will likely get done.

What a manager needs to establish is a culture of reasonable expectations. At 37signals, we expect and encourage people to work forty hours per week on average. There are no hero awards for putting in more than that. Sure, every now and then there’s the need for a short sprint, but, most of the time, the company is viewing what it does as a marathon. It’s crucial for everyone to pace themselves.

One way to help set a healthy boundary is to encourage employees to think of a “good day’s work.” Look at your progress toward the end of the day and ask yourself: “Have I done a good day’s work?”

Answering that question is liberating. Often, if the answer is an easy “yes,” you can stop working feeling satisfied that something important got accomplished, if not entirely “done.” And should the answer be “no,” you can treat it as an off-day and explore the Five Whys* (asking why to a problem five times in a row to find the root cause).

If you’re going to make a real go at working from home for the long term, you’ll need to get the ergonomic basics right.

That means getting a proper desk (height adjustable?), a proper chair (Humanscale Liberty?), and a proper screen (27 inches in high resolution!). All that stuff can seem expensive, but it’s a great bargain if it means not ruining your back, your eyesight, or any other part of your anatomy.

This very real problem was confirmed by the health insurance company Aetna, which has nearly half its 35,000 U.S. employees working from home. They discovered that the remote-working half tended to be heavier. Now they offer online personal trainers to help employees stay in shape.‡

Here’s how to guarantee a remote-work failure: Pick one employee who gets to “give this remote thing a try,” then just carry on with business as usual.

You can’t experiment with working remotely by sending one or two people to Siberia. To give it a proper try, you need to set free at least an entire team—including project management and key stakeholders! And then you need to give it longer than it takes to break in a new pair of shoes.

Working with clients

First, when pitching businesses, let the prospective client know up front that you don’t live where they live.

Second, provide references before the client even asks.

Third, show them work often.

Fourth, be very available.

Since you can’t meet face-to-face, you better return phone calls, emails, instant messages, etc.

Lastly, get the client involved and let them follow along. Make sure they feel that this is their project too.

be mindful of language barriers. With remote work, most communication is written. Many people who can get by with so-so language skills in the spoken realm fall flat when it comes to the written word. There simply isn’t much room for weak communication on teams with tight collaboration.

Given how hard it is to find great people, you should be doing your utmost to keep them. That sounds self-evident, yet plenty of companies are willing to let their stars disappear when life forces them to move. That’s just plain dumb.

The human connection is even more important when hiring remote workers because it has to be stronger to survive the distance.

When the bulk of your communication happens via email and the like, it doesn’t take much for bad blood to develop unless everyone is making their best effort to the contrary.

That’s one of the key challenges of remote work: keeping everyone’s outlook healthy and happy.

it’s as important to continuously monitor the work atmosphere as to hire for it. It’s never a good idea to let poisonous people stick around to spoil it for everyone else, but in a remote-work setup it’s deadly.

The old adage still applies: No assholes allowed. But for remote work, you need to extend it to no asshole-y behavior allowed, no drama allowed, no bad vibes allowed.

Smart solutions, friendly service, and edgy design all happen at the intersection of professional skill and life experience.

In the 1990s, Microsoft was infamous for using all sorts of riddles and quizzes and other parlor tricks to separate the wheat from the chaff.

This method of identifying the best and the brightest is hogwash.

All of these other parlor tricks are indirect measures of looking at a candidate—probably even less reliable than looking at their college grade point average. For most of the work that can be done remotely, it’s entirely unnecessary to go the indirect route.

Instead, you can ask copywriters to show you copy, consultants to show you reports or results, programmers to show you code, designers to show you designs, marketers to show you campaigns, and so on and so forth.

The main way you’ll communicate is through the work itself. If the quality just isn’t there, it’ll be apparent from the second the person starts—and you’ll have wasted everyone’s time by hiring on circumstantial evidence.

For positions that don’t lend themselves to portfolio accumulation, you can simply pose real-world problems and have the person answer them as part of the application.

Instead of thinking I can pay people from Kansas less than people from New York, you should think I can get amazing people from Kansas and make them feel valued and well-compensated if I pay them New York salaries.

Great remote workers are simply great workers

It’s a lot harder to fake your way as a remote worker.

They exhibit the two key qualities, as Joel Spolsky labeled them in his “Guerrilla Guide to Interviewing”: Smart, and Gets Things Done.

When the work product is out in the open, it’s much easier to see who’s actually smart (as opposed to who simply sounds smart). The collective judgment rarely even has to be verbalized. Conversely, if the work keeps getting flagged with problems, it’s evidence that the Smarts aren’t sufficiently present for the work at hand. Also, if the duration between installments of new work or tasks being checked off is persistently lengthy, it’s a sign that the Gets Things Done bit is missing.

Being a good writer is an essential part of being a good remote worker.

There’s simply no getting around it: in hiring for remote-working positions, managers should be ruthless in filtering out poor writers.

Here are a few books to start with if you’re serious about becoming a better writer: On Writing Well by William Zinsser The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White Revising Prose by Richard Lanham

The best way we’ve found to accurately judge work is to hire the person to do a little work before we take the plunge and hire them to do a lot of work. Call it “pre-hiring.” Pre-hiring takes the form of a one- or two-week mini-project. We usually pay around $1,500 for the mini-project. We never ask people to work for free.

If we offer them the job, and they want to work with us, we virtually shake hands and often invite them back to the office for their first few weeks on the job. This way they can get a bit more acclimated to the team, the culture, the faces, the names, etc. Once oriented, they can go back home with a solid introduction to the company, the people, and the way we work.

If there’s an ideal training regimen for remote workers, it’s being a contractor for a while. As a contractor, you have to be able to set a reasonable schedule, show good progress at regular intervals, and convert an often fuzzy definition of the work into a deliverable. All these are skills perfectly suited for remote work.

it’s best if you start as early as possible. Cultures grow over time, and it’ll be a lot easier if your culture grows up with remote workers.

A great place to start is to allow your current employees to begin working remotely.

It’s easy to be a manager when all you have to do is manage the chairs. Making sure that the little worker bees arrive by nine in the morning and giving them an extra star on their score card if they stay past six—this is how much of management has operated since forever.

The job of a manager is not to herd cats, but to lead and verify the work.

Feeling like a second-class worker doesn’t take much. Case in point: a roomful of local people and a shitty intercom system that makes it hard for the remote worker to hear what’s going on and even harder to participate.

There’s also the annoyance of having every debate end with “John and I talked about this in the office yesterday and decided that your idea isn’t going to work.” Fuck that.

our schedule is a bit irregular, but we try to pick up the phone and talk with every remote person at least once every few months.

The best way to ease the remote worker’s plight is to do away with these roadblocks entirely. Start by empowering everyone to make decisions on their own. If the company is full of people whom nobody trusts to make decisions without layers of managerial review, then the company is full of the wrong people.

At 37signals we’ve created a number of ways to eradicate roadblocks. First, everyone gets a company credit card and is told to “spend wisely.” There’s no begging to spend money on needed equipment to get the work done, and there are no expense reports to fill out (just forward all receipts to an internal email address in case of an audit). Second, workers at 37signals needn’t ask permission to go on vacation or specify how much time they’ll take. We tell them: just be reasonable, put it on the calendar, and coordinate with your coworkers. If you let them, humans have an amazing power to live up to your high expectations of reasonableness and responsibility.

If work is all-consuming, the worker is far more likely to burn out. This is true even if the person loves what he does. Perhaps especially if he loves what he does, since it won’t seem like a problem until it’s too late.

In the same way that there’s a benefit to creating a separation between personal and work computing, it can also be helpful to separate the clothes you wear, depending whether you’re in work or play mode.

Not everyone uses such props or even requires the mental separation they’re meant to create, but if you’re having trouble getting into work mode in the morning, try putting on some pants.

Another hack is to divide the day into chunks like Catch-up, Collaboration, and Serious Work. Some people prefer to use the mornings to catch up on email, industry news, and other low-intensity tasks, and then put their game face on for tearing through the tough stuff after lunch.

Finally, you can use the layout of your house as a switch. Make sure that real work only happens when you’re in your dedicated home office. No checking work email or just getting a little more done in the living room or your bedroom.

The gray line between work and play can be hard to see on the best of days, but almost impossible when you use the same computer for both.

Certain remote workers will find, though, that it’s actually harder to get into the flow when they’re sitting in complete isolation.

Take your laptop and head to the nearest coffee shop with WiFi.

the only reliable way to muster motivation is by encouraging people to work on the stuff they like and care about, with people they like and care about.

If you’re working remotely and find yourself taking a week to do a day’s work, that’s a flashing red light and it should be heeded. The sooner you act on that message, the better.

There are two fundamental ways not to be ignored at work. One is to make noise. The other is to make progress, to do exceptional work. Fortunately for remote workers, “the work” is the measure that matters.

Being able to peer out and “see” the work being done is as entrenched a habit as they come. Challenging such habits has always been a risky business. The world is flat right up until the day it’s round.