October 29, 2013
Don’t have time to read? Here’s a quick but comprehensive summary of “Remote: Office Not Required” by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, released on October 29, 2013.
Who should read this: Companies or employees who are considering remote work or already doing it.
Elevator pitch: Remote lays out the argument for remote work and teaches you how to maximize productivity and happiness as an employee and an employer.
Author: Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson are the cofounders of 37signals and authors of Rework. Heinemeier Hansson is also the creator of the popular Ruby on Rails framework.
Advances in technology – like file and screen sharing, to-do lists, and instant messaging – have made remote work more feasible than ever.
For employers: Employers may find that employees (especially creatives) are more productive when they aren’t subject to in-the-office interruptions. While remote work has its interruptions, most of them are voluntary – you choose to check Facebook or get a snack.
Although not the main goal, remote work allows employers to cut down on office space costs. You don’t have to worry about whole offices being struck by natural disasters or power outages; employees who might take time off for various reasons can work from home instead.
Remote work exposes bad workers: it’s easy to see who’s not performing without the obscuring fog of in-person charisma.
For employees: Employees get judged on their results, not their input (hours worked) or other irrelevant factors. Remote work cuts back on commuting and gives employees the freedom and time to pursue passions that they might otherwise put off until retirement. It allows people to work whatever hours they want, from whatever part of the country they want. Employees save money on gas and can spend more time with family.
Drawbacks and critiques
Remote work does have its drawbacks: no face-to-face interaction, the temptation to procrastinate is higher, and family members can be distracting.
Employers worry that remote work means less frequent brainstorming and slower communication, but that may actually be beneficial. As for worries of employees slacking off and being distracted, the solutions is to hire people you trust.
Employers worry that remote work will harm culture, but culture is more about values and actions rather than social activities.
Employers worry about security, but there are simple steps to take to secure employees’ personal computers.
Employers worry about having customer service agents available during business hours, and this is a valid question. Customer service staff can stagger their hours so 9-5 is covered, but even if they don’t, that doesn’t mean the whole company must go 9-5. Different roles call for different responsibilities.
Employers claim that big corporations don’t have remote work, which is only partly true. And even so, corporations aren’t exactly bastions of efficiency.
Finally, employers give a variety of silly excuses that are easily refuted by facts and common sense: it doesn’t work for our industry, managers will lose control, and the office cost a lot of money. The gains in productivity from remote work across many industries should be response enough.
Tips for collaborating remotely
- Try to make sure that employees on different time zones have about four hours of overlap in working hours.
- Use screenshots or screencasts to communicate information.
- Share information openly on work schedules, to-do’s, calendars, and files.
- Create a “virtual water cooler,” a chat forum for fun and social stuff.
- Share progress with each other to fuel that sense of achievement and momentum.
- Consider a hybrid strategy, with some employees working in the office and some at home. (37signals has a Chicago office with about 10 people, while the other 26 are spread across the world.)
- Don’t only try one remote worker – try at least a team.
Handling common issues
Employees: To deal with cabin fever, make sure to take time to go out and socialize, or consider working from a coworking space. To avoid hurting yourself, set up a work area according to proper ergonomics. To avoid a sedentary lifestyle, take time to exercise and eat well.
Employers: To convince clients to work with you remotely, be honest up front about your location, offer references, share progress often, respond promptly, and get the client involved. To make sure you’re complying with the law, consult a lawyer or accountant about out-of-state workers. For international employees, you’ll have to either establish an office in that country or hire them as consultants.
Hiring remote employees
To find the best people, look internationally. Favor real work over resumes to evaluate candidates. Meet top candidates in person to check for personality fit.
Pay employees equally across geographies to improve retention and show you value them. To keep morale up, everyone has to work extra hard on communicating well in writing and not offending others.
To make up for the distance, get to know your employees as individuals and experiment with creative ways to support their hobbies and interests.
Managing remote workers
To set up remote work, start it as early as possible in the life of your company; if you’re already in business, offer the remote work option to current employees. As a manager, you’ll have to be comfortable with giving employees more access to information and more decision-making ability, and focus on leading, guiding, and helping with problems that come up. Face-to-face and in-person meetups will become more scarce but more valuable: try a few yearly in-person meetups, and one-on-one check-ins every few months. Watch out for remote workers feeling inferior or underserved, and for them overworking and burning out.
Life of a remote worker
To prevent overwork, try creating separation between work and play with different clothes, spaces, or times. Experiment with different setups: working remotely only in the morning, working at public places like coffee shops, or renting a desk at a local office. Speak up if you’re feeling unmotivated, and get attention by being productive.
In 37signals style, Remote is incredibly digestible – more a collection of short blog posts than a series of thick chapters. If you’re a remote worker, you’ve probably already figured out many of the insights in the book, but you’ll undoubtedly be able to find a few takeaways. (I myself realized I had an email addiction and forced myself to get out of my inbox for one evening – it’s a start.) The value may be even greater for employees considering remote work, or employers who are trying to manage it. One of the biggest lessons is how important communication becomes – staying positive in your emails, being honest about a lack of motivation or burnout, and making sure everyone knows what everyone else is doing – and that’s something we could all use a refresher on.
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