Remote Work Bans Are the Tech Industry’s Patriot Act

October 14, 2014

4:30 pm

On October 1, reddit joined several other tech companies with a ban on remote work, asking employees to relocate to San Francisco by the end of the year. On Monday, Re/code reported that reddit general manager Erik Martin is leaving, hinting that it may be because he doesn’t want to move to the West Coast.

The backlash against reddit was severe – as it always seems to be when tech companies ban remote work. “Man, that is some cruel shit,” tweeted Basecamp cofounder David Heinemeier Hansson, coauthor of Remote. We heard similar reactions to remote work bans from Yahoo! (February 2013), Best Buy (March 2013), and HP (October 2013).

Why all the rage? I don’t think it’s just because opponents feel very strongly about the merits of remote work. Rather, they seem to be indignant about the opportunistic violation of their freedom and the dishonest facade of the greater good – which sounds a lot like the Patriot Act.

The USA Patriot Act was passed in 2001 following the September 11th atttacks. It gave law enforcement greater abilities to conduct searches, monitor telephone and email correspondence, access financial records, and detain immigrants in the hopes of preventing future terrorism.

In both cases, there is a crisis. America was facing a foreign threat, and the tech companies who ban remote work tend to be struggling financially. “We’ll see if it’s a trend of companies that are dying to wave this flag of ‘We all need to be together now,’” said Basecamp cofounder and Remote coauthor Jason Fried.

And no one disputes that those threats are real and serious. The problem is that the response – the curtailing of privacy or work flexibility – appears opportunistic. It seems like the government or the company is using the threat as an excuse to exercise more power and control and limit our freedoms – something they always wanted to do – all while making a lot of noise about the threat of terrorism or the drawbacks of remote work.

Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” said Yahoo!’s internal memo on the ban.

Meanwhile, tech companies like Automattic and Basecamp are staunchly remote and seem to be getting along fine. Meanwhile, other countries around the world seem to have avoided terrorist attacks without encroaching on individual liberty.

Are the remote work bans control for the sake of control? That’s probably not the only motivation. While some middle managers may delight in bringing in their inferiors to surveil, others simply don’t know how to maximize communication and productivity in a remote setting. Like some leaders after 9/11, they may feel helpless and do the only thing they can think of to survive.

How much better would it be to see tech companies saying to their employees, “We’re having a bit of trouble with this whole remote thing. Do you have any suggestions for how to make it work better?” If nothing else, that would soften the blow when it came later and show a real commitment to solving the problem, not just enacting a pre-determined solution. Going straight to a remote work ban smacks too much of dictatorship. 

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.

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