On Remote Working

My interest in remote working dates from the early 2000s, when I got my first broadband connection at home, or rather at what was my “home“ at the time, Imperial College London’s postgraduate accommodation at Clayponds Village located next to Gunnersbury Park in west London. Clayponds was a very interesting place, with a great atmosphere and facilities. The tenants there were mostly Masters and Ph.D students. Before my time there, people used to get open-ended leases, that is they could stay for as long as they needed to. This wasn’t the case with most other Imperial halls of residence at the time and it stopped being the case when I moved my few belongings to Clayponds in September 2000. For a cash-strapped student from Greece like me, getting a comfortably large room (~20m2) with a view to a leafy park (that doubled as a very old cemetary), for 30% less than you’d need to pay for a much smaller room in a flat with strangers, Clayponds was a great deal. I made some good friends while I stayed there — the last two years of my M.Eng and the first year of my Ph.D.

Broadband was something somewhat exotic in the 1990s. When I moved to the UK in 1998, ADSL was starting to make its appearance, slowly and shyly in urban England, while at the same time the incumbent in Greece, OTE, was peddling horseshit ISDN connections to the native population. By 1998 I’d already been online for the better part of 5 years and had even briefly seen systems connected to the internet via leased lines or corporate/academic networks. Still the excitement of getting my first extended dose of broadband at Imperial’s Department of Computing labs was unparalleled. The DoC labs was magical place for those of us that spent countless hours there training our ears to the hum of hundreds of high-end computers of the time, coding, interacting and, yes, making the best possible use of the facilities provided by the university network. The speed you got in those labs, comparable to moderately fast modern VDSL connections, was an exhilarating, magical thing at the time. This was a year before the great Napster phenomenon and we were living embodiments of life a few years into the future: you could find and download everything from movies, to music, to books, to software from around the world in a matter of minutes, compared to many hours or days that it would have taken you had you tried to do the same from home. People often left background jobs running, storing the data on some communal drive (/vol/bitbucket ftw!), had video calls with friends at other universities, brought their computers to be updated with the then nascent online update mechanisms in a few select linux distributions.

When I first moved to Clayponds we didn’t have broadband, just dial-up, and that was extremely expensive as you had to pay by the minute. A few short months later, however, we got a leased line to Imperial’s campus. At first the bandwidth of the line was very low, a few Mbps, shared by everyone — a good three hundred+ people — and the traffic was shaped so that the internet connection wasn’t abused by a few. But the cost was very low, and the connection was 24/7, and in the off-hours you could get a good chunk of that 3Mbps connection. Still, the low bandwidth, coupled with the newfangled obsession with hoarding media, often resulted in a miserable connection to the world; unless you were computer savvy enough to tunnel everything to Imperial, that is, in which case you — effectively — sidestepped the traffic shaping restrictions and got unfettered use of the line. I admit, I often did this. Since getting a good connection in Clayponds, I started reducing the time I spent commuting to and from central London. It took around one hour from South Ealing, where Clayponds was located, to Imperial College’s South Kensington campus door to door. But it was as unsatisfying as routine use of the Underground can get, especially during peak hours.

From my second year in Clayponds onward, I significantly reduced the trips to central London, a habit I maintained throughout my Ph.D years. When I moved to my own apartment, in 2003, ADSL had become commonplace in England — that summer it also became generally available in Athens. With a 1Mbps connection at home I had all I needed to be productive. Thinking back, the early 2000s created a slew of professions (and professionals) that got the opportunity, like I did, to do amazing work, creative, productive work from home, instead of an office environment. It was the first time in history that you could take your equipment almost anywhere, as long as there was a decent internet connection, and work alongside colleagues from the other side of the planet, quickly and efficiently. Urban centres, hubs, centralization suddenly became things of the past, like fortresses and city walls.

During my Ph.D years I worked on two EU funded projects, alongside a series of temporary consulting/contracting gigs that helped pay my rent. Most of my productive work happened at home, not at the university, although I went there once or twice a week to sync with my colleagues and professors.

Returning to Greece a few years later, I started my company and spent a few good years working from my bedroom; I didn’t have much money to ‘waste’ in offices, and the little money I made was barely enough to give me a salary. After we launched AthensBook in 2009, we kept working from home, until we moved to our offices in the summer of 2012. Even though our office was a large, comfortable place, I hardly ever spent more than 2 to 3 days a week there.

Meetings, product, technical/architectural or design discussions, were all that required my physical presence there. Everything else I did from home.

The freedom to decide when and where to work was unparalleled. And the most productive work I ever did in my career to date was from my bedroom or home office. But at the same time, most of the beautiful, innovative ideas came from spontaneous physical meetings with colleagues and friends. The flexibility afforded by being able to isolate and work alone, as well as meet when necessary to synchronize and discuss was what allowed me to reach higher levels of productivity and happiness than I could have otherwise.

When my company, Cosmical, shut its doors, I found myself working for a scale-up. Despite its self-characterised ‘progressive’ culture, the company had an emphatically hostile attitude toward remote working that hearkened back to the dark ages: an extreme tendency to control employee presence, thinly veiled micromanagement and a false belief that equated physical presence with high productivity and commitment to the company. I was dumbfounded when I realised the immense rift between the company’s public statements and what its leadership actually believed. For example, although the company advertised that they encouraged work from home for employees, without any frequency cap (as other companies do when they institute one day per week or per fortnight), the employees had to provide justification as to why they wanted to work from home, as if it was something bad, something that negatively affected the company, in some way or another. Even if it wasn’t exactly posed as such, people had to ask for permission to work from home, as the justification could — and did — get shot down by their manager. When I pointed the hypocrisy, let alone the negative effect this requirement had on the employees, I was told “You wouldn’t be absent from home without telling your wife, and in the same way you shouldn’t be absent from the office without a good explanation”, In the eyes of this company (and many others like it) working from home, was tantamount to taking some time off, disappearing. It was not a ‘normal’ thing to do, but required justification, an explanation, permission — It should be no surprise to you dear reader, but very, very few employees ever took days to work from home while I was there, as the way working from home was presented to employees, asking them to explain themselves to their manager was, as if it was something bad, was obviously, more than enough to keep people from asking, lest they get punished or reviewed harshly.

Remote working spans many levels: from occasionally having your poeple work from home to full-time remote employees to multiple colocated teams collaborating from afar. If you want to embrace Remote Working (at any level) you should do it properly, by treating Remote Employees as first class citizens, by adopting a culture that makes Remote Working a viable choice for everyone involved: colocated employees and remote employees alike. During my time there this message didn’t get across. As is the case with many companies, the company chose to see just the benefits, but didn’t spend enough time understanding the requirements needed to make Remote work for them. It exhibited a ‘want my cake and eat it too’ mentality, on one hand understanding that having Remote employees was absolutely necessary if it were to grow and find world class talent, on the other steadfastly refusing to accept that Remote working is not a necessary evil and, despite its attempt to hide it, wanting to create a class-based system, discriminating between physically colocated employees and remote employees (which, for legal reasons, were in many cases contractors, as is so commonly the case.) I spent more hours than I care to remember debating and discussing how to properly set up remote working there in a way that would be both sustainably viable, productive, fair and enjoyable to both colocated teams and remote workers or teams. Unless the company leadership decides to truly embrace Remote working and change its culture to accommodate it, introducing Remote working to an organization is a sure fire way to fail.

While this may sound extreme, the truth of the matter is that this company was not the exception. Far from it. It wasn’t even a particularly bad example of an organization dominated by a completely backwards mindset. On the contrary, in many ways it was one of the most forward-looking workplaces in Greece; at least on paper. The saddest part is that these are exactly the thoughts, policies, the mindset exhibited by most companies (and their aging leaders) in Greece, and elsewhere: the idea that Remote working (either in the form of working from home or in the more extended form of full-time Remote positions) is a luxury, a benefit to employees that merely costs the company money and doesn’t offer anything back in return, similar to a company’s obligation to provide time off to its employees, or a salary, a necessary evil that the company has to tolerate, grudgingly accept, a perk advertised so that the company can attract good talent, but that, effectively, diminishes productivity. Even those predisposed to believe its merits, are often surprised (and very skeptical) when they hear that, in engineering, for example, frequent work from home days are many times more productive than their office-based equivalents. That is, unfortunately, the standard way of thinking of the majority of business leaders today, even some of the more progressive ones.

Fast forward to today. For the past 9 months, I’ve been the CTO of a fully remote startup with global reach. We span 20 timezones, from Silicon Valley to Sydney, with most of engineering based in Europe. As a fully remote company we get to completely miss some of the many benefits of co-location. But we make things work, nonetheless! A fully remote organization is certainly disadvantaged compared than one that provides the flexibility of both remote working and colocation on demand.

It’s no secret that Remote working poses many challenges. But they are probably different to what your typical myopic, arteriosclerotic veteran executive might think: namely, that Remote workers are slacking all day, spending their time playing or enjoying their life, ignoring the company, not being productive. It is definitely true that some people need constant supervision and control, and it is certainly a danger employers need to pay attention to when screening candidates for positions. But that can happen, equally easy, in an office environment. What is worse than employees that create work for them just so that they can look busy to their colleagues and the organization they work for? At least in engineering, you can actually see employee output without having to micromanage them or their time. Still, the most common problem with Remote working I’ve seen is the exact opposite: people burning out, losing track of the dividing line between work and life, spending all of their days and nights working instead of having a balanced, happy life.

Remote working makes things more impersonal, requires much more attention to communication — it is easy to be misunderstood, especially if your (or others’) command of the language is not perfect and all your communication happens via text —, it can be tiring and monotonous. It’s certainly true that engagement and motivation are harder to realize in a fully remote working environment. The stimuli are, indeed, weaker and scarcer. It minimizes the positive social aspects of working alongside others, the spontaneity of ad-hoc brainstorming sessions, the bonding and engagement that being with others for prolonged periods of time can offer. It can also become inhumane (there are many companies that force spyware on their employees, measuring how much time they work, as if their work itself cannot show how productive they are.)

On the other hand, the benefits that come with Remote working are tremendous. If you can ‘tame’ it, Remote Working is liberating. It can lead to a much more fulfilling, well-rounded, rich life experience than that of your typical office job. You get to work whenever you want. You can, to some extent, plan your work around your life, and not the other way around. For those professions where work is a creative endeavour, such as software engineering, Remote Working unlocks those ideal conditions for extreme productivity: the quiet hours of the night (for those of us that love working at night), the comfort of your home desk, office, sofa, or even bed, the uninterrupted sessions that are so hard to find in an office environment — and please don’t get me started on open plan offices.

At my current company we try to mix things up (and we’re not the only company doing this of course): we have quarterly meetups, where we fly the whole company to a single location (typically Athens) and spend a week, or slightly longer than that, working together, in the same space, planning ahead, doing hackathons, presenting our work for the last quarter, having fun. We also have smaller meetups with select engineering members that gather in a single location and work on a project for a few days. Due to COVID-19, our next quarterly company meetup was cancelled. Despite this , as a remote only company we are infinitely more prepared to deal with the current state of affairs than the vast majority of organizations out there. For us working asynchronously, having meetings over Zoom or Google Meet as needed, using processes that are purpose-built for remote working, having already organized our lives and our work with remote working in mind is the norm, not the exception. We’re as ready as anyone could be for this. And being ready is more than knowing how to use a videoconferencing tool.

With COVID-19 more and more organizations will be forced to adopt remote working, at least for the short-term, if they want to continue operating in some form or another. Most will temporarily forget how hostile they really are to any form of remote working and will proudly public some sort of press release or announcement stating how much they care about their people and public safety and how they are now instituting work from home due to COVID-19. Many of those organizations will treat it as a necessary evil, an ephemeral compromise, and will grudgingly try make it work as best as they can. Others might be more open-minded and may learn a thing of two about its advantages, its peculiarities and challenges and make an effort to enable their Organization to truly become Remote friendly. If they do a good job, they might be surprised, and if they choose to see the benefits, it might lead to change. No matter what, when all is said and done and COVID-19 blows over, more Organizations will have tried Remote working than ever, and if we are lucky some of them will accelerate their path toward the 21st century. Perhaps by providing the option for their employees to occasionally, frequently even, work from home (without asking for permission or providing meaningless explanations). Or by opening up more remote positions, thus letting people live where they want, not coercing them to move to an urban centre or emigrate for the sole purpose of finding a job. By building the necessary cultural and organizational foundations that will enable this to happen, finally leaving the office-centric model of the late 19th century behind and becoming more flexible, more liberating places for people to do the best work of their lives. Places where colocation and remote working co-exist, where the best of both worlds is possible. If anything, despite the hardship, economic disruption, death and misery it’ll certainly bring to many, that’s the best side-effect COVID-19 we could ever hope for.