Idée fixe 1.1: Remote Work in 2020: Beyond the Concept

Part one: Remote Working as an Idea

This is my four-part guide to remote work, and this is part one: Remote Working as an Idea. The next three parts are: Creating Habits not Goals (2), Distributed Hiring and Onboarding (3) and Managing in this New Era of Distributed Teams (4).

🖐Heads up it’s 3,700 words and will take you approximately 22 minutes to read. ☕️So grab your beverage of choice and settle in.

🙋‍♀️I have worked at large international organisations, global agencies and at/with startups that spent little time thinking about remote work and others that were fiercely intentional about figuring it out.

It’s worth noting that remote work isn’t for everyone and not every company needs to be remote-first. No matter how popular it’s getting.

🌟A few things that will hopefully differentiate this guide to others out there:

  1. Most of the guides, articles, podcasts about remote work have been predominantly written by men which isn’t surprising. I don’t know if (and how) this has impacted the writing and findings (but I’m pretty sure it’s had an impact), I just know I felt even more compelled to write it after I realised this.

  2. Nearly all the recent guides write about remote work as if it were a stand-alone strategy, void of any context and external factors. I’ll attempt to put this piece of work within wider context - startup culture, shifting nature of work and cities, changing workforce, geography…

With all that said, if you are serious about being a remote-friendly/first company, think about the following:

✅ are you clear on why you are doing this?
✅ do you need to go remote?
✅ do you have knowledge workers?
✅ have you personally ever worked remotely or on a distributed team?
✅ do you want to tap into the global talent pool?
✅ are you capable of ramping up a strong HR function to support this effort?

Part one: Remote Working as an Idea

What you will learn from this segment:

  1. why you should consider remote working

  2. the pitfalls & benefits of remote working

  3. remote-friendly vs. remote-first

  4. the leadership skills required

Remote work has been around for some time now

Let’s get one thing out of the way; the concept of working outside of the confines of your office has been around for quite some time. It might have looked a little different and we might not have called it remote work, but we’ve been doing it for some time now.

💻Technology as a whole has certainly had a profound impact on remote work. 2008 was the first year that employers were buying laptops in bigger numbers than desktops. During the same time, wireless internet was becoming increasingly available and powerful which “meant more people could unshackle themselves from their rigid office life and daily commute” writes Amanda Mull in her piece about how the laptop ruined our lives.

Then in 2011, Lucy Kellaway, columnist at the Financial Times, wrote about the concept of “worliday” - a term she coined herself . She described it as “a bit like holiday and a bit like work. It's the future for most professional workers” she announced.

I can actually still hear my father saying, “the stupidity is thinking that just because you see your employees sitting at their desk from 9am to 5pm that they are actually being productive or even working.” And this was almost 15 years ago.

Although the beginnings of the remote work culture have been around for a while, there are just a few books and guides that have been written about this topic and there is still little research and learnings in this space as it’s still relatively new.

📕As Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, wrote in the intro note of their book Remote: Office Not Required, when they started writing about this practice back in 2013, the practice of working remotely “had been silently on the rise for years”, and yet as a concept it was still very much misunderstood.

With that said, at the time of publishing this guide, there have been at least five new remote guides published in January 2020 alone. 🤷‍♀️

As Chris Herd, Founder & CEO of Firstbase, puts it, “the 2020s will be the remote work decade.

2020 definitely seems to be the year people want to try and understand what it takes to build a remote company and why some succeed and others don’t. According to Buffer’s state of remote work , 99% of the knowledge workers (n=2500) would like to try remote working in their career. 🤯

So remote working is popular, show me some numbers

Not only is remote working on the rise, it’s becoming increasingly popular and it certainly looks like it’s here to stay and happening across the world.

🤳Here are some stats from Global Workplace Analytics which help illustrate this trend:

  • 4.7 million employees (3.4% of the workforce) now work from home at least half the time. Although that’s a relatively small number, it’s still a big chunk of people who are not going into an office every day.

  • 40% of the workforce works remotely at some frequency.

  • 80% to 90% of the US workforce says they would like to telework at least part-time.

  • Studies repeatedly show desks are vacant 50-60% of the time.

I can’t help but compare the last statistic (which is really about the inefficiency of having large empty HQs) to the inefficiency of cars as transportation and commute solutions. The biggest inefficiency of all when it comes to cars, is that they mostly just sit there (and take up space that you pay for). As Donald Shoup points out in The High Cost of Free Parking, cars are parked 95% of the time. 🚘

"Most people in transportation focus on the five percent of the time that cars are moving. But the average car is parked 95 percent of the time. I think there's a lot to learn from that 95 percent." says Donald Shoup.

🎧 It’s not just the tech industry embracing this change, the music industry, for years now, has been operating on a remote model. A lot of the collaborations these days are done remotely. Think about it, artists are busy promoting their albums, on global tours and live in a multitude of cities so finding a time that is convenient for two or more artists to collaborate is next to impossible.

Musicians have benefitted immensely from the technological advancements in their field which has allowed them to work remotely and collaborate on projects without being physically together in a recording studio. 🎸

👑In Miss Americana, Taylor Swift (yes, I am absolutely referencing Taylor Switch in my Remote guide) talks about the messy way (aka. on the go) in which her songs sometimes come, especially those with collaborators. Charlie Puth also talks a lot about how he his constantly recording ideas on his phone, and Martin Garrix (ranked number one on DJ Mag's Top 100 DJs list for three consecutive years) is another example of this generation of musicians taking full advantage of the tech and global talent to make the best collaborations without physically being together through the whole process.

The technology today just wasn’t available to most of us 10 years ago - too complicated, too expensive or just not yet developed. The barrier to entry is lower than it has ever been to find the best tools and create the most efficient remote-first environment.

The Remote Decision: “Explicit” vs. “Organic"

Sometimes being a distributed company is a natural evolution and sometimes it's an explicit decision right from the start.

I was an executive at NationBuilder (an a16z backed company) which had a HQ in California. I joined to lead our European expansion so from the outset it was clear that I was going to be defacto ‘remote’. Although, at the time it wasn’t discussed as such.

In order to acquire the best talent, the company was going to have to be open to have smaller satellite offices around the country and beyond, and even have fully remote employees. It was definitely open to this and the company even embraced this shift as an opportunity to rethink its culture as a whole.

This shift had two direct impacts:

👍Firstly, people who had joined and moved to where the HQ was were delighted to be heading back home and excited at the prospect of being able to continue to work for a company they liked and live in their place of choice. Great for employee morale. As much as people say they like traveling for work, crossing the country with your family to join a company you want to work for but live in a city that doesn’t appeal to you is most likely never going to end well.

👎Secondly, as an increasing number of people took advantage of this shift, the HQ office slowly started to empty and lost the upbeat and busy atmosphere it once had. The remote attitude also started to extend to people working at HQ and remote became synonymous for ‘Work from home’. Anyone who has ever had to sit for more than 45’ in LA traffic knows the delightful feeling of not having to commute. Making this a recurring habit was tempting. And seeing as the default was starting to be remote, it mattered far less if the HQ people were physically in the office.

NationBuilder then decided to move from being a ‘remote-friendly’ company to an intentional ‘remote-first’ company which was necessary with the above shift happening and some initial confusion as to who was allowed to be remote and who wasn’t.

A handful of CEOs have specifically called out the complexity of trying to run a hybrid company. Some have even said that it is next to impossible.

Eric Yuan, CEO Zoom , recently mentioned that if he were to start all over again, he would build Zoom fully remote.

What we experienced at NationBuilder was not unique in any way, it’s actually what is expected to happen when the default is not yet clear, and you are in a transition phase where you are simultaneously holding on to traditional concepts (intentionally or not) like a big HQ office and in-person meetings, and trying to move into a new default which is at odds with the former.

Set Yourself Up For Success; Be intentional

🤯Most companies don’t seem to be setting themselves up for success with little to no thought being put in the move to remote work. In other words, you would never consider doing an M&A project without proper preparation, due diligence and hiring a skilled team to steer the project. So why would you ever attempt something as disruptive as going remote-first without all the same preparation.

GitLab is probably one of the biggest 100% distributed companies (with no company offices) with close to 1200 employees across 50 countries.

There is certainly a lot to learn from them but the one thing I wanted to point out here is that they have employees dedicated to the success of ‘being remote’ and help establish the remote culture. For example, GitLab has an ‘all remote culture curator’, Darren Murph.

He describes his job as working “at the intersection of culture, process, transparency, collaboration, efficiency, inclusivity, onboarding, hiring, employer branding, and communication overall.”

So although the company initially didn’t set out to be remote, they have certainly been very intentional in making it successful - from hiring people to curate the all remote culture to writing absolutely everything down.

Although this concept is being increasingly discussed, 8/10 companies still treat it as a perk rather than an intentional culture shift - and this is the biggest mistake you can do.

"I hired a few people in the Netherlands, and they came to my house," Sid Sijbrandij, Founder of GitLab, says. "But then they stopped, because why do the commute?"

Defining this phenomena

💬The words we use are important and send a clear message about our intentions. There are quite a few terms being used and thrown around that can lead to confusion right from the outset. Some are synonyms, and others less so.

Being clear about what you mean will save yourself a lot of unnecessary friction down the line. Remote will absolutely mean something different from one company to the other, from one generation to another and from one country to another. Here are some of those terms:

  • Work from home option: A company operating with one (or more physical offices) which welcomes teammates having the option to work from home one or more days per week. This often comes as a form of a perk.

  • Telework/Telecommute: These two words are synonymous. They have been defined as “the practice of working from home, making use of the internet, email, and the telephone.” It’s generally a work arrangement that allows employees to perform all the above during any part of regular paid hours, at an alternative workspace. They seem to be far less used today and has been replaced by ‘work from home’.

  • Remote-friendly: It’s often simply understood as an environment where the working hours are based on wherever HQ is located, thus non traditional hours. You might have a few employees remote but it’s not the norm.

  • Remote-first: Working remote is the default, and nothing else. Being remote-first means “being intentional about not just the tools that are used, but also how we plan a company culture to be as inclusive as possible of remote workers while allowing everyone to be the most productive.” You are distributed by design.

  • Remote worker: An employee situated far from the main centers or HQ

  • Fully distributed teams: Everybody is remote. The term distributed team has been suggested as an alternative to the word 'remote' in that it doesn't create as much of a gap between the team on-site and those that aren't. By default, the term ‘remote’ creates a sense of distance. I would use these two terms as synonymous.

  • Decentralised work site: any work site that is located away from the organisation's main facilities

The different types of remote working

There are a multitude of different levels of ‘remoteness’. Buffer, has spent a lot of time defining these different types of remote work (see graph below). Very briefly, you can do fully remote (1), distributed teams with centralized offices (2) or a blend of the two (3).

Source: Buffer

The latter is truly the hardest thing to do because it will inevitably create two groups of people - those in the office and those fully remote. And you need to make sure your remote employees are as much a part of the team as those employees in the physical office. And if there are different rules for the different groups you will need to articulate these clearly too (i.e. remote work vs. work from home).

The latter is also where most companies seem to gravitate to. Mostly because it’s still unthinkable to most not to have a physical office. A physical office seems to conjure a sense of achievement and maturity. 🏢

But in reality, there is no real middle ground for being a distributed-first team. If you have just one person on the team that is remote, every single person has to start communicating online, or things will start to get messy, and fast. People start to feel left out, messages get lost, meetings are uninviting and complex to set up… And honestly, right here is where the initial problems arise.

If it feels like I’m advocating for the former, I am. I do really think there is far more chance of success when going all in.

But regardless of your choice, be clear right from the outset which direction you are taking and why. Understanding what you are solving for or what you are aiming for will help you decide what solution is best for you and your team(s).

“As the company became more corporate, the culture had gone from remote-first to remote-friendly. The startup’s early techno-utopianism did not scale - though not for lack of trying.” says Anna Wiener in Uncanny Valley: a Memoir

The benefits of being a remote-first company

Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, recently told investors that Twitter will have a more distributed workforce in the years to come because “our concentration in San Francisco is not serving us any longer, and we will strive to be a far more distributed workforce, which we will use to improve our execution.”

  1. Access to global and diverse talent 🌏

    A global workforce is indeed very attractive, and one of the best ways to succeed as a business is to bring in diverse perspectives and work on problems together. In addition, hiring remote employees is the easiest way to really get outside our personal networks and focus solely on bringing in the best people for the job.

    🇪🇺I saw this first hand in a non-remote setting when I worked at the European Commission, in Brussels, where you would most likely always be collaborating with people from over 10 different nationalities, a myriad of different cultures and languages - everything was always ‘lost in translation’. We truly got a plethora of points of view but this also meant that clear communication, lots of active listening, and documenting everything were all a must.

  2. Higher productivity and happier employees 😃

    ✅ More time to do the things you care about (less time spent commuting)
    ✅ More energy (less time spent commuting)
    ✅ More money (spending less on commuting, eating lunch outside every day, coffees…). You also get to live in more affordable cities - often more rural places where you get more for your money.
    ✅ Positive environmental impact - less commuting, fewer cars needed, fewer flights taken… you get the picture.
    ✅ In general, remote people are self-motivated and hence very productive by nature. They know that their performance will be mostly based on their output rather than the traditional ‘showing up at the office’.

  1. Higher retention rates for top talent 👩‍💻
    Employee retention is an increasingly significant challenge for most (if not all) companies. Employee turnover is expensive and when a high-performing worker leaves a company, it takes time, money, and effort to hire and train a new person. According to the Predictive Index, remote work attracts new talent, but it also improves employee loyalty and retention.

  2. All times zones are covered 🕰
    When your workforce is so distributed, you will most likely end up with team members spread across all continents, meaning that you will have more time zones covered than if you had a HQ or a handful of offices. Embrace the time zones rather than treat them as a challenge to overcome.

    💰I actually sold this as an asset to our customers in Europe. It would go a little something like this:

    “Think of it this way” I would say, “you will be working with a team based in Europe but also in North America and Australia, which essentially means you will also have someone on support who can help you 24/7, but it also means that if you have something urgent say on a friday at 4pm, our team on Pacific Time is just waking up and can absolute spend time on this as our European team is closing for the week.”

  3. You become very multicultural 🛸
    I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked in incredibly diverse companies. It’s hard enough understanding strangers who come from the same place, speak the same language and have the same background. Insert different languages, background, culture… and you quickly come to understand how things get lost in translation constantly. Adding diversity benefits everybody, but first and foremost we learn to talk with and understand ‘strangers’ better.

Distributed leadership

For this to work, it needs to come from the top. This includes setting the team’s standards and setting clear expectations.

Let's be clear, distributed leadership that is exceptional is rare. It's rare to find companies looking for remote leaders and it's just as hard to find managers who are capable of managing a fully distributed/remote team.

🥇Most companies are still figuring this out and there is a lot of room for improvement, but there is also a lot of room for potential. Any manager capable of managing a fully remote team is going to have incredible communications, collaboration and listening skills - all skills you want in any manager regardless.

Note: In part four of this guide, we will focus on what it takes to manage a remote team. It’s already shocking how little time, money and effort is spent on providing the necessary skills to current and future managers under normal circumstances. It’s nearly non-existent when it comes to providing the necessary skills for managing fully remote teams, and it’s exponentially harder.

Note 2: Next week, in part two, I’ll focus on Creating Habits, Not Goals which is important when trying something new with intention. Specifically focusing on the culture needed when building a remote-first team, the need for 5x more process, the best practices and the tools available and necessary for remote work.


Remote: Office Not Required by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
Uncanny Valley: A Memoir by Anna Wiener
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know by Malcolm Gladwell
The Long Distance Leader: : Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership by Kevin Eikenberry and Wayne Turmel
The joys and benefits of working as a distributed team by Buffer
What is remote work by Buffer
Why the 2020s will be the remote work decade by Chris Herd
A gearhead post for digital nomad coders by Tracy Chou
The Remote Guide 2020 by Remote Tools
All remote pick your brain initiative by GitLab
The State of Remote Work report by Owl Labs

In the most simplistic way an idée fixe is any idea that dominates one’s mind for a prolonged period. This includes both the delusional and the pedestrian ideas.