BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Where work is heading?

When I requested this book from the good folks at Random House's “Crown Business” imprint, I didn't know just how immediate the subject was going to be for me. As long-term readers of my main blog space (from where these reviews originate before cloning off into other zones on the web) will realize, I've worked from home in various roles for 17 of the past 20 years. However, a couple of months back, I got hired on a contract to do writing for a company out in "the land beyond O'Hare", and was suddenly on the flipside of this dynamic, facing a 2.5 hour commute each way (that full-time contract has since been shifted to about a half-time freelancing gig, which, while bringing in a good deal less money, also doesn't suck 25 hours/week into time spent on various buses and trains). It was largely during those commutes that I ended up reading Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson's (the founders of 37Signals) new book, Remote: Office Not Required ... somewhat ironic timing.

Remote, like Fried and Hansson's previous ReWork, is a quick read, in that a substantial percentage (a third?) of its 250 pages are pictures … either illustrating points in the text or riffing off on related concepts. The authors are dedicated advocates for remote work, having built their software company up out of a collection of workers in various locations around the world, with only about a half of their staff at their Chicago headquarters. They note in the opening that between 2005 and 2011 the number of U.S. Remote workers increased 73% - although the total number is still a rather slim 3 million. They also cite the “firestorm” on the subject sparked by Yahoo!'s Marissa Mayer who earlier this year canceled all remote work arrangements that company was offering.

Now, it would be easy to point at companies like 37Signals and say that remote work was just for cutting-edge software makers and the like, but one of the leading lights of this movement is staid, no-nonsense, established old IBM. My wife's BFF's husband has been an IBM lifer, and he got sent home with a laptop, a high-speed internet connection, and a budget for setting up a home office nearly 20 years ago … so this isn't just a recent “flash in the pan” approach.

And, it's not just tech sector companies … Aetna has nearly half of its employees working from home … Deloitte has 86% of its people working remotely at least 20% of the time … in government, 85% of the examiners for the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, 57% of NASA's workers, and 67% of the E.P.A.'s employees work remotely to some extent … and, back in tech, Intel lets 82% of their people regularly work remotely. IBM did a white paper on the subject, “Working Outside the Box”, from which a lot of the facts and figures here are drawn.

Most of the book is directed to business owners, as there is a lot about hiring, collaborating, etc., even though there are sections “coaching” workers on how to best manage working remotely. One of the early pitches they make here, in the section on how unhealthy commuting is, really stood out to me:
      But let's say we ignore the overwhelming evidence that commuting doesn't do a body good. Pretend it isn't bad for the environment either. Let's just do the math. Say you spend thirty minutes driving in rush hour every morning and another fifteen getting to your car and into the office. That's 1.5 hours a day, 7.5 hours per week, or somewhere between 300 and 400 hours per year, give or take holidays and vacation. Four hundred hours is exactly the amount of programmer time we spent building Basecamp, our most popular product. Imagine what you could do with 400 extra hours a year. Commuting isn't just bad for you, your relationships, and the environment – it's bad for business. And it doesn't have to be that way.
In the introductory material they say that they really wished that Marissa Mayer had held off about six months before releasing her dictate about remote working (as sales of Remote would have greatly benefited!), and point out that nearly all the discussion that happened in the wake of that is reflected in the “Dealing With Excuses” chapter.

One thing I found fascinating here is that the authors only ask 40 hours a week from their employees … saying “There are no hero awards for putting in more than that.” (as a regular thing). Having myself worked (in my publishing days) 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, I know just how the “hero” thing can get a hold on your key workers. They address this here:
      It starts innocently enough. You wake up by opening your laptop in bed and answering a few emails from last night. … Before you know it, you've stretched the workday from 7am to 9pm.
      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. And because the manager isn't sitting across from his worker anymore, he can't look into the person's eyes and see burnout.
At 37Signals, their rule-of-thumb is the idea of “a good day's work” … the employee should be able to ask themselves if they've managed that and come up with an affirmative most days.

Of course, remote working opens up its own challenges … home workers get far fewer opportunities to get exercise. I know this from personal experience … over the past five years when I'd been trying to piece together some money from freelance and consulting gigs (while looking for full-time work), I'd be spending 12-18 hours a day at the keyboard, and would only rarely come close the recommended 10,000 steps a day (which I track with a Fitbit) since I would go days without even leaving the apartment. To combat this, 37Signals provides its workers with a monthly stipend for a health club membership, plus a program called “37 Vegetables” which provides a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share for each employee.

Again, one of the most appealing aspects of Remote is that Fried & Hansson have been doing this stuff for years, and so the suggestions, guidance, and coaching in here aren't “ivory tower” pronouncements from theorists, but down-in-the-trenches experiences of what works and what's likely to be a problem with running (or participating in) a remote work force.

As this came out just last month, it should certainly be out in the brick-and-mortar book vendors that handle business titles … and the online big boys have it for nearly 40% off of cover. Needless to say, I'm hoping that this manifesto will get traction and more companies take a serious look at the remote work option. I don't think this is as groundbreaking as ReWork, but if you have an interest in what might well be “the future of work”, do pick up a copy!

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Tags: book review
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