Is remote work only for the chosen few?

I was talking about remote work with my two colleagues recently. Our opinions on this topic lie on the opposite ends of the spectrum: I’m a big proponent of remote work while my colleagues strongly believe in co-located teams.

We have made a lot of typical arguments for and against remote work. As most of them are addressed in 37 Signals’ “Remote”, I’ve used this fantastic book to support many of my points. But then my colleagues argued that 37 Signals’ experience isn’t a good example because their situation is special. They’re famous for creating Rails, so they can attract a very different breed of developers – more motivated and self-driven than the ones working for a typical company, only to get a salary. The proof of this is that most big companies don’t allow remote work.

There are 3 underlying assumptions in this opinion:

  • only especially driven developers can reliably work remotely
  • only a few companies like 37 Signals can employ such developers
  • big corporations should be your role models for new methodologies adoption

Are these assumptions true?

Does sitting at the office increase motivation?

Remote workers don’t have to be more driven than office workers. The truth is, all intellectual workers have to be equally driven to do a good job, no matter where they work from – be it their home or your office.

Thinking it’s harder to do a poor job or to slack at the office is an illusion of control. It’s a harsh truth for some, but let’s face it: you don’t know what your employees at the office are doing, not any more than when they work from home. The only way is to look at the results they produce, not at the hours spent at one’s desk.

This even works in favor of remote workers. As they are aware that the only way to evaluate their work is to look at the results, they’ll focus on producing great results while many office workers focus mostly on looking busy (and even that only when somebody is looking).

And there’s another, more important issue than control: trust. Trust is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you treat people as cheaters, they’ll cheat. If you show people you trust them (by allowing them to work when and where they like), they’ll live up to your expectations.

(To see what are the 4 types of developers and how to lead them click here)

Can you be like the 37 Signals, too?

Notice an important fact: 37 Signals’ product is NOT Rails! Their product is a project management tool. Quite a dull stuff. (Sorry 37 Signals guys! No offense!)

Rails is a byproduct. As well as their famous books and Signal v. Noise blog. And they were quite a small company when they created all these byproducts (I’m too lazy to research the exact numbers, but I’d guess that less than 20 people).

So why can’t you? Why your 100+ developers company can’t create the Rails, too?

It’s the matter of an attitude, of company’s culture, not resources. Most companies don’t lack the capability to build the next Rails, they lack willingness.

Of course, building a worldwide hit like Rails is hard. 37 Signals had a lot of luck along the way. But you don’t have to make such a hit to attract highly motivated developers. Just allow them to build some internal frameworks. Or to contribute to Rails or other Open Source projects regularly. For many people even an opportunity to just work with some popular, modern framework instead of outdated, legacy stuff may be enough. And you don’t even have to attract developers – your current ones will be motivated enough if you create a sufficiently engaging environment for them.

(For more on how to motivate developers click here)

Do big corporations really lead the way?

The industry’s adoption of remote work bears a striking resemblance to the adoption of Agile methodologies.

At first, releasing to production every 2 weeks, writing tests first, integrating continuously, communicating with business without formal requirements documentation, or programming in pairs seemed so alien, so difficult that we believed only the best, “special” teams can do it. Then it turned out you don’t have to be special to do it – but still we thought it’s possible only for very small teams. Then big corporations tried to adopt Agile with a mixed success. Then there was a temporary push-back – corporations were declaring Agile is a fad, there was even a strong anti-Agile movement for a moment. Finally, Agile was embraced as a standard way of working, no matter the size of the project and the developers’ level of experience.

(To see how we scale Agile at eSKY check out our presentation and the post comparing our approach to’s Nexus)

Remote work is at a much earlier stage than Agile. Big corporations are still in the “it’s only for small teams” or in the push-back mode. Don’t make the mistake to believe their current opinion on the topic is the final one. Big companies are usually slow to adopt bleeding edge stuff – and that’s exactly where you can search for your competitive advantage. Don’t fall into a trap of discarding a useful practice, mindlessly imitating the big players.

Over to you

For me, remote work isn’t an option reserved for small nor for “special” companies. It isn’t an option at all – it’s inevitable. I’m really curious about your opinion on the topic. Please drop me a comment and share your thoughts or experiences with the community!


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