- File Size: 9030 KB
- Print Length: 258 pages
- Publisher: Currency (October 29, 2013)
- Publication Date: October 29, 2013
- Sold by: Random House LLC
- Language: English
- ASIN: B00C0ALZ0W
- Text-to-Speech: Enabled
- Word Wise: Enabled
- Lending: Not Enabled
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #46,359 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The Time Is Right for Remote Work
Why work doesn’t happen at work
If you ask people where they go when they really need to get work done, very few will respond “the office.” If they do say the office, they’ll include a qualifier such as “super early in the morning before anyone gets in” or “I stay late at night after everyone’s left” or “I sneak in on the weekend.”
What they’re trying to tell you is that they can’t get work done at work. The office during the day has become the last place people want to be when they really want to get work done.
That’s because offices have become interruption factories. A busy office is like a food processor—it chops your day into tiny bits. Fifteen minutes here, ten minutes there, twenty here, five there. Each segment is filled with a conference call, a meeting, another meeting, or some other institutionalized unnecessary interruption.
It’s incredibly hard to get meaningful work done when your workday has been shredded into work moments.
Meaningful work, creative work, thoughtful work, important work—this type of effort takes stretches of uninterrupted time to get into the zone. But in the modern office such long stretches just can’t be found. Instead, it’s just one interruption after another.
The ability to be alone with your thoughts is, in fact, one of the key advantages of working remotely. When you work on your own, far away from the buzzing swarm at headquarters, you can settle into your own productive zone. You can actually get work done—the same work that you couldn’t get done at work!
Yes, working outside the office has its own set of challenges. And interruptions can come from different places, multiple angles. If you’re at home, maybe it’s the TV. If you’re at the local coffee shop, maybe it’s someone talking loudly a few tables away. But here’s the thing: those interruptions are things you can control. They’re passive. They don’t handcuff you. You can find a space that fits your work style. You can toss on some headphones and not be worried about a coworker loitering by your desk and tapping you on the shoulder. Neither do you have to be worried about being called into yet another unnecessary meeting. Your place, your zone, is yours alone.
Don’t believe us? Ask around. Or ask yourself: Where do you go when you really have to get work done? Your answer won’t be “the office in the afternoon.”
Stop commuting your life away
Let’s face it: nobody likes commuting. The alarm rings earlier, you arrive home that much later. You lose time, patience, possibly even your will to eat anything other than convenience food with plastic utensils. Maybe you skip the gym, miss your child’s bedtime, feel too tired for a meaningful conversation with your significant other. The list goes on.
Even your weekends get truncated by that wretched commute. All those chores you don’t have the will to complete after slugging it out with the highway collect into one mean list due on Saturday. By the time you’ve taken out the trash, picked up the dry cleaning, gone to the hardware store, and paid your bills, half the weekend is gone.
And the commute itself? Even the nicest car won’t make driving in traffic enjoyable, and forget feeling fresh after a trip on most urban trains and buses. Breathe in the smell of exhaust and body odor, breathe out your health and sanity.
Smart people in white coats have extensively studied commuting—this supposedly necessary part of our days—and the verdict is in: long commutes make you fat, stressed, and miserable. Even short commutes stab at your happiness.
According to the research, commuting is associated with an increased risk of obesity, insomnia, stress, neck and back pain, high blood pressure, and other stress-related ills such as heart attacks and depression, and even divorce.
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.
It’s the technology, stupid
If working remotely is such a great idea, why haven’t progressive companies been practicing it all along? It’s simple: they couldn’t. The technology just wasn’t there. Good luck, trying to collaborate with people in different cities, let alone halfway around the world, using a fax machine and FedEx.
Technology snuck up on us and made working remotely an obvious possibility. In particular, the Internet happened. Screen sharing using WebEx, coordinating to-do lists using Basecamp, real-time chatting using instant messages, downloading the latest files using Dropbox—these activities all flow from innovations pioneered in the last fifteen years. No wonder we’re still learning what’s possible.
But past generations have been bred on the idea that good work happens from 9am to 5pm, in offices and cubicles in tall buildings around the city. It’s no wonder that most who are employed inside that model haven’t considered other options, or resist the idea that it could be any different. But it can.
The future, quite literally, belongs to those who get it. Do you think today’s teenagers, raised on Facebook and texting, will be sentimental about the old days of all-hands-on-deck, Monday morning meetings? Ha!
The great thing about technology, and even working remotely, is that it’s all up to you. It’s not rocket science, and learning the tools that make it possible won’t take that long either. But it will take willpower to let go of nostalgia and get on board. Can you do that?
The big transition with a distributed workforce is going from synchronous to asynchronous collaboration. Not only do we not have to be in the same spot to work together, we also don’t have to work at the same time to work together.
This is one of those things that’s born out of necessity when collaborating with people in multiple time zones, but it benefits everyone, even those in the same city. Once you’ve structured your work technique and expectations to deal with someone seven hours ahead in Copenhagen, the rest of the home office in Chicago might as well work from 11am to 7pm or 7am to 3pm—it’s all the same.
The beauty of relaxing workday hours is that the policy accommodates everyone—from the early birds to the night owls to the family folks with kids who need to be picked up in the middle of the day. At 37signals, we try to keep a roughly forty-hour workweek, but how our employees distribute those hours across the clock and days just isn’t important.
A company that is efficiently built around remote work doesn’t even have to have a set schedule. This is especially important when it comes to creative work. If you can’t get into the zone, there’s rarely much that can force you into it. When face time isn’t a requirement, the best strategy is often to take some time away and get back to work when your brain is firing on all cylinders.
At the IT Collective, a film production and video marketing firm based in Colorado (but with people in New York and Sydney too), the team of editors will occasionally switch to nocturnal mode when working on a new film. It’s simply how they get their best work done. The next day the editors will overlap with the rest of the team just long enough to review progress and get direction for the next night. Who cares if they slept way past noon to make that schedule work?
Naturally, not all work can be done entirely free of schedule restrictions. At 37signals, we offer customer support to people on American business hours, so it’s important our customer support team is available during that time. But even within those constraints, relaxed schedules are still a possibility so long as the group as a whole is covering the full spectrum.
Release yourself from the 9am-to-5pm mentality. It might take a bit of time and practice to get the hang of working asynchronously with your team, but soon you’ll see that it’s the work—not the clock—that matters.
End of city monopoly
The city is the original talent hub. Traditionally, those who ran the engines of capitalism thought: “Let’s gather a large number of people in a small geographical area where they must live on top of each other in tight quarters, and we’ll be able to find plenty of able bodies to man our factories.” Most splendid, Sir Moneybags!
Thankfully, the population-density benefits that suited factories proved great for lots of other things too. We got libraries, stadiums, theaters, restaurants, and all the other wonders of modern culture and civilization. But we also got cubicles, tiny apartments, and sardine boxes to take us from here to there. We traded the freedom and splendor of country land and fresh air for convenience and excitement.
Lucky for us, the advances in technology that made remote working possible have also made remote culture and living much more desirable. Imagine describing to a city dweller of the 1960s a world in which everyone has access to every movie ever made, every book ever written, every album ever recorded, and nearly every sports game live (in higher quality and better colors than at any time in the past). Surely, they would have laughed. Hell, even in the 1980s they would have laughed. But here we are living in that world.
There’s a difference, though, between taking it for granted and taking it to the logical conclusion. If we now have unlimited access to culture and entertainment from any location, why are we still willing to live bound by the original deal? Is that overpriced apartment, the motorized sardine box, and your cubicle really worth it still? Increasingly, we believe that for many people the answer will be no.
So here’s a prediction: The luxury privilege of the next twenty years will be to leave the city. Not as its leashed servant in a suburb, but to wherever one wants.
The new luxury
A swanky corner office on the top floor of a tall building, a plush company-provided Lexus, a secretary. It’s easy to laugh at old-money corporate luxuries. But the new-money, hip ones aren’t all that different: a fancy chef and free meals, laundry services, massages, a roomful of arcade games. They’re two sides of the same coin.
That’s the coin given in exchange for the endless hours spent at the office. Away from your family, your friends, and your extracurricular passions. The hope is that these enticements will tide you over during those long years when you’re dreaming of all the things you’ll do when you retire.
But why wait? If what you really love doing is skiing, why wait until your hips are too old to take a hard fall and then move to Colorado? If you love surfing, why are you still trapped in a concrete jungle and not living near the beach? If all the family members you’re close to live in a small town in Oregon, why are you still stuck on the other coast?
The new luxury is to shed the shackles of deferred living—to pursue your passions now, while you’re still working. What’s the point in wasting time daydreaming about how great it’ll be when you finally quit?
Your life no longer needs to be divided into arbitrary phases of work and retirement. You can blend the two for fun and profit—design a better lifestyle that makes work enjoyable because it’s not the only thing on the menu. Shed the resentment of golden handcuffs that keep you from living how you really want to live.
That’s a much more realistic goal than buying lottery tickets, either the literal or figurative ones. As an example of the latter: pursuing a career-ladder or stock-option scheme and hoping your number hits before it’s too late to matter.
You don’t need to be extraordinarily lucky or hard-working to make your work life fit with your passions—if you’re free to pick where to work from and when to work.
This doesn’t mean you have to pick up and move to Colorado tomorrow, just because you like skiing. Some people do that, but there are many possible in-betweens as well. Could you go there for three weeks? Just like working from the office, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
The new luxury is the luxury of freedom and time. Once you’ve had a taste of that life, no corner office or fancy chef will be able to drag you back.
Talent isn’t bound by the hubs
If you talk to technologists from Silicon Valley, moviemakers from Hollywood, or advertising execs from New York, they’ll all insist that the magic only happens on their sacred turf. But that’s what you’d expect talent hub nationalists to say. You’re the fool if you believe it.
“Look at the history,” they’ll say, pointing to proud traditions bearing glorious results. Yes, yes, but as the fine print reads on investment materials: “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”
So here’s another set of unremarkable predictions: The world’s share of great technology from Silicon Valley will decline, the best movies of the next twenty years will consist of fewer Hollywood blockbusters, and fewer people will be induced to buy products from admen in New York.
Great talent is everywhere, and not everyone wants to move to San Francisco (or New York or Hollywood, or wherever you’re headquartered). 37signals is a successful software company started in—gasp!—the Midwest, and we’re proud to have hired spectacular employees from such places as Caldwell, Idaho, and Fenwick, Ontario.
In fact, we don’t have a single employee in San Francisco, the hub where every technology company seems to be tripping over itself to find “rock stars” and “software ninjas.” This hasn’t been a conscious choice on our part, but given the poaching games being played in major hubs, with people changing jobs as often as they might reorder their iPhone playlists, it’s not exactly a net negative.
When you have dozens, even hundreds, of competitors within walking distance of your office, it should come as no surprise when your employees cross the street and join the next hot thing.
As we’ve observed, star employees who work away from the echo chambers of industry spend far less time brooding about how much greener the grass is on the other side and, generally, seem happier in their work. --This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.
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To get work done we needed groups of people in the same place at the same time. To be at work at the same time, 8:30 to 4:30, people needed to live close to their workplaces. Towns grew into cities and housing grew upward. Those who could not or would not live close to their workplaces spend more time in traffic.
This book raises the issues of whether we all need offices. Why don’t we work from the place most convenient to us that day, at a time most convenient to us that day. The issue of remote and asynchonomous work could not be realistically raised ten years ago, but can certainly be today. We now have all the enabling technology to allow many types of work to be performed remotely. This includes the obvious call centre staff, but also the specialist repairman who can perform his work from afar.
“Office not required,” the subtitle of this book, is not the future, the authors argue, it is the present.
Why would anyone want to work remotely? There a many compelling reasons not least the wasted time spent on your daily commute. Stop and calculate the number of hours each week you spend getting to work. You could also add in the time it takes to get to clients for meetings. Then ask yourself what you would do with the time saved by not travelling.
So, why do we not work remotely? Some types of office work cannot be done remotely, and that is not at issue. The issue is that much work can be done remotely.
Before I pursue the argument for remote work further, let me answer the question of why large, thoughtful companies, are not doing it. The answer is they are. IBM, for example, has had their staff telecommuting since 1995 with a saving on office space of 7.2 million square metres.
The authors offer various reasons for the resistance to remote work.
A common argument is that innovation only happens through the magic of face to face contact. Let us presume for a moment that it is true and that creativity requires a group of people to be in the same place at the same time. How much time is spent creativity solving big problems? Very little, most of our time at work is spent executing the “big problems” and that can be done in so many cases, remotely.
Even if there is a need for people to be together to work on issues, only a few moments on Skype or FaceTime is enough to establish who is present. Thereafter most of the work will be conducted on a shared computer screen where designs, text, or numbers are formulated and manipulated. These modes of collaboration are relatively low tech and inexpensive to use.
Many are afraid that people cannot be trusted to be productive at home. The fact is that people can come to work and not be productive either. The real difference between coming to work and staying at home to work is little more than whether you wear a T-shirt or a dress shirt.
As the authors point out: “If you can’t let your employees work from home out of fear they’ll slack off without your supervision, you’re a babysitter, not a manager. Remote work is very likely the least of your problems.”
An argument against remote work is the effect it would have on the company culture which would wither away. Remote work is not an “all or nothing” type choice. Staff can be brought together a few times a week or a month to connect and preserve the culture. It is also worth noting that “culture” is not embodied in the company events, but in the manner in which the company works. It manifests in the behaviour of staff to one another, in the manner of treating customers, in the quality of work accepted, and so on. None of these culture building blocks are absent if people work remotely.
The real question any discussion on remote work would need to address is why bother with the question of staff working remotely at all?
I have already mentioned the time wasted on your daily commute to the office, but there also many work related issues.
Where do you go when you want to do serious work? Very few people answer to the office without the qualification – very early in the morning, before anyone gets in, or after everyone leaves, or on weekends.
Offices have become “interruption factories,” observe the authors. When a colleague is only a step away why not ask for information or an opinion or a document, now. If you were working remotely, would you send an email or a sms, or if it is really urgent, make phone for the same request.
Of course, there are interruptions at home or in a coffee shop, but these are interruptions you can control more easily than a manager or colleague.
Remote work allows, in many cases, for better quality work. “Squeezing slightly more words per hour out of a copywriter is not going to make anyone rich. Writing the best ad just very well might,” the authors note.
Not having to live in Johannesburg to work for a firm in Johannesburg could be a huge incentive for someone who enjoys the more gentle life in the Paarl. For the firm it allows the search for talent to extend much wider than the immediate surroundings of the office. There is talent scattered all around the country and the world.
Provided the type of work you do does not require you to be present at the office, there is no longer any compelling reason for being there all the time. The most difficult challenge many only be the mental shift – you are still working even if you don’t have an office.
Readability Light --+-- Serious
Insights High -+--- Low
Practical High -+--- Low
Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy
I got the book because COVID-19 has driven me and my co-workers to social distancing by working from home. I'm finding telecommuting to be easier to implement than I expected.
Trust is a central theme in the book. A second theme is culture or what I characterize as knowing what's expected. A good remote worker or telecommuters must produce good work. The authors also argue that half-hearted efforts at remote work will likely fail.
Who ought to read this book? If social distancing impacts your workplace, then, whether you are a manager or worker, this book has useful lessons for you. Currently, I can see where remote working may become much more common than it has been. I strongly recommend the book.
One head's up, the authors head the company that created the base camp software and base camp is mentioned frequently. I simply viewed this as establishing the authors' credentials and I wasn't bothered by this. I don't use basecamp myself.
My first opportunity arose to work for a company with remote option. After 15 years of commuting and chained to a beige cubical I was free. I was now able to do engaging work and deliver without having to come into the office. I even found that I was also able to be more productive.
This book is a great primer for understanding the concept of what today’s technology facilitates. From a company perspective, your employee selection opens up from the local market to all corners of the world. For employees it allows you to save time from commuting and spend that extra time with your family promoting even better work life balance. This is the future of work for knowledge workers.
As a business owner you will gain insights on the benefits of remote work. As a manager you will gain tools to facilitate remote staff. As a remote worker you will learn additional strategies to address common concerns.
Top international reviews
Home so it can continue in the future. Some of the tools are a bit outdated now (no mention of zoom for example) but other that this book is entirely relevant for now.
I was looking for something with more focus on how to help / improve for existing remote teams and workers.
Now, armed with great observations, case studies and arguments on why we really are in an office every day and how working away from it can work, I can be more persuasive when talking to new clients.
Their opening statement about the office not being the place people say they go to work is spot on. Commuting is a drag, it's miserable and it's only going to get worse. Remote working is the way forward.
I recommended it to the Head of HR where I work. She suggested that she could buy a copy to put on the bookshelf in the office. There’s clearly a long way to go on this ;-)
- It felt a bit like a long moan
- It didn't feel like a book I could return to and dip into (though I will), especially in comparison to REWORK
- It's far from disruptive, and it does feel stale
I liked the book, I love 37Signals, but I was really expecting something better. I hope they write another book, they have a good format and I love their ethos/approach. I'm excited by 37Signals and the impact they are having - and it makes me excited about the way the teams I'm a part of work
It would have been great to see more content on how they work remotely - whereas I actually think Lean UX is a better indication of how to work remotely, and still be productive and collaborative when designing, or planning sprints etc.
The book does put the case well for remote working, but don't expect the same 'aha' moments that came with Rework.
The book focuses on this single topic and puts a balanced argument forward for how and when it can be made to work. Its not a 'silver bullet' solution and I can see that applying these ideas in a mid/large size organization will need significant effort and determination - and needs to be weighed up against the other day to day challenges that face everyone in a 'normal' office.
Great book for this insight.
I work for a large multinational in a global IT solution delivery role and when I compare the tools we use for collaborating on our global projects to what is out there in the market and explained here I can see incredible opportunities to speed up our solution life cycle and implementations. Better tools and 2013 thinking (not 1913) can radically change this.