The next 10 Years of Remote Work

This post was developed in conjunction with my talk of the same name for Spring into SledgeConf 2021

My belief is that most tech startups going forward will be 100% remote. Setting up an office for a company that might not last isn’t a great idea. And after 2020 spending your runway on an office is basically wasting money. 

The complication is that remote work requires more discipline from the team than office based approaches. If you have unmotivated employees, managers, management skills, or outdated processes you will not be as productive as a remote company. Going forward there will be a dichotomy between startups that try to succeed with the colocation approach and startups that commit to remote work. My belief is that overtime collocated startups will consistently fail against remote startups. The reasons remote startups pull ahead are lower fixed office costs,  easier access to talent at lower prices and that remote work requires more disciplined processes. 

Fixed office costs

Offices being expensive is an obvious fact for most people. Offices are lowest common denominator environments with constant pressure to cut costs. Workers consistently complain about noise and distractions in ‘open plan’ offices but they have stuck around because they are cheap. 

Remote work allows everyone to setup their own ‘dream’ office space. You can get whichever chair you want. Any combination of monitors and other peripherals. You can play loud music or install noise canceling tiles to ensure silence. Workers also save hours each day compared to commuting, not to mention the environmental benefits. 

Easier access to talent

Access to talent is a major problem for startups. Before achieving profitability startups have limited time to find software engineers and limited money to pay them. Hiring remotely allows startups to access a large number of employees who live in low cost of living areas. This can either be lower cost of living cities, cheap small towns or even other countries. 

For example entry level software engineers typically make over 100k in ‘major’ software areas like Seattle, San Fransisco, San Jose and New York City. But those same engineers will typically make 60-70k in second tier cities despite having comparable amounts of skill and experience. 

Higher Process Bar

A remote first company requires better processes and more motivated employees than the typical office micromanagement scenario. Failing to set up good processes in a remote environment will result in unmotivated employees that don’t do any work. You can’t just assume communication will happen in a remote environment. In the office employees gossiping can make up for a lot of bad communication processes. Whereas in a remote environment employees need to go out of their way to setup a zoom call. 

 Companies with good remote work processes will experience higher average productivity than was ever achieved in classical ‘open office’ environments. 

In a remote work environment you are forced to invest more in onboarding, training and cross team coordination. In the office you can simply walk over to the frontend team’s section and introduce yourself to the new team member. But working remotely without a process to include the new guy, he could just sit in the figurative corner for weeks without interacting with anyone. 

There isn’t any way for new hires to ‘overhear’ conversations about services or context that they don’t know about when working remotely. So those thing have to be documented and included in the formal onboarding process. Which means you actually have to document your software for real.

Meetings need to be orchestrated better when done remotely. You need to have an agenda and focus on solving the problem. 

One meeting that works very well remotely is the architectural document review. A 60 minute meeting would go as follows. 

  1. 20 minutes to read and comment on the document in google docs
  2. Short discussion of each text comment made in google docs starting from the top of the doc
  3. Discussion of action items and any other final comments

What happens next?  

The pandemic caused a massive shift in software engineering working conditions. We went from maybe 5% remote to 95% remote work during the crisis. Now that things are normalizing I expect a gradual shift back towards 90-10 or 80-20 split of hours worked in office vs remote. The fact of that matter is that a lot of people like working in an office. And many bosses think micromanaging is necessary. 

Going forward there will be a lot of demand for remote software engineering jobs and many companies will jump on the chance to acquire programming talent at competitive prices. 

The in-office premium.

Going forward I expect to be paid more to work in an office than to work remotely. Working in an office costs me more in time and transportation costs. It also limits my freedom during the day. To make up for the inconvenience of needing living within commuting distance of jobs I expect to be paid an additional 20-30% premium over what I would charge for remote work. 

Legal hurdles 

The legal burden for international remote work is way too high. Each country has different requirements and the company is essentially required to establish a corporate entity in every country they have employees in. Even if they do not actually do business in that country. 

Even in the United States having a remote worker in New York city could require a company to start paying additional taxes to New York state due to establishing a ‘nexus’ in that state. 

Over time I expect these legal hurdles to be simplified or simply ignored. Functionally, it doesn’t matter where code is written. Remote workers will push for legal accommodations. Nations will be forced to compete by providing supportive legal conditions for remote workers and employers.

Other Perks 

Less workplace drama

One thing that I didn’t expect to come out of remote work is that annoying coworkers are a lot less annoying when they aren’t in your face. You can basically avoid all non-work related communication with people you don’t like. For example we have one guy on my team who goes on rants and never gives people a chance to cut in and steer the conversation back on topic. In the office I would end up listening to this guy talk for minutes at a time without getting a chance to talk. Now since I’m not sitting across from the guy I can avoid his negatives and appreciate his dedication and work more. 

Corporate Culture

For example processes like 6 month RSU vesting are not tenable in a remote first world. You cannot afford for disgruntled employees to wait 6 months for a vest date before they quit.