Remote work is the tide of history, son

Remote work

Written before about working remotely, and this will be a bit more of that. Remote work is the tide of history, and we’re about to hit some examples on that too.

Let’s be clear upfront, though: first-world, white-collar work is very tied to technology now. Everyone is always looking for a “tech solution” to solve “pain points” from a “vendor.” Those words are probably said 10,000+ times per day in most offices.

What we all seem to miss is this, however: more tech means more flexibility. If Harry and David both need Google Drive to do their work, well, Harry can be in the office — or on a beach, so long as he can access G-Drive from the beach. (He probably can.) David can be anywhere too. It really doesn’t matter. What should matter are the results.

So, what I just said is logical, but logic has absolutely no place in how we build workplaces. People want to see their subordinates around them so they can “know what they’re doing.” In reality, most managers barely speak to or care about their direct reports, yet they still use this argument. It’s one of the great ironies of the modern managerial age.

Now throw kids into this pie. You got kids? Aging parents? Well, flexible work arrangements would be a nice thing. You could even argue flex work is vital aspect of modern work. Hell, I’d argue that.

The big picture is this: it makes perfect sense for more employees to embrace remote work, but for a host of bullshit reasons, companies seem to either (a) not get it or (b) create backwards policies around it. And now … examples!

But of course tech giants will get remote work, right?

Economic Stagnation Trump

Let’s start with this Fast Company article.

Example 1 that everyone knows: Yahoo. They had a remote work / flex work program, rolled it back, stood by the rollback, and were ultimately sold for literal pennies on the dollar. Is that the reason? No. There were other reasons. But killing remote work didn’t help them.

Example 2, happening now: IBM. IBM had about 40% of its workforce as remote work a decade ago; some even call them a “pioneer” in the space. In March, they started rolling it back. They’re directing people to HQs now. Last week, they went HAM on it: end remote work or leave the damn company.

The greatest irony of the IBM remote work debacle is this: IBM itself wrote a white paper in 2014 discussing the benefits of remote work. HA! Oh, and a month or so ago, they hosted a panel about the effectiveness of remote work. But now it’s gone, baby!

Quickly: the elephant in the remote work room

A lot of times, companies do this because it’s an easy way to layoff people without actually laying them off. So it’s taking money off the books without the perceived awkwardness, even though the awkwardness is most assuredly still there — just in a different form.

Let’s not even get going on the Gig Economy

The Gig Economy has become a real thing of late. You know it’s arrived when even The New Yorker is covering it. The Gig Economy is, by definition, remote work.


And let’s think for a second on how we got to people wanting to do this. Let’s say you’ve got two options, right? In Option A (“the green pill”), you can go into an office everyday, have insanely unclear priorities, possibly not even understand your own job role, and get dressed down by a moron every day because hierarchy allows him to do that. 

Or you can work at your own pace, when you’re most productive (that’s 3am for some people), benefit the company/client/owner, and sometimes go see a movie at 1pm or play with your dog. Or get lit up if you want. Heck, I’ve done all three.

The tide of history is moving towards the latter, because mobile-first, on-demand societies don’t want people tethered to desks and airport lounges chasing nickels for the man. Remote work is where it’s at. But will companies ever truly “get” this, or hide behind HR memos about innovative togetherness?

What’s your take on remote work?

Ted Bauer


  1. Hey Ted. I’ve no problem working in an office in a knowledge-sector job if it makes sense for me to do so—if, say, I’m working as a member of a team (or, say, a project manager) and the nature of the job would be exponentially more difficult to do remotely, then fine, I’ll schlep into an office every day.

    The issue for me is individual-contributor jobs—I work in one now and outside of a few processes that are ostensibly easier to perform in situ (but can be done remotely with a little effort and planning), there’s no real reason for me to come in to an office every day (I spend 6+ hours at a computer terminal talking to no one, and don’t need to do to my job), and my org could arguably save money on parking, electricity, and have more space for storage/new team members (not to mention providing incentive to retain me long-term).

    In summation, I agree that WFH policies are the wave of the future, and like you I would speculate that companies which flat-out abolish them are likely on the wrong side of history (or at least not attaching much data to prove that WFH/ROWE are ineffective); of course, judging by the comments you’ve gotten on some of the linked pieces, you’ll have a person or two who disagrees for so-and-so reason, so I think it fair to leave it at—WFH policies can be very effective if utilized properly, it’s understandable if execs are hesitant to adopt one at your company, but some hard data or rationale that extends beyond “erm, team spirit!” is going to be necessary if you want to “win the war on talent”.


    • *(paragraph 2, line 4) “and don’t need to talk to people to do my job” is what I meant to say

    • I absolutely agree with this. I work for local government and it takes over an hour each way to get to work. I spend most of my days in the office reading, writing and attending useless status meetings which should have been eliminated from the calendar years ago. The reading and writing is made infinitely more difficult by the fact that I am also in a cubicle environment and can’t usually hear myself think. Against this backdrop, consider: I have a work-issued iPhone and every employee has access to outlook webmail to access email offsite. In addition, the higher ups have ipads. Yet, if we don’t put in our required time in the office, we will get pay docked. Yes, that includes during hurricanes and snowstorms and ever-present transit delays. This is one reason (among many) that government has high attrition rates among younger people. The elders who are at retirement age don’t care about remote work; many of them come to the office for social activity as opposed to work. They also tend to have shorter commutes, so they don’t really mind. I fear for the future of local government if they don’t make some changes soon.

  2. I’m mystified why so many H.R. leaders are adamantly opposed to alternative work arrangements. Is it because they feel people are out of their reach? It seems they are convinced people are slackers if you don’t stay on them every minute. Do I have that wrong? Are there stats to back their concern?

    • I think that’s the reason, although I haven’t seen those stats — logically because they’d never admit they feel that way and because most “workplace studies” are designed to throw sunshine up asses.

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