The Truth about Remote Working

There’s a lot of buzz about remote working, especially today. It’s the new big thing, allegedly. Thought influencers like Tim Ferriss and 37signals are making great efforts to “disrupt” the geographical bias of working with their books. However, I’ve found the reality of thought out there is very different. Don’t get me wrong – I’m personally invested in the notion of telecommuting. In my case, it’s not from any lifestyle preference, or lofty notions of reinventing work, but because I have to.

So having had more reason than most to work remotely, and having to go job hunting again recently, I’ve discovered a lot about the true reality of remote work opportunities out there. So I thought I’d share with you the real view of remote working from the trenches. I’ve discovered that companies’ attitutudes to employing remote workers always falls into one of four categories.

Employers’ attitudes to Remote Work

1. Those who won’t

This is by far the commonest attitude, even amoung software companies who know and build internet-enabled tools. You might expect them to be more forward-thinking about such things, but I’ve found it is not commonly so. Yahoo’s recent stance on remote working shows that the traditional thinking is still alive and well even among the IT set. Attitudes can differ with the size of the company too. Company policies can be hostile towards telecommuting. Most large companies are still stuck in the bums-on-seats mode of thinking: if staff are sitting at their computer, where we can see them, then they’re working; if they’re not, then they’re not! Large companies invest in expensive offices, so they have to use them – let’s fill the seats. Who can blame them?
It’s an old mode of thinking, you might feel, but it’s still dominant. There is still a lot of suspicion out there about remote workers. Culturally, Ireland is far less progressive than the US and UK about considering remote workers, especially if they are actually living locally anyway! Some have even tried remote work experiments, and failed. The few failed telecommuting experiments who swing the lead can ruin the reputation for those of use who don’t slack and who actually need to telecommute. The reality is that remote workers need to prove they are productive to earn the trust. This is hard enough if you are an established worker in a company already; it is an uphill marathon if you are a new hire. And trust me, it is rare to find companies that are progressively minded about such working arrangements with new hires – anywhere.

2. To get the best talent

Opening the recruitment gates to remote workers means you can potentially choose from a list of candidates around the globe. The pool of talent is larger. That’s tempting for some companies, especially small startup tech businesses. If you’re looking for the resources who are the very best at their job, or very specifically skilled, then broadening the field of candidates beyond those who can commute to you daily is seen as the smart thing to do.

3. To get any talent

Some companies are based in areas that can be starved of local resources skilled in the tools or the experience needed for the job. Looking beyond the commute pool of talent means you might actually find that skilled Blackberry, COBOL, or Delphi developer that you need, even if it means working remotely with them.

4. To get the cheapest talent.

Unfortunately, some companies do embrace the new wave of telecommuting only to reduce costs. I’m not saying it isn’t a valid reason to do it, but it is by no means the best reason. There’s no denying that for cash-strapped small businesses or bootstrapped startups it’s a bonus not having to pay rent for an office. Sourcing your developers from countries where expected salaries might be a lot lower can be attractive too.

Yeah, so we’re down with that remote work thing, but only if ….

Even from those companies who are remote worker friendly, it is seldom all-inclusive. Most tend to have limiting criteria – either explicitly stated, or implicit – about which remote worker they will take on. These criteria further limits the opportunities available for us remote working candidates.

1. Proven track-record of remote work

Remote working is not for everyone. I know, I’ve been doing it for nearly a decade now, and so know what it takes. Some people can’t hack the isolation, even with regular skype chats. Some people can’t get the quiet working environment free of distractions (although the most distracting environments I’ve had to code in are offices). A dedicated home office space is pretty essential, speaking from personal experience. And the big one – some people just aren’t self-motivators or self-disciplined enough. It’s takes a certain kind of person to be able to do it effectively and constantly.

2. “Timezone relative”

This is a big implicit assumption in most remote work jobs. I’m particularly aware of it because I’m in the GMT zone. The US is a huge adopter of remote working, and it is also a big labor market, so can choose to only take on remote workers whose working hours overlap with main office hours. To compensate for the lack of on-site availability, some companies need to substitute frequent on-line interaction. Some jobs actually require frequent, or constant, interactivity with co-workers or customers. As such, it is very valid to want workers who are either in the same timezone, or willing to work the same office hours. Customer support operatives is one obvious example.

However, not all companies look for timezone relative workers for the same reason. For some it is to constantly monitor you, to compensate (or over-compensate) for the loss of on-site oversight. Some freelance sites even go to the extent of taking regular screenshots to prove you are “on-task”. In the end, this is another one of those of those intrusive fallacies about ensuring productivity – all it ensures is that an employee has adapted his way of work to to meet the demands of the monitoring process, not necessarily making the work more productive. Sometimes it can even be counter-productive.Such as employer is simply not comfortable, and hence not invested, in using remote working. Give the worker a small task, let them off to do it their own way – the way they themselves know is their most productive way of working – and then examine the work that’s returned to decide if you want to use them.

3. Commutable distance

For some jobs again, occasionally an in-person appearance may be necessary. If it is, then you’ll want to know that the worker can travel to the office, how long that might take, and what it might cost. Visiting an office in Australia from Europe for a weekly pow-wow can be a non-runner!

3. Employment legal zones

Finally, there are genuine concerns relating to employment or tax laws and they will differ from country to country. Can you legally employ someone in that country? Do you pay tax for them, if not, do they pay tax in their jurisdiction? Is there a double-taxation agreement between the two countries? Are you sure the remote worker is paying taxes in their country, and if they aren’t, will those tax authorities come looking for you? It can be sticky. Again, a track record of having worked remotely cross-border and having a verifyable track record of paying taxes is a benefit for both employer and remote worker.

Conclusion

When I started looking for remote work employers I thought it would be simple: I needed to do it; I had a track record of doing it; it would open up opportunities to work with telecommunting friendly employers outside of my local area. It was the new big thing so surely everyone would want to do it – surely a win-win for all. I was wrong. The truth about getting remote work is that it is a lot harder than getting a standard on-site desk job. In the end, telecommuting does not work unless both employee and employer are genuinely invested in it. Employers with such vision are out there – but they are still a rarity.

Links:
Remote: Office Not Required.
TEDx Talk: Jason Fried – Why work doesn’t happen at work.