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PSA: Beware of temporary remote work

In the last year, a lot of companies have been forced to go remote and are now advertising jobs as "remote". Over the last two seasons the number of "remote" roles on AngelList, for example, increased by what seems to be an order of magnitude.

You may be tempted to quit your office job or your "soon to be office" job to find a permanent remote role. Before you do that I do want to remind you of several things that cause companies to work in offices, then list several things that you can look for in a role to make sure it stays remote for the long-haul.

I - We could have worked remotely since the 90s

Skype, IRC, email, version control for code, and fiber optics were all a thing back then. Yes, you might not have been able to work from the Everest base camp or the thickets of the Congo, or even from a cafe. But you could have worked from the comfort of most homes and hotels just fine.

Indeed, the largest projects o the 90s, things such as the Linux kernel and GCC, were worked on remotely.

No change makes remote work fundamentally easier now than it was then. If it is easier, it's so by a small margin.

Indeed, an increase in salary and s.s. taxes throughout the US and the EU actually makes it more economically viable to rent an office nowadays for most companies, since they are getting a much better bang for their buck from giving employees nice views, fancy swings, and free lunches than for paying them (where, depending on location, the government takes 30-60% of the money).

II - Offices serve the same role

Offices, in my subjective empirical experience, have four well-defined roles:

  1. To put people in a work-priming environment.

An environment where they know that whatever they do for 8 hours, they must focus on works. They have eyes on them and they have colleagues around them talking about work, their brain diverges towards work, as opposed to, e.g. browsing facebook, playing a game, or reading a book, or writing a mediocre blog-article just to fulfill a self-imposed creativity quota.

  1. To provide lonely people the company of colleagues.

The lonely people are usually highly motivated workers that end up being part of management or essential to the company. So providing them a social environment is critical, otherwise they might move to find one. I know at least 2 smart guys working for much less than what they could have asked for wage wise, which seemed to be sticking for the social element, and finally left during the pandemic.

  1. To work around accountability.

It's very easy to tell what someone is working on when you can see all the PRs they made a given month (both literally and figuratively speaking, depending on the case). This is uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. It forces acknowledging that some people are doing nothing and are being kept around just because "we like them".

It leads to management having to work more to keep themselves and their teams accountable. In an office, accountability can be proxied onto things like "Well, he comes into work every day and spends 6 hours typing at his desk, he must be doing something".

  1. Social-power hungry leaders.

Some people that lead and/or manage do so because they like having some sort of imagined "social prestige", even if subconsciously. This is rewarding in an office setting, but not when working remotely, being a remote leader/manager probably does not lead to the same social-power highs that fulfilling that role in-person does.

All these 4 pillars or office work will remain unchanged after the pandemic. Indeed, the lack of office work is making many crave an office even more.

Just to be clear, I don't think there's anything bad in that. But some of us have or want a lifestyle built around never having to work in an office.

III - Remote jobs for the long run

Thus, if you are offered a remote role, please keep in mind that it's likely not to be remote for long.

The best way to make sure this is the case is to just ask "Are you sure I will be able to work in this or a similar role remotely even 3 years from now ?".

But unless you are working for startups, where you can talk to the people making these shots directly, it's possible an interviewer won't be able to answer this question with any degree of certainty.

So if you want to work remotely for a long time look for roles at companies:

  1. That were working remotely before the pandemic started.
  2. That don't have offices close to where you live, and make sure to mention relocation is not an option to see how they react.
  3. Where all the employees and managers you interact with give assurances about liking remote work and the work remaining remote for a long time.
  4. That have a well-defined remote work protocol, something that most teams that plan on returning to the office might not have. Core indicators of this might be more communication over text, accountability systems for the work done, and flexible schedules with few mandatory meetings.
  5. That don't currently rent an office building... potentially hard to find out.
  6. That offer remote-focused benefits, such as travel health insurance, budget for online courses, team building events around the world, budget for shared workspaces.
  7. Where most of the team is remote and distributed throughout the world. If every single employee is in a different country, it's unlikely that getting an office will work out.

The list above is probably incomplete and I don't think all 7 boxes must be ticked for you to have a high certainty that a job will remain remote for the long haul.

But it's something important to keep in mind when looking for work.

Published on: 2020-12-20



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