I've been a remote worker since 1998 when Byte Magazine ended. At first, and for a long time, working from home was nothing but wonderful.
Byte had been wonderful too, in many ways, but it was an office job. In that job I mainly researched tech, wrote about it, and -- as soon as the Web arrived -- wrote Web software. To do those things I needed lots of uninterrupted time to assemble context and focus on using it. Being in an office cut into that flow a lot. When commuting ended and telecommuting began, my productivity soared.
That productivity boost is now an acknowledged benefit of remote work. Here's another you don't hear so much about: quality of neighborhood life. Neighborhoods full of commuters can be ghost towns during the day. As a home worker you're a set of eyes and ears tuned into what's happening in the yard and on the street. If you're also a parent, that benign surveillance can make your house a safe gathering place for your kids and their friends. Factor in the time, effort, and fuel not expended on commuting, and the benefits add up to a compelling package.
There's no free lunch, of course, and over time the costs of remote work have become more apparent to me. It can be lonely. The emotional bandwidth available in text or even video discourse is woefully narrow. For a dispersed team like ours, there's also the tyranny of time zones. These are real challenges. Whether they're surmountable depends, I think, on the answer to this defining question: Is remote work the exception or the rule?
If it's the exception and you are remote from a firm's headquarters, you will be a voice on a speakerphone or a face on a screen in a room where people are breathing one another's pheromones. I lost track of the number of times people at Microsoft said to me -- in email, of course, always email -- "When's the next time you'll be in Redmond so thatwe can talk?"
At Hypothesis it's the reverse. We have no headquarters. Our people are in Berlin, London, Edinburgh, New York, Austin, San Francisco, and Santa Rosa. We are what Zach Holman calls a remote-first (vs. remote-friendly) company.
It works pretty well. Text and video are imperfect modes of discourse, but we use them constantly and to good effect. While we rarely get together in person, the weeks we do are very productive, and the pheromone exchange lasts for a long time afterward. So far, I'd say the benefits of our remote-first stance outweigh the drawbacks.
Now we're entering a new phase. When I started back in April most of us were in U.S. time zones, a few in European ones. We had no physical headquarters but our temporal home was Pacific Time. Today we are split about equally between U.S. and European time zones. There's neither a home place nor a home time.
We'll need to be even more effective in our use of synchronous and asynchronous text and -- during our periods of temporal overlap -- in our use of voice and video. Until somebody invents a way to send pheromones through the network, we'll also need to get together in the same room more often, on one continent or another. There's no better way to synchronize a distributed team.