Nine Years Remote
A recent inquiry from a recruiter about accepting a partially-remote position prompted me to reflect upon 9 years of working remotely as a software developer.
When I first started working from home, attitudes were quite different than they are in today’s post COVID-19 world. Full time remote software development jobs were few and far between, and most employers that allowed working remotely full time did so due to factors other than a belief that it was more productive and cost-effective. Studies since have overwhelmingly shown that the majority were simply wrong.
One interesting side-effect of the previous year’s COVID-19 political entanglement is the degree to which it forced an entire generation of closed-minded, micro-managing executives to consider (through necessity) that remote work forces, especially for primarily thoughtwork-based positions, were not only viable, but perhaps even superior.
When our entire society started shutting down due to concerns over the COVID-19 virus, I actually hardly noticed at first. Having transitioned to full-time remote work in early 2014, I had long since become accustomed to working remotely by the time society started shutting down. Prior to landing my first full-time remote position, I had worked at a couple of prior companies which allowed working remotely a couple of days a week, so I had some notion of its viability even before then.
While I was already used to working remotely, the whole pandemic thing actually helped to improve the lives of remote developers by remedying many of the productivity nuciences that plagued fully-remote as well as mixed-teams. To a large extent, the primary issues that remote workers had to face prior to everything being shut down was the lack of remote workforce accommodations, namely: mature or provided collaboration tools (e.g Slack, Zoom, Miro, etc.) and equal participation of remote workers on mixed-teams. While David Fullerton, in a StackOverflow blog article written back in 2013, had proffered up the wisdom that “If even one person on the team is remote, every single person has to start communicating online”, joining any mixed team for many still resulted in the remote worker likely being marginalized in meetings as they were the only one on a call while all their co-workers debated approaches around a conference table, were forced to watch some white boarding design session over a video camera while you tried to make out what everyone was saying, or were simply being left out of key social interactions resulting in being professionally disadvantaged in key business decisions due to the formation of cliques, or simply not being present during unplanned discussions, etc. Conscientious employees working from home already knew they were far more efficient at home than in the office, as well as knowing that non-conscientious workers were just a likely or more so to screw off at work as they were at home, but it took everyone being forced to do it for an extended period of time to hammer that into the heads of many executives that felt uncomfortable with conducting business differently than they had in the 20th century.
One absolutely huge thing that goes seemingly undiscussed is the financial impact of working remotely vs. commuting. While I commuted to the office for 20 years before transitioning to full-time remote, it wasn’t until I had become accustomed to working from home and was confronted with the idea of returning back to the world of the commuting zombies that my perspective changed with respect to that commute time. Prior to accepting a full time remote job in early 2014, my commute time was approximately 1 hour one way, and that was on a good day when there wasn’t some minor traffic incident which could easily (and fairly regularly did) add an extra 20-30 minutes to my time. Once I had become accustomed to working remotely, the idea of tacking on an extra 5-10 hours a week in commute time to switch back to a job requiring you to work in the office seemed more like giving my time away for free. Prior to that, all those hours in the vehicle dealing with idiots on the road was just an assumed necessity. Driving to work was like driving anywhere else. Of course in the 20th century you had to drive to buy a new pair of shoes. Of course you had to drive to see a newly released movie. Of course you had to drive to go get a cheeseburger meal at McDonald’s. And of course, you had to drive to get to work. You didn’t think twice about it. You didn’t view commuting to work as 5-10 hours of your personal time given over to your employer for free for the privilege of employment any more than you’d have thought that McDonald’s owed you money for driving to their store to eat. Sure, you could listen to music, or talk radio, or a podcast, or an audio book. It wasn’t, however, really what you would have chosen to be doing at 6:30 in the morning. It wasn’t your time.
Prior to COVID, trying to explain this perspective to those still in the office world was very much like Morpheus trying to explain to Neo that he’s in the Matrix. Sure, recruiters or employers could understand the logic of an argument that commuting is time given to an employer essentially for free, but many would just think it ridiculous for you to go so far as to demand a higher salary for accepting a position requiring a commute (when you knew is wasn’t really required to do the job). This doesn’t even account for wear and tear on vehicles, gas expenses, or the little micro-batches of time you end up spending doing things like food prep, additional “get ready” time, more laundry, etc. that you wouldn’t otherwise do if you were staying home for the day. Moreover, just because you compensate someone for their time, there’s a threshold beyond which your standard hourly rate isn’t worth the time. Okay, you may be willing to commute if your employer is going to compensate you for the extra 5-10 hours on top of the 40 you’re going to spend sitting in their cube farm under their fluorescent lighting (“Not near a window, Jim, because those seats are reserved for managers!”). Are you, however, willing to exchange that extra 5-10 hours a week for money to sit in the office for 45 hours? How about 50 hours? 60? At some point, it isn’t about whether you’re compensated or not. Hell, 40 hours a week really is too damn many hours to begin with. Add to that the insane perspective on time off that Americans get on average compared to much of the rest of the developed world. Hell, even plumbers and HVAC workers get paid for their commute time, and their job isn’t something that can be done remotely.
Imagine if everyone actually accounted for these additional expenses when factoring in the pay they are willing to accept. If so, this would likely account for an extra 25-30% pay increase, accounting for time and travel expenses. For businesses on the fence about whether remote is better than on-site for their bottom line, this would certainly tip the scales. Currently, however, they aren’t forced to think this way. Or at least, many are still operating in a mindset that they don’t have to think this way. When it really comes down to it, a culture of requiring anyone that can do their job remotely to work in the office is really stealing from your employees. Fortunately, COVID has corrected this situation given there have been enough eyes opened to the benefits of remote work and enough businesses which have seen the waste that goes into buying or renting commercial real estate that, even after many business have begun attempting to force employees back into the office, there’s enough employers who now offer remote opportunities to give people a real choice.