The Return to Office episode of one of my favourite podcasts Dithering made me finally decide to post about Remote Work. I’ll be back to my irregular coding posts soon, but I wanted to get this off my chest.

Let me get all the caveats out the way - I worked in an office full time for the first five years of my career, and have now been working remotely for nine years. You could argue that there will be a bias in my viewpoint because remote work is so intrinsic to my ability to live and work on the Isle of Skye where I’ve made my home. But I think I’ve managed to have a nuanced take on this subject. Feel free to judge though.

Remote work is here to stay. Infact I’d go as far to argue that most people in my industry are already working remotely, but with a caveat I will cover later. The pandemic years was obviously a great accelerator for remote work, but I think the direction of travel was already clear long before the pandemic - it’s just that the pandemic exposed more people to the opportunities that remote work can provide for them and their families.

But I acknowledge that in-person teams are more effective. That ability to collaborate in a really unstructured way is something you just can’t fully replicate in a remote setting. You can’t bond with your colleagues and truly understand how they work, and how to socialise with them without being in-person. It is also harder for young people to enter the workforce remotely as they don’t generally have the money to have a good home working environment - at least as they start their careers. Junior hires also benefit the most from being in an environment where they can absorb all the knowledge floating about a well oiled office.

The problem with the return-to-office hawks is that I fear they don’t really understand what modern office work is like. While there are a few companies that will geographically gate teams to a specific location, nearly all of the big companies I know will have teams spread across multiple locations. When I worked for Unity, most people would work in an office, but the teams would be split across say five offices. This meant that to collaborate with your team you were using Zoom, and fighting for shared meeting rooms or even annoying your open-office colleagues because you were taking a call at your desk.

Long gone are the days where a team is in a single office.

The reason companies do this is because hiring people with the skills you need for a specific team is incredibly hard if you restrict them to a single location. It used to be everyone would relocate to Silicon Valley in search of their fortune. But nowadays no-one I know wants to move there. You have the inflated house prices, the polarised political situation in the USA, the visa pain, the guns - the list goes on. There is also powerful tax benefits available to companies if they setup offices in other states or countries, and so companies have taken advantage of this.

If I was to give an ordering from best-to-worst for the various working arrangements for teams, it’d be:

  1. A geographically-locked team where everyone on the team commutes into the same office.
  2. A remote team of remote workers.
  3. A remote team where everyone commutes into the different offices.

But with the caveat that for 1. you are going to suffer from a much much smaller potential hiring pool of candidates that are even vaguely suitable for the job. This can be mitigated if you have local universities and a team that prioritises hiring junior talent and training them up (a good thing!), but you will have some amount of attrition of people coming through that end up being poached by other companies.

So if you work for a company where your team is only accessible via Zoom anyway, mandating a return to office means you have all of the negatives of remote work and all of the negatives of office work. The worst of all worlds.