The authors of 'Remote' are founders of a company that develops remote-working tech applications and this is a strength and a weakness of the book. There's no doubt that Fried and Heinemeier Hansson's insight is informed by their experience of growing tech development company that runs on remote workers. However, this also blinds them to the fact that remote working is not an end in itself. It's a one of many means by which to achieve output. The result is that this book can read like a manifesto or even sales pitch, rather than a nuanced debate around the place of remote working in business - its opportunities and drawbacks.
Then again, Fried and Heinemeier Hansson don't pretend that the book is anything but a readable, practical guide to why businesses of all shapes and sizes should follow them and embrace remote working. For its readability, practicality and quote-ability alone, I suggest its worth a couple of hours of your time.
I revisited 'Remote' to look again at its arguments in light of establishing my own remote working business, Free Range Lawyers. Things have changed since it was first published in 2013: for law firms, remote working is at least on the table for discussion and for me, I've established a business based around the notion of remote work. So what lessons would 'Remote' hold for me and for my clients now?
From the start I'm reminded of how quotable Fried and Heinemeier Hansson are, with such gems as "the new luxury is the luxury of freedom and time" or "soon you’ll see that it's the work – not the clock – that matters". A radical notion, indeed.
However, this book goes beyond soundbites to offer practical tips, solid arguments and simple frameworks to support remote working.
For remote workers themselves, there are the more obvious suggestions of creating a routine, a separate office (or co-working) space and an opportunity to socialise with other humans during the working day.
"As the opportunities to schmooze in the office decrease, the focus on the work itself increases"
For managers, Fried and Heinemeier Hansson offer a host of ways in which projects and people can be managed across different locations or even time-zones. As you'd expect, technology has a key role, but the authors also explore attitudes and behaviours. They challenge managers to overturn implicit beliefs such as remote workers being second class citizens or their need to "manage the chairs": "the job of a manager is not to herd cats but to lead and verify the work".
As one reads on, the importance of the work itself moves into sharper focus, making clear how redundant some of our traditional office constructs have become. "As the opportunities to schmooze in the office decrease, the focus on the work itself increases"..."when the work product is out in the open, it's much easier to see who's actually smart (as opposed to who simply sounds smart)." I’m not the first to see this as revolutionary for law firms and their clients. What are the implications for efficiency, innovation, diversity, retention, reward and motivation, of focusing on output alone?
Given how change-averse most law firms are, this book is most useful when discussing how to introduce remote working. The authors start: "Here's how to guarantee a remote-work failure: Pick one employee who get to 'give this remote thing a try', then just carry on with business as usual..." They are clear that "you can’t experiment with working remotely by sending one or two people to Siberia. To give it a proper try, you need to set free at least an entire team." And there's the rub – "to give it a proper try". How many law firms have launched a remote working pilot under sufferance, with the intention of finding a way to appear flexible while delivering as little flexibility as possible in practice? Behind the pilot there needs to be some conviction and genuine desire to make it work.
Those looking for light relief will enjoy chapter two, 'Dealing with excuses', which equips proponents with an answer for every type of objection and makes informative and amusing reading. "But if I can't see them, how do I know they’re working?" is one popular refrain. Because they are judged on output, comes the response, plus, as a final retort: "Either learn to trust the people you're working with or find some other people to work with".
"Either learn to trust the people you're working with or find some other people to work with"
"But what about culture?" is another objection. Fried and Heiniemeieir Hansson argue that "the best cultures derive from actions people actually take, not the ones they write about in a mission statement...if anything, having people work remotely forces you to forgo the illusion that building a company culture is just about in-person social activities. Now you can get on with the actual work of defining it and practising it instead". "We paid a lot of money for this office" is another often-heard argument against embracing remote working. "If someone has run a business well enough to be able to afford a fancy office" say the authors, "you'd think they'd be familiar with the idea of 'sunk cost'. But hey, we all look at the Kardashians and think 'How on earth did they get where they are?'"...
"The new luxury is the luxury of freedom and time"
Having founded and run a contract lawyer business in the UK and, within that, set-up teams of remote workers, 'The new luxury' section resonated with me most. "A swanky corner office on the top floor of a tall building...it's easy to laugh at old-money corporate luxuries" say the authors, "...that's the coin given in exchange for the endless hours spent at the office...
The hope is that these enticements will tide you over during those long years when you're dreaming of the things you’ll do when you retire." If I had a dollar for every contract lawyer who was motivated by freedom and time now, not in retirement, I’d have enough for a weekly flat white at my co-working space until (semi) retirement.
I enjoyed revisiting 'Remote' and found its arguments as persuasive now as they were when it was first published. However, whether it's down to my own interests in the psychology of work or the fact that the debate has moved-on since 2013, I found I wanted a more detailed analysis of self-management and team-management in a remote working environment. A few more case studies outside the authors' own company wouldn't have gone amiss, either. You can't have it all, though, and this book still delivers. Whether you're a leader, manager or worker, you'll find it an enjoyable, informative pro-remote polemic.