Jason Fried’s forthcoming book Remote: Office Not Required can be read as many things—a how-to guide, a manifesto, a chronicle of modern work. It is also a refutation of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s assertion that remote work is incompatible with collaboration and productivity. (Mayer recently demanded that all remote Yahoo employees start coming to the office or quit Yahoo entirely, even if that means a cross-country move.)
Fried is not the usual business book-writing hack. He’s the co-founder of productivity software company 37 Signals and a co-author of the bestselling business book Rework. As an entrepreneur he is fully integrated, in the psychological sense of the phrase: All the web-based software he creates enables remote collaboration, and in Remote he describes how half his team of 35 works remotely. 37 Signals’ remote workers include the company’s other founder, who spends half the year in Spain while Fried endures winter in Chicago.
Even without the boost from the controversy at Yahoo, Remote is a timely book. In the US, just 4% of men and 2% of women work primarily from home, but 19% of men and 13% of women are allowed to telecommute for some portion of their hours at work.
According to Fried’s research, US health care company Aetna has half its 35,000 employees working from home. Financial services firm Deloitte has about the same number of employees, 86% of whom work remotely at least 20% of the time. At microchip giant Intel, a company whose entire business depends on coordination, collaboration and innovation, 82% of staffers regularly work remotely.
And yet Yahoo’s leaders are hardly unique in feeling uncomfortable with remote workers. Fried’s apparent aim in Remote is to illustrate that the most common objections to remote work are groundless, and that, when appropriate, remote work can lead to more productive companies staffed by happier employees.
A remote worker myself, I was keen to hear Fried’s thoughts on the subject in advance of the publication of his book. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your new book, Remote.
Primarily it’s about our experience [at 37 Signals], just like Rework was—our previous book. But just like in Rework, we did some research and and some interviews with other companies, some huge companies and some small companies.
We tried to get a lot of companies that were, for example, outside the software world. It turns out there are thousands of really interesting companies doing remote work.
What surprised you about the non-software companies that allowed employees to work remotely?
In the retail business you have to have people serving customers at a counter, but everything else, from legal and writing to professional services, can basically be accomplished with a telephone, a computer and an internet connection. Almost any service or anything that requires technical or creative work can be done remotely.
For example, a lot of big companies will hire ad agencies to do advertising for them. That ad agency doesn’t work at the same office as the big company, and yet they always trust the agency will get work done. And this model works in so many different places.
Your accountants are usually outsourced, and your legal team too, and all that works fine. Most companies outsource that to someone in the same city or across the country, and never consider it to be a problem that their lawyers are not sitting next to them.
So it’s always interesting to us that people think their own work can’t be done remotely. I think people need to start putting that together, that they already do hire people for remote work. They don’t happen to be employees but they’re vendors.
What do you think of CEO Marissa Mayers’s ban on remote work at Yahoo?
I’d give her the benefit of the doubt at this point because she’s accomplished a lot in her career and is obviously smart. But from what I understand they have a very small remote workforce—I heard it’s between 300 and 500 people. I don’t think those 500 people are the problem when they have thousands of employees at Yahoo.
I find that a weak argument, and a very convenient argument for trying to put the blame on a minority of people instead of admitting there’s a much deeper problem here. If you really think deeply about the argument it starts to not make sense. If these 300 people had been slacking off and screwing around, which was the implied argument, if all it would take to make them productive is to put them in an office environment, to move from where they live and come to a desk, that that would solve the problem, that doesn’t to me seem logical either.
I don’t know the whole story and I don’t know how much it’s been blown out of proportion, but it seems like remote workers are being scapegoated here and they’re sort of being in some ways blamed for a much deeper organizational issue.
When you interviewed people at other companies that allow remote work, what jumped out at you?
A big part of it comes down to trust—we’ve found that companies that work remotely trust their employees more. And what’s interesting about that is that when you’re trusted more as an employee, you work better.
If you know that your manager or employer trusts you, you make more decisions and have more self confidence, and all these things stem from the idea that you can produce great work from wherever you are.
You never hear people saying they love working from the office, but remote employees say they love it. When you talk to people who work remotely, that’s one of the first things they say, that they love that they can work at home and work whatever hours they’re most productive. People in an office don’t talk about their environment except in the negative.
Certainly there are risks for people slacking off, but I don’t think being local or remote has anything to do with that.
Do you think that the trust that managers have for remote employees comes from measurement? Is that trust contingent on managers focusing on productivity?
When people work remotely there is more of a focus on the actual work that’s being produced. It’s the work itself that is evaluated, less so than the personality or the politics or all the things that happen when people are together in person. That brings a clarity to the whole picture.
Normally, if you were there from 8 in the morning until 10 at night, that would be evaluated as “this person is busting ass.” That doesn’t mean anything though—they could take twice as long to do their work as anyone else. What’s nice [about remote work] is that the only thing that’s left then is the work—is it delivered on time and is it of a high quality. That’s one of the great things about remote work, is that all the other human stuff, the B.S., fades away.
When doesn’t remote work, work?
A big part of it in my opinion it comes down to culture. If you have one remote worker and 35 local workers, that’s a problem because there’s a real disconnect between people at the office and that one lone person. The culture splinters into the “here” culture and the “there” culture. It becomes almost like there are two companies, and that’s what you have to avoid.
There are also times when it makes sense to be together. If we’re brainstorming a new concept, we might fly someone in to have some more of that high-intensity interaction. I think that can definitely help, but that high-bandwidth interaction is a small portion of the overall project. To make entire projects require that people be around each other all the time doesn’t make sense.
One thing that bugged me about the actual [leaked email from Yahoo] is that she said that collaboration must happen physically—that in order for us to collaborate we must be next to each other. I find that to be completely false. I think that the more people are together, the more opportunity there is to interrupt and distract each other. People working on creative problems need uninterrupted stretches of time to get work done.
What about younger workers—how do they learn? How can an apprentice system work when everyone isn’t together in an office?
I do think that’s a problem. For example, when we hire a younger worker, someone with less experience, I want them to be in the office for at least a month to start, so we can get to know each other and they can see how we work and we can see how they work. I absolutely believe in that rubbing-off thing that happens when people are nearby.
You can imagine in certain industries that being an absolute requirement. If you’re a furniture maker or a chef, the work is physical work, but I don’t think most things are like that anymore. A lot of companies don’t make anything physical any more; they’re service-driven.
There is no silver bullet here with any of these things—it’s everything in moderation. The problem I have is, people don’t see remote work as possible. They shut it off as an impossibility. I think that’s the extreme position.
How much remote work do you do?
My days are split half and half. I come in around 11 or noon but I start at 8 in the morning. I also go in phases; sometimes I work at home a week or more.
My business partner, David, works nearly 100% remotely. He lives in Spain in the winters, and in Chicago in the summers. Even when he’s in Chicago he works at home most of the time, and comes into the office maybe once a week.
I think it’s important that the leaders of the company have the split as well. If the people who are in charge don’t know what it’s like to work remotely, it’s difficult to understand the real pressures. I’m not suggesting people move away from their headquarters, but if you do want to give [remote work] a shot, some of the leaders or managers should work from home a few days a week.
What kind of technology does a company need to enable remote work?
I think it’s more of a mindset than the technology. You can do this via email or phone. You can do it via the fax machine. People have been working remotely much longer than the latest versions of apps on web.
The tools can help quite a bit, but to me it’s about the mindset. Do you trust people to be able to do great work when you can’t see them doing it? If you can get over the trust hurdle and the “let’s try this” hurdle, there are dozens or thousands of things you can use.
People often ask me, if you draw something, how do you show it? I just take a picture and email it from my phone. It’s very simple.
Think about how much work is done via Fedex—so many contracts and photos are sent on airplanes. You’re still working together, there’s just a 24-hour delay. This has been working for a long, long time.
Are there any difficulties in implementing remote work in large versus small companies?
I think it’s easier for smaller companies to do this because they’re inherently more flexible. It’s easier to trust 30 people than it would be to trust thousands of people.
But, as the book shows, there are some very large companies that are making this work.