When Remote Doesn’t Work

Remote fails when it tries to replicate the office instead of moving beyond it.

I was recently invited to chat with a class of Kodeco students on what it’s like to work as an iOS developer, career growth, and all things remote.

One of the students asked, “What are the hard parts of working remotely?”

What an excellent, probing query. When advocating for something, one needs to appreciate both the pros and the cons.

There are at least two dimensions on which to look at the problem. The first is organizational, remote can fail because a company is not doing it right. Then, we can have issues at the individual level. Remote might not be a good match for someone’s personality.

Let’s unpack both, and see if there are ways to mitigate these issues.

Organizational issues

When discussing working outside the office, it’s crucial to understand that not all remote implementations are equal. That goes beyond the obvious fact that companies are all different and deep into the approach with which management structures remote work.

There is a profound qualitative difference between working remotely and working distributedly.

In its worst implementation, a remote company is a co-located company without a physical office. Employees are expected to “show up” more or less at the same time as everyone else, attend meetings in video form, and replace the real-time, synchronous office chatter with instant messages.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have companies that can leverage their remote workforce by adopting an async-first mindset and promoting a writing culture. These companies level up from remote to distributed and benefit from downstream effects such as being able to hire globally and requiring less management coordination, thanks to information being in everyone’s reach.

In the ideal distributed company, everyone can access all the necessary internal information by browsing the collective body of written work. Work progresses seamlessly across time zones, with individuals moving work-in-progress features while others are offline.

If you feel remote is not working out for you, it might be that the company you are working for is early in its adoption and hasn’t figured out yet how to make the quality leap. Getting your boss to subscribe to this newsletter would be an excellent first step to changing course, and so would checking out Paolo Belcastro’s Remote vs. Distributed talk and Matt Mullenweg’s Five Levels of Autonomy post.

But, not all problems are systemic. Sometimes, the issue lies not with the company but with the individual.

Personal issues

It might come as a surprise, but not everyone enjoys working in the peace of their home office, alone, with only the clickety-clack of the keyboard and the steaming aroma of a dark roast to keep them company.

There are people out there who relish busy places, the background hum of a crowd, and idle chatting. Researchers call them extroverts.

There are different ways to define extroverts, as well as their opposite, introverts. For the purpose of this post, let’s refer to introverts as those who expend energy when interacting with others and extroverts as those who gain energy from it instead.

For an extrovert, being around other people is a necessary psychological need. Leave them to work alone, and they’ll quickly grow restless and unproductive.

If this describes you, dear reader, remote work may not be a good fit for your personality. Even in its worst implementation, with plenty of Zoom calls and synchronous conversations, remote would be a poor substitute for the real-time, in-the-same-room contact that you require as an extrovert.

But before throwing the towel on remote, I’d suggest reevaluating your expectations for social interaction at work. If work is your only source of social interaction, you might be expecting too much from it. Looking for a decent salary and a group of friends all in the same place is setting yourself up for disappointment.

Try getting the amount of real-time interactions with real people you need from sources other than work. There are endless possibilities. Join a sports team, volunteer in your community, reconnect with old friends, or lean into your extended family.

This isn’t to say that you can’t form long-lasting friendships at work – some of my closest friends are people I met through work – but it’s good to think of this as a bonus rather than a given.

Colleagues don’t have to be your friends, and certainly not your family. They can simply be the folks you work with. That’s fine. You can be professional without being best buddies.

There are no solutions, only tradeoffs

Remote works, for most people, most of the time.

When done right, remote can make companies more effective and flexible, and individuals more focused and satisfied.

But, as with everything else, this approach comes with its downsides. It can feel lonely. Sometimes you may be blocked on a project while waiting for asynchronous feedback. You might also need to travel several times a year to get together with your team to compensate for long spells of isolation.

If remote is not working for you, consider whether your organization is not doing remote right or you are placing too much personal satisfaction expectation on your job.

And if it turns out that remote is really not your cup of tea, embrace that as a powerful filter to cut out noise in the job market and a lesson learned about your personality. Don’t worry, we can still be friends.