With Yahoo’s recent decision to disallow any and all remote work the remote work debate has reached a new fever pitch. DHH weighed in with his thoughts mostly around trust and what signal you’re sending your employees. To me the more troubling idea isn’t about what signal you’re sending to your employees but what path you’re setting for your business. Remote work isn’t a fad, it’s a requirement for the future of productive creative work.
The oft-used phrase “software is eating the world” to me boils down to a core concept: software and automation are gradually (and in some cases quickly) replacing all forms of non-creative endeavor. That means that over time the number of “ass in a chair” jobs will dwindle to zero. Office environments are great for these types of jobs because the primary measure of output is time. Put more time in, get more work output. When that’s the case, the best scenario is to optimize for maximum time output; work as long as possible with as few of breaks as possible.
In a creative environment output has only a passing correlation with time spent. Creative work depends on being able to work at the often unexpected moment of inspiration, not on a set schedule. Sitting in an office for most of the day is hardly a guarantee of productivity and in fact can oftentimes work counter to it; creative energies are drained by monotony.
Setting a company culture of “never work from home” is exactly equivalent setting a company culture of “be less creative.” If a developer at Yahoo is struck by inspiration at 10pm while at home, she will have to decide whether she should head back into the office to get some work done or “maybe I’ll just work on it tomorrow.” If she has been required to sit at a desk for nine hours that day already, the latter becomes even more likely. Of course, the next day the inspired moment has passed and work output is at perhaps 10-20% of the productivity our theoretical Yahoo would have the previous night.
Over the next ten years most successful companies will work hard to create a culture that can run entirely without an office, even if there is still a company headquarters and even if that headquarters has a number of people working in it every day. Those companies that cling to a traditional mandatory-office model will find themselves increasingly unable to land creative talent and increasingly outmaneuvered by the creative, flexible businesses with a truly distributed culture.