Thorsten Ball

What you think is bad about remote work, can, well, actually be good.

22 May 2020

I’ve been working remotely full-time at Sourcegraph for slightly over a year now and, in the five years before that, had 2-3 home office days a week at flinc and ioki.

There are a lot of different blog posts I could write about remote working: about its upsides and downsides, what works and doesn’t, when it makes sense and when not, what it requires and why I enjoy it.

But here I want to share my thoughts on a single, specific point that often comes up in discussions about remote work: the obvious downsides of remote work. Put in a sentence: “Of course remote work has advantages, but we all agree that it’s a trade-off; it’s better to have a chance to interact with real people, to have face-to-face time and to be able to quickly talk things through in person. Obviously.”

I’m here to tell you that these obvious downsides of remote work can be (and for me are) upsides.

Social Interactions

Let’s start with social interactions. Having other people around, as you would in an office, is good. I agree. I like spending time with other people and some of my best friends started out as colleagues.

But here’s the rub: I’m also a sensitive person. That has its advantages (I’m good at “reading a room” and can empathize with others), but to me it can also mean that I’m easily and involuntarily influenced by other people’s mood.

Working remotely, social interactions lost a lot of their negative influence on me. In other words: the less I see my colleagues face-to-face, the less I worry about their face.

Less “oh, he didn’t seem enthused when I pitched them my idea”.

Less “they rolled their eyes in the company meeting when the CEO announced the new strategy, now I’m not so sure anymore about that strategy myself”.

Less “my manager sighed when I mentioned this problem I have. I’m sure it didn’t mean anything, but… maybe it did?”.

Less “I sent them a message to review my code 5 hours ago, I know they’ve checked their email, I saw it, so why didn’t they review my code?”

Less over-analyzing, less being influenced by things that range from “irrelevant to me” to “so random that it’s ridiculous I even think about it again”.

A different playing field

Here’s another angle: when you meet and discuss things in person — as opposed to in written, virtual form — it’s easy for the loudest person in the room to own the discussion.

I myself can be a pretty loud person (if I spot a chance to crack a joke, you can bet I’ll try to use it) and I have trouble not talking over other people, especially when I get excited about something. I try to work on it, but it’s hard to shut off what often feels like a reflex.

But when the main communication channels are asynchronous text and video calls (as would be the case in a remote work setup) the influence of the loudest person in the room wanes. It’s transferred to the best communicators.

Let me illustrate with an anecdote. When I joined Sourcegraph I spent one week in San Francisco for onboarding. Back then we still had an office and weren’t all-remote. But some of my colleagues were already working remotely and I didn’t meet them in that first week, only afterwards through Slack/GitHub/Zoom.

And you know what? I was highly impressed. Incredible technical knowledge, great writing, fantastic communication skills (proactive, mindful of the recipient, always providing enough context for the message to work asynchronously). All of that was clearly visible when I saw their messages and ideas on Slack, their code, their code reviews and when we jumped on calls to pair.

The twist is that when I finally met some of them in person I realized that they’re really shy and quiet and that if we were put together in a meeting room or an open office I never would’ve gotten the same impression I now had of them. I was actually happy that I met them online first.

Face-to-face meetings

We’ve all heard a variation of this: “You just can’t argue that things are much faster when you can have face-to-face meetings and get everyone around a table.”

A friend of mine said this a few years ago: “The Linux kernel is being developed by thousands of people, all over the globe, through email. Email! And you’re telling me we need to meet for two hours to decide when this button shows up or not?”

Two points here.

First, face-to-face meetings are not inherently better. They can be time wasters just like anything else. They can be inefficient without an agenda and clear goals, they can have the wrong people in them, they can end without any results, without notes, without something to show to others.

Second point: I’d argue that if you often need to get everyone in the same room to discuss and decide on something, you probably have too many people discussing and deciding things.

Why do five people have to sit around a table? Are all of them giving their input? If not and just one person is talking, couldn’t that have been an email? Or a video call where the other participants can just listen? Or just a document that took the writer slightly longer to prepare but the other participants less time to read than it would’ve taken them to attend the meeting?

At Sourcegraph I’ve learned what it means to truly work autonomously and the most important ingredients to that are trust and responsibility. What that enables is that you often don’t need five people in a room to make a decision. You need two, maybe three, and even then you often don’t need a meeting, since these two or three people are often on the same page anyway.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate meetings. I actually roll my eyes when I hear things like “ugh, I wish I had no meetings at all and could just code.” Communication and coordination are important. But are face-to-face meetings really the most efficient way to achieve that? No, I don’t think so.

I think if it’s harder to have face-to-face meetings, as it is in a remote company, you start to work around them and can end up with something that has a lot of upsides: less people necessary to make decisions, more decisions being documented, better preparation, clear goals. More trust, more autonomy.

Surprise, surprise: there’s nuance to it

If there’s one overarching point to what I’m writing here, and I’m not sure there is, it could be this: there’s more nuance to all the obvious upsides and downsides of remote and in-office work than tweet-sized insights on the future of work in times of a global pandemic would make you think there are.

Follow me on twitter: @thorstenball. Or send me an email to me@thorstenball.com. Or check out my books at interpreterbook.com and compilerbook.com.

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