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Beyond the Bias: The Truth About Remote Work vs. Returning to the Office

by Level-up Engineering Team
/ May 15, 2024
Liam Martin

Beyond the Bias: The Truth About Remote Work vs. Returning to the Office

With many companies returning to the office and others maintaining a remote-first model, it’s easy to get confused regarding which working model to promote as a leader. 

And when in doubt, it seems reasonable to consult different studies and compare seemingly objective data points to make the best decision. 

But can you actually trust research around remote work and productivity?

Liam Martin, Co-Founder of Time Doctor, debunks myths around remote work and shares valuable tips on managing remote engineering teams so they remain well-aligned in an asynchronous environment. 

This blog post summarizes the main points of episode 92 of the Level-up Engineering podcast hosted by Karolina Toth. Make sure to check out the full interview through your favorite podcast platform or Youtube. 

This post covers:

When it comes to comparing the productivity of remote work vs returning to the office, how should leaders find unbiased information? 

It’s a tough question, because there has been a recent surge in what could be seen as biased studies. These studies, pushing for a return to the office, often get financial backing from big players in corporate real estate, like Bain Capital and Blackstone. 

For unbiased info, there are some good datasets out there. The CASEL Systems Index, for example, tracks how many people are commuting to work in major U.S. cities during work hours. Then there's the Flex Index Survey, the Survey for Work Arrangements and Attitudes, and the Household Pulse Survey. They all offer different takes on the return-to-office situation, but most show a flatlining in office returns and more people choosing to work remotely.

Before the pandemic hit, only 4% of U.S. workers were doing their jobs remotely in January 2020. By March of the same year, that number skyrocketed to 45%, marking a huge shift in how we work. This change has affected not just work but also how we socialize and the economy. We might be sitting on a ticking corporate real estate bomb worth trillions, though it hasn't exploded yet.

What are the social implications of remote work?

What I've noticed is that many people struggle to build connections outside of traditional work settings. In the past, school, university, and jobs naturally led to forming friendships. But for remote workers, it requires more effort.

I often compare our situation to arranged marriages. In the workplace, we often get into friendships with colleagues by circumstance. But there's a whole world of deeper and more fulfilling connections out there if we make the effort to explore it. It might take time for people to adjust, but I believe over the next decade, more individuals will develop the skills to create meaningful connections outside of traditional work environments.

What is the current state of remote working?

Employees are increasingly comfortable with remote work. A recent study funded by corporate real estate companies found that 90% of employers are aiming to bring employees back to the office by 2024. However, when employees were surveyed, 25% said they'd consider quitting if forced to return to the office. This tension between employees and employers is likely to escalate as remote work becomes more entrenched.

As I see it, managers need to adapt to managing remote workers, which requires a different approach from managing in-office teams. In 2020, much of remote work simply replicated the office environment, but remote work is fundamentally different. In my recent book, Running Remote, I outline a methodology called asynchronous management. This approach allows teams to work together without the need for constant synchronous interaction, like what we're doing now.

Traditional management was top-down, but now the focus needs to shift to leadership - servant leadership in particular. It's about empowering teams with the information they need to make decisions independently, rather than relying on constant Zoom calls. Organizations that embrace this approach thrive, while those clinging to old management styles may struggle with the transition back to the office.

What are your tips to manage asynchronous teams well?

Forming connections & spending time meaningfully

Forming strong relationships with coworkers is crucial, even in remote setups. Take Todoist, for instance. They use an asynchronous messaging tool called Twist, where they engage in collaborative tasks, almost like a virtual game of Dungeons and Dragons. This keeps their team connected while working independently.

In our management philosophy, we prioritize synchronous communication for connection and asynchronous for focused work. We avoid traditional "show and tell" meetings, where someone drones through slides for an hour. Instead, team members review materials beforehand and only discuss points of contention or areas needing clarification.

Around 10-15% of our work week involves synchronous interactions, reserved for activities like playing games or discussing personal and career growth. This contrasts with the misconception that remote work is just recreating office dynamics. Unlike an office setting, synchronous collaboration in remote work carries a tangible cost, so we use it sparingly, ensuring most of our time is spent on deep, self-directed work, like coding. Successful asynchronous management typically allocates less than 20% of the work week to synchronous interactions.

Process documentation & management

Another important aspect is process documentation, which involves outlining all tasks within the organization and shifting the manager's role from being a gatekeeper of information to leveraging platforms like project management systems or Slack chats for documentation. Companies like Slight.com use AI to automatically generate process documentation by analyzing internal communications, for example.

Managerial buy-in is crucial for the success of asynchronous work. Some managers feel threatened by the reduced need for their role in asynchronous organizations, where there are typically half as many managers compared to synchronous ones. Helping managers understand their evolving role and the opportunity to engage in individual contributor work can ease their concerns.

Traditionally, career advancement in tech often meant transitioning to a managerial role, which isn't suitable for everyone. Rethinking this approach and recognizing the value of highly skilled individual contributors can lead to more effective organizations. Companies like WordPress and GitLab have successfully implemented asynchronous work models, where managers focus on supporting their teams rather than micromanaging tasks.

What would you say to engineering leaders who are uncomfortable with the idea of remote, asynchronous work?

Well, when it comes to engineers, good luck getting them back into the office. Among all professions, engineers have the highest percentage of remote work, currently at about 67%. Because engineers are in such high demand, it's incredibly challenging to compel them to return to the office.

If you try to force employees back to the office, you'll likely end up with a team of B players, as the top talent will have the freedom to choose how they want to work. Right now, it's a seller's market, especially for engineers.

For managers uncomfortable with leading a remote engineering team, I don't have any comforting solutions. The reality is, if you insist on running your engineering team from the office, it's likely to fail. It's a tough truth, but there's no way around it.

Remote work is here to stay

The key message is that remote work is here to stay. To stay relevant in the future of work, it's crucial to learn how to manage remote teams effectively. This applies not only to employees but also to managers and business owners. Embracing remote work management will benefit everyone involved.

About Liam

Liam is the founder of several companies: TimeDoctor.com, which tracks time for remote workers, Staff.com, which provides time analytics for remote workers, and Running Remote, the largest conference on building remote teams. Their mission is to promote the transition to distributed work, whether hybrid or fully remote, believing it will create a better world.

Initially, Liam pursued a PhD in sociology, planning to become a university lecturer. He eventually left grad school and started his first online business in 2011, an online tutoring company. Despite its success, he faced challenges tracking time accurately, leading him to develop Time Doctor to address this issue.

You can follow Liam’s work through the following links:

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