Jorge Manrubia

June 12, 2023

Remote struggles


I've worked fully remotely for the last ten years. I find the discussion about remote work fascinating. Is remote better or a lesser evil? Is a decision full of tradeoffs? Something that works in some circumstances, but that is not a good default? 

As with every complex subject, people – me included – love to reduce it to a dichotomy. A binary choice where you can either be right or wrong. I'm in the camp of remote-work-is-the-best, but I can't deny that many folks and companies thrive with on-site work. Plenty of evidence backing up any side you want to take here.

What always surprises me is that most assume that existing companies have a choice. Generally speaking, I don't think they do. If a company obtaining good results isn't working remotely already, it will likely fail to switch. The bigger the company, the greater the challenge, but I'd say the problem remains for small shops or even startups that operate on-site early on.

When putting any substantial change in motion, organizational gravity is a thing, but I think the problem is more profound here. Any company that functions is an incredibly complex system, and communication is what glues everything together. After somehow finding a way of communicating that works, going remote means replacing this magical glue with a wholly new and different one¹. That is a hell of a challenge.

When I hear of a company like Apple going remote, I imagine someone trying to transform a house into a boat, all without disrupting the people living inside. I'm sure it's doable, but the odds aren't great. Corporate titans are certainly extreme cases, but I don't think the challenge is substantially different for smaller companies. Overhauling how a company works while keeping the operation going is quite a feat. I can understand how many companies will fail to do that.

I believe this is the real reason behind the recent wave of companies returning to the office. I disagree with the conclusion most seem to reach, though. The failed experiment wasn't remote work but rewiring your company from the ground up. That makes for a less clickable headline, though, and is probably a harder pill to swallow for the people running the show.

I've been lucky enough to work for two very successful fully-remote companies during the last decade. For both, remote was never an afterthought but a foundational ingredient. I think remote work discussions don't emphasize this enough: making an on-site company remote is a tremendous challenge for any established company because it requires a restatement of how communication happens. I would keep this present when extracting conclusions from either success or failure stories.

And just because a binary take is necessary for these discussions: remote work rules, always 🤘!


¹This is the best piece I know on how to communicate effectively in a remote environment, and, equally important, this is the how not to counterpart.
Photo by Alex Padurariu on Unsplash

About Jorge Manrubia

A programmer who writes about software development and many other topics. I work at 37signals.