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Book Review: Remote

·4 mins

Ten Years After #

In 2013, the 37 Signals folks wrote a book advocating remote work. It’s also a manual, with advice on how to do it well and integrate it into a company culture. They argue that offices are on the way out. Were they right?

Ten years before their book came out, in 2003, I worked for a mostly-remote software agency. They used “groupware” called First Class to communicate and track projects, as well as regular phone checkins. (My impression was–Lotus Notes, if it was made by Apple.) I learned how to do remote work through example and a strong company culture, but don’t remember a clear handbook–just some time management tips passed around by co-workers. We did good work for a slew of clients, which I think speaks as well to the organization and leadership as it does to the viability of remote work. I enjoyed my time there, but after a couple of years ended up back in a tech hub city working in an office again–partially because the remote-first company had used remote work as a perq and a reason to pay less than Bay Area salaries. (Remote has a section advising against varying salaries by regional cost of living, although there’s far from a consensus.)

At that time, I had no sense that (outside this agency) “telecommuting” was anything other than a rarity for special cases. But organizations like 37 Signals were figuring out how to make it normal. I would have loved to have this book back then!

Ten Years After That #

Today, “remote first” companies are common. There are piles of guides and advice out there on how to do remote work well. Until recently (RIP to another startup!) I worked for one of these remote-first companies, with co-workers in France, Costa Rica, and various parts of the US (including me in Hawaii). And remote work skeptics had their assumptions challenged by COVID lockdowns. But it’s not a settled question, based on this year’s rumblings of “return to office” mandates. Did Remote make the correct call? Is it a useful read today?

And the Sky Full of Blogs #

This book reads like a collection of short blog posts. Or rather, several collections of short blog posts. Each collection (titled something like “Managing Remote Workers” or “How to Collaborate Remotely”) assembles pithy wisdom alongside specific examples. I read it cover to cover, although I imagine it was intended more as something you pick up and skim to a part you find interesting.

The authors are solid and entertaining bloggers. But I wonder what a more traditionally-organized book might be like, with more depth and detail. It succeeds as a coffee table book meant to inspire and lead you further into the garden.

Favorite Bits #

I read this book hoping to apply its ideas to my own work, but also to see it as part of the process in which ideas about work change.

My partner works at a small firm with some old-fashioned bosses. They did not adapt well to people working remotely during Covid. I chuckled to read their same issues–“how will I know they’re working if I can’t see them?!” and “I need an answer now!” Remote asks managers to trust their employees to be adults and not need babysitting. Can we really measure our success by our work? Imagine! I’ve heard so many metrics for a successfull software developer–sprint velocity, number of closed tickets, number of commits to source control. None of these seem quite right to me, but they’re better than “are you in the office late every night.” Remote also asks us to respect work focus in a way that rarely happens in an office. This is easier said than done, trained as we are to respond to the boop from our phones. The book comes at this from a couple of directions, insisting on timezone overlap for collaborators while also insisting that productivity comes from learning to allow some of your communication to be replied to asynchronously–managing our own expectations.

“Compute different” implements clear work / life boundaries by suggesting an keeping separate technology tools for work and for play. If it’s your work computer, no chat programs or computer games. If it’s your play computer (or tablet), don’t use it for Slack or work emails. I’m intrigued by the luxury of having a special space for work at home. I realize this is hardly a new idea. But myself, I just have some paper screens standing between my home office and the rest of the house. My work and personal life computing are hopelessly entangled–I just have to turn it off when I go play guitar or cook dinner. But the idea of a proper home office and very clear demarcations between it and home life is fascinating.

Should I Read It? #

It’s a fun book with good ideas that does not ask too much of you. Grab it and read it. If you wonder about what’s next (like how to craft a remote work policy), Remote will be an excellent starting off place.