‘Can you hear me ok?’ The benefits of remote work

When I started studying computer science in 2003, working for a Big Tech company was a dream almost impossible to reach for me. I was born and raised in Spain, and that’s also where I went to college. Studying over 5000 miles away from the tech scene of Silicon Valley had an interesting effect on me, I’d watch Apple’s tech events and Microsoft’s product announcements as if they were Hollywood movies. I could never imagine myself being part of them. 

The main reason why Big Tech companies felt unreachable was because none of them had software development centers in Spain. The only way of working for companies like Microsoft or Google as a Software Engineer was to move to another country, which made the dream feel more unattainable on top of the already challenging interview process. A lot of talent was left untapped in Spain, and a lot of engineers who dreamed of an opportunity in Silicon Valley never got it.

For years, being physically present at the office was a job requirement. Big Tech companies had sold their headquarters as an incentive to new hires; many of these campuses became small vibrant cities with corporate housing, breakfast bars, restaurants, shopping areas, gyms and theaters, all surrounded by fancy decor. Of course, there was a functional purpose behind the flashiness; the synergy that resulted from face to face meetings. Big Tech campuses are considered innovation and community drivers.

Fast forward a decade and the COVID-19 pandemic has changed society at a global level. Nonetheless, if there is one industry that has been able to withstand the coronavirus crisis, it’s the tech industry. When the stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders started spreading across countries, Big Tech companies were the first to bring their workforce to a work-from-home environment. The technology that made it possible at scale had already been available for years; many smaller companies had already proven that the appetite for work flexibility exists, and that productivity can remain stable in fully remote teams.

The 2020 State of Remote Work‘ survey by Buffer & AngelList

Almost five months after the start of the pandemic, the tech industry started preparing for a future where many employees won’t return to the office until either there is an effective vaccine or a cure. Some of the big players, like Twitter or Facebook, shifted to allow employees to work from home permanently, and it’s safe to say many others will follow. Many employees might miss the perks and social connections they were getting at their workplace, but they can now choose to work from a myriad of places, as long as they have internet connectivity. Managers are realizing that once all meetings are done through videoconference, managing a team that lives in the same city is virtually the same as managing a team across different locations and time zones. Engineers are squeezing the value that communication apps provide in order to stay connected, collaborate and make progress.

Yet, Steve LeVine theorized that remote work could destroy Silicon Valley, saying that “in seemingly every industry, CEOs pay millions in consulting, design, and architectural costs to multiply and optimize the number of chance encounters between their most creative employees — and hopefully profit from the blockbuster new products that might result”. It makes sense to conclude that the serendipity crisis created by the lack of face to face meetings could be solved by a new to-be-invented communication product.

While communication challenges will continue to exist in a remote work environment — like collaborating across non-overlapping time zones— these can be mitigated with technology. Meanwhile, attracting the best talent across the globe is a harder problem. Companies carefully decided where to develop their corporate presence given how expensive this is. Based on factors like the proximity of candidates and cost of living, corporations spent millions to get closer to a diverse pool of talent. Yearly trips were programmed by recruiters to reach out to the best universities, in and out of the country. Big Tech companies ended up competing for students’ attention during these recruiting trips, especially when visiting regions or countries that could help them improve employee diversity numbers.

A diverse team improves a company’s innovation rate and product quality; proper representation of society’s minorities within an organization means better designed products because they consider a broader range of customer needs. This is precisely the reason why the tech industry spends so much energy and resources in bringing people together from all over the world. Now that distance and physical location are becoming less relevant when interviewing candidates, new opportunities open up for all recruiters and hiring managers: the next top performer on your team might be waiting to be discovered in a different country.

Before COVID-19, the chances of hiring a college graduate from Mexico, for example, depended on one of these university-hiring trips made once or twice a year. In our new reality, most interviews are being conducted remotely and the trend is likely to continue once data proves that the hiring quality remains stable. Companies just need a payroll presence in a given location in order to make offers to the region’s top talent. Before, teams often offered “relocation packages”, whereas soon they will offer “work flexibility”. Every party involved is coming to realize what a win-win this situation is: salaries can be better adapted to different locations, office expenses can be repurposed to employees’ wellbeing (including regular trips and events to get teams to have face to face fun), companies have access to a broader set of talented engineers, and candidates from small or remote cities can get similar opportunities to candidates who live in, say, Silicon Valley.

Assuming “work flexibility” means “working from home” is an easy mistake to make. As soon as it’s safe to resume social interactions, remote work will shine through the possible environments it enables: working from a park, a coffee shop, an official company location, and yes, even your home office. Work/life balance takes a new meaning, since what would have been a two-week vacation in Hawaii can now become a month-long trip where half of that time is used to work from a hotel’s business center, a public library or a room in an Airbnb property.

Some Big Tech companies started experimenting with this remote work setting through their summer internships. Interns from all over the US are working with teams based in traditional tech hubs; morning stand-up meetings are composed by engineers that might be a few buildings away, or a few states away. And this is just the beginning. The world might be back to normal in a few years, but the tech industry will be forever changed with the realization that employees can be retained at happier levels thanks to the freedom that remote work provides.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that Big Tech companies will get rid of their attractive campuses, or that employees will be forced to work remotely. It means embracing a work environment where physical presence is an option, not a requirement. It means accepting a distributed culture that benefits how a team innovates and delivers value to customers. And it means finally opening the door to a truly diverse industry.

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