Death of the desk?

Heather Greig-Smith reviews Remote: office not required, the latest business book from 37signals founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.

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Depending on your perspective, Remote: office not required either states the blindingly obvious or promotes a revolutionary working concept.

If it’s the latter read this book to open your mind to the way work is heading. “‘Office not required’ isn’t the future – it’s the present. Now is your chance to catch up,” say authors Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.

Founders of software company 37signals, they previously authored bestselling business book Rework, offering an alternative perspective of entrepreneurship. Preaching what they practice, they employ people across the globe and don’t see this as a barrier to successful and productive work. Quite the opposite: Fried and Hansson suggest that offices themselves are a barrier to productivity.

Tackling disbelief

Setting out to convince the sceptics and give employees hoping for flexible working solutions the answers for recalcitrant bosses, Remote argues that the time is right to take the leap into remote working. Office distractions, draining commutes and great technology mean better productivity through flexibility. “Technology snuck up on us and made working remotely an obvious possibility,” it says.

Even if you fall into the camp of converts to flexibility, the practicalities of new ways of working can be tough to thrash out. Remote offers a model to piggyback.

The authors do not advocate throwing caution to the wind – there are rules they follow such as making sure there is time zone overlap between workers in different locations; using technology to ensure people can access all the information they need when they need it; and creating a “virtual water cooler”.

“It might take a bit of time and practice to get the hang of working asynchronously with your team, but you’ll soon see that it’s the work – not the clock – that matters.”

Not just work-life balance

The business arguments in the book reflect the 37signals experience of hiring and retaining employees around the world. Fried and Hansson point out that they can access a far wider talent pool than if they were seeking people within commuting distance of city hubs. If those employees need to move for any reason they can stay with the business.

There are also savings to be made on office space as well as environmental and disaster recovery benefits.

Written in bite-sized chunks, Remote is a quick read that can be dipped in and out of. It deals with common concerns about remote working: that magic only happens when everyone is in a room together; security issues; and the old chestnut: if you can’t see someone how do you know they’re working?

“If you can’t let your employees work from home out of fear they’ll slack off without your supervision, you’re a babysitter, not a manager,” says the book. It has a point.

Another of its theories is that remote working exposes the ‘fakers’. “It’s a lot harder to fake your way as a remote worker. As the opportunities to schmooze in the office decrease, the focus on the work itself increases.”

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Baby steps

Remote rightly points out that newcomers to the world of work are not wedded to a 9 to 5 mentality, and neither are a great proportion of the rest of the workforce. Starting to implement flexibility doesn’t need to be all or nothing – it advises taking a little step and seeing if the sky falls in.

Just be careful the step isn’t too small, say the authors: “You can’t experiment with working remotely by sending one or two people to Siberia. To give it a proper try you need to set free at least an entire team… And then you need to give it longer than it takes to break in a new pair of shoes.”

There is a handy chapter on tips for managing remote workers and a chapter for employees on how to tackle the downsides and challenges of working remotely. Remote is a practical advice guide – the founders of 37signals have lived the approach they advocate and there are definite lessons for others trying a similar, or more modest, approach. At last, practice as well as theory.

To read or not to read

If, as a business owner, the concept of remote seems an impossibility, it’s worth reading this book. It probably won’t have you throwing your employees into the streets just yet, but it might challenge some of the assumptions about offices being the best or only places to do good work. An honest appraisal of the pros and cons, it focuses the mind on what we should really be measuring: output.

Plus, there’s always the danger that your desk-bound employees are reading it and deciding the grass might be greener elsewhere. You’ve been warned.

Image credit: internal book illustration by Mike Rohde

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