Remote work has become a huge topic of conversation in the business and political world since the pandemic shutdowns. The shift to remote that the pandemic response precipitated has upended many of the conventions of how business is done in the United States. In a remote work world, the geographic tie between one’s place of residence and place of work has been severed in many cases. This allowed many people to geographically relocate, has caused problems for America’s downtowns, etc.
There’s been something of a return to office move in the last year. Clearly, many companies would like their employees to return to the office but have been unable to make it happen in practice. A possible economic downturn would give employers more leverage to dictate terms to workers. However, as the future plays out, it does seem that there has been a long term shift towards a greater amount of remote work, either fully remote or a “hybrid” model in which employees only come into the office a few days a week.
I’ve written on this before, but I want to share again some thoughts on we should be thinking about remote work in terms of career.
I am essentially a 100% remote worker. I also spent many years working full time in an office. So I’ve had experience with both sides of the equation.
I would encourage younger workers to be wary of remote jobs. Early in your career, say during your 20s, you have to learn what it means to actually work in a business environment that is very different from an educational setting. It’s very difficult to fully adapt to the work world when you aren’t in an office or other business setting interacting with colleagues in person.
In person work is also how skills are built. Yes, you can learn how to do things like program a computer on your own. At the same, there’s a vast amount of tacit knowledge about every field that is most effectively learned in person.
One reason industries like finance in NYC or tech in the Bay Area have been geographically clustered is that agglomerations of people in a single area allows knowledge and innovation to spread more efficiently. If you are not part of these in person networks, you will be out of the loop, so to speak. Your professional development will simply be much slower.
Also, building a network of people you know and can draw on professionally is arguably the most important thing you will ever do over the course of your career. It’s hard to make relationships with people you never see in person. Someone who never spends time working in person will almost certainly have an underdeveloped professional network.
There are other benefits to being in an office as well. You learn the corporate culture. You hear office gossip. You benefit from mentorship and in person guidance from supervisors, something the New York Times just wrote about. Everybody knows that face time with the boss is critical. It’s hard to get that if you and/or your boss are not regularly in the office.
In short, there are many reasons for someone early in his career to be wary of a fully remote job or one in which most people are only in the office a couple days per week.
Mid Career and Beyond
All of the same factors above affect mid and late career people as well. However, at these levels, for most people the wheels of career progress have slowed down. Most of us start to reach close to our peak level of success in our late 30s or early 40s. And at later stages of life, other considerations loom larger.
For example, young people often embrace careers known for being meatgrinders, like finance, consulting, or law. They will work 80+ hours per week, do 100% travel, etc. But at some point, the vast majority of people step away from those type of roles into something more sane. Similarly, most people are not going to live their entire lives in New York City or a place like that. The question is not whether to take a step back, but when.
Remote work can provide opportunities for people to relocate to lower cost locations, those that are more culturally or politically sympatico, to be closer to family, or to be near to some particular amenity that we care about.
For me, remote work allows me to stay in Indiana, which is low cost, culturally familiar, a solid red state, and close to family. Obviously there are things about Indiana I don’t like too, but this is a much better place for me to do the kind of work I do than New York City would be. But without a doubt it represents taking a step back from being in the cultural center.
Moves to places like Austin, Texas or Nashville also need to be seen in the same light. When a tech worker moves from the Bay Area to Austin, he’s make a decision to take a step off the escalator in favor of lifestyle. Remote work is functionally similar.
Those who make the choice for remote work will start to experience skill and network atrophy relative to those who don’t. This will require them to work hard to try to mitigate that. For example, I need to be spending time on airplanes visiting New York and DC, attending conferences, etc. to a much greater extent than I did when I was physically living in New York.
Another consideration to keep in mind is that once you’ve proven that your job can be done remotely, you’ve all but proven it can be done offshore.
I used to work for one of the world’s largest consultancies and outsourcing companies. Back in the late 2000s, we were trying to get our internal employees to work from home - and they wouldn’t do it. You could get people to work from home on Fridays, but people insisted on coming into the office almost every day, even though we used a hoteling approach to workspace and people theoretically didn’t even have permanently assigned desks. Basically the company wanted to get people to work from home two days per week, and stagger their days in the office so that we could reduce our office space footprint. Eventually, I think they had to order people not to come into the office.
One reason people were so resistant is that they understood the business we were in. We helped clients do work or move operations offshore. Having sat in many budgeting/pricing discussions, I knew full well that in order to use an onshore employee, you basically had to prove that the job couldn’t be done offshore.
Well, if the job can be done remotely, then almost by definition it can be done offshore from a low cost country. This isn’t true for some regulated industries or federal government work, but it’s true for most things.
Companies today tout the criticality of talent attraction and retention, and how remote work lets them better attract talent. That’s true. But it’s also true that there will inevitably be rounds of cost cutting. Anyone with a fully remote job is a prime candidate to have their position eliminated or relocated to a low cost location offshore.
I’m not saying this makes it a bad decision to take a remote work job, but you need to understand that for a company, the calculus of a fully remote position is different than for one that requires the worker to be on site.
These are a few considerations you should keep in mind as you sort through whether or not to consider remote employment, or how many days you want to come into the office.
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> Anyone with a fully remote job is a prime candidate to have their position eliminated or relocated to a low cost location offshore.
There can be significant costs (both ongoing and up-front) and risks involved with offshoring work, especially skilled positions that require continuous close communication and collaboration (like software development), a high degree of trust (like management, security, or leadership), and/or certain US certifications (like accounting or engineering).
For large companies, those costs and risks can be partly mitigated. Microsoft and other old software companies have a very long history of offshoring software development positions since the early 1990s. It's instructive to take a look at their job board - note the positions that are remote and offshore. The two don't seem to necessarily correlate - https://careers.microsoft.com/us/en/search-results?keywords=software. I think there are good reasons they still post a lot of US-based, 100% remote positions -- and I don't think your job is at risk of being offshored if you have one of them at Microsoft.
I think any particular position's likelihood of being offshored can be evaluated using these criteria:
1. Whether the position or department is seen as a cost center or constitutes the company's primary business or an important investment. Cost-cutting is less likely if you or your department are seen as integral to the company's business, and especially if you or your department are seen as an investment.
2. The costs and risks involved with offshoring your position or department. These costs and risks will be higher for positions involving high trust, high collaboration, or US-based certifications.
3. Your company's ability to mitigate those costs and risks - large companies will be more capable here.
I work as a software engineer for a mid-size (~500 employee), fully-remote SaaS software company in LA that has offshore sales/marketing offices in places like London, but has not effectively offshored any of its core work. I have no fear of losing my job to someone outside the US, and no fear that it could happen to any of my co-workers. That's because all 3 criteria fall short: my department (and indeed, the company as a whole) is seen as a massive investment (we're VC-funded), my job requires close collaboration, and the company is small-ish enough that the organizational costs of offshoring engineering work wouldn't be seen as being worth the potential cost savings.
I think that many companies - such as the one I work for - are continuing with remote work because the senior managers or owners themselves don't want to come into work every day!