A quality critical take on distributed work

I’m a proponent of distributed work, but I totally get why folks are skeptical about this way of working. Luckily, most of the time the concerns are elementary, and really get at something deeper that’s also present in physical offices. Like the belief that designers can’t design if they’re not together physically with a pack of sticky notes. Or the idea that Millennials are lazy because they think it’s important to make space for self-care. Really, most people just want to be trusted to do good work, and not be lonely.

Look, if you had trouble getting your designers to focus in the office, maybe you shouldn’t have hired people who clearly want to be making jewelry or scarves instead of enterprise software for a proprietary universal compression algorithm? And if you have control or ageist issues, well…one day a Millennial will probably be your boss, and you will have a really weird time processing the ways in which they will enable you to improve your work-life balance and maybe even find a therapist.

Anywho, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been filing away lots of observations 🙃. The very valid concerns people speak up about are nuanced, multi-variate, cultural, and changing. Each one of those could fuel a bunch of new blog posts each. In other words, I don’t think broad generalizations will help us make progress. That goes both ways, both for arguments that say distributed work is all sunshine and rainbows, and those who say it’ll drive us into the ground. Instead, looking at things from a systems perspective can show us how things aren’t immutable, things can be taken apart, and things can be fixed. Because at the core of lot of the concerns people are raising is the reality that there are certain aspects of human society that seep their way into any place people spend time and work together. It’s the not acknowledging that these things exist or will arrive–that for some reason your organization is immune–that does you in, makes the problems harder to fix, and hurts people. And we’re being very human about it–i.e., so uncomfortable with actually naming these things for what they are, and blaming it on distributed work.

Compound that with the other realities of human society that we have had to face in a very raw way lately. It makes sense that this blog post would piss off advocates and critics of distributed work alike:

“Our remote work future is going to suck” on Sean Blanda’s blog.

This is my third year of working 100% distributed, in addition to 3 years where I was one of a small minority of employees who were not allowed to work distributed but everyone else was, and a few more years where different roles and teams had different options in a massive old tech company. And a few years in an office where working from home meant you had to take vacation for it. Lots of variation, and my working take on it all is that if you’re going to “go remote” your best bet is to bite the bullet and go fully distributed. (Ever met someone who said they were gonna go part-time keto and then felt both hangry all the time and didn’t lose weight? It’s sort of like that.) The “mixed methods” approach…might seem to provide ways to give yourself a break to ease in or change your mind…but in my observation it provides more loopholes for the problematic stuff in that blog post to fester. This one is the hardest for me, because I see why others, and myself too, miss going to a place, or need to go to a place for part of the week. I just know this approach will further hurt folks who are already marginalized.

I did not have the concerns going into my first fully-distributed gig that are referenced in this post. Now I do. Yet they weren’t enough to get me back into an office locally or move to a bigger tech hub. I now know I can do quality work this way and from an office. But I’m much wiser about spotting the things that will prevent me and others from doing good work in a distributed organization, and pushing back against flawed claims that if one has these concerns, it means one is not fit for distributed work. These issues really often are a reflection of a conflict between upholding an idea or tradition over the needs of a business or its people. There is so much room in there for privilege and marginalization, with the added ease of never having to look people in the eye. So the more businesses and people work distributed, the easier it will become to call out the things that should not be the way they are.

(PS, I tend to write on the curt side, so I’m not throwing shade here. Just blogging….Con mucho mucho….amorrrrrr.)