Remote workers will not be cheap for long, and that is good for everyone
The Future of Work

Remote workers will not be cheap for long, and that is good for everyone

by Badri Varadarajan, Portfolio CTO
Remote workers will not be cheap for long, and that is good for everyone
  • Who is a great remote worker?
  • What makes a great remote organization?

What makes a great remote worker and remote organization? And where exactly does the barometer of remote work really lie currently? We all know remote work is not the same as office work done from far away.

By demonstrating that free range workers can produce great organic work outside their coopicles, the pandemic has advanced the idea of remote work. Unfortunately, it has also set back ideas about remote work.  

Remote work is NOT the same as office work done from far away. 

Truly remote work does to work what Uber did to rides and AirBnB did to stays. In both these disruptions:

  1. The market was given a shock by a dramatic increase in the number and type of suppliers
  2. The new suppliers initially offered lower cost, but over time, the cost of the new services have risen till they are as high, or higher than, pre-disruption costs 

One cynical narrative is that the disruption was entirely manufactured, but we believe that is partly, if not wholly, false. The real story is that the shock to the supply side of these markets fundamentally changed the product itself, and the market is slowly finding the real price of these new products.  An Uber ride is not a Yellow cab driven by a part time worker. It is a way of organizing transport so that people rethink car ownership and even urban planning (for better and for worse). AirBnb is not just a cheaper hotel room (there were hostels and campgrounds before AirBnB); it is a fundamentally new asset in the real estate sector and a fundamentally new way to experience one’s own city.  These products were initially adopted because higher supply lowered costs, but at scale, they changed the nature of the market itself. 

At its core, remote work does exactly the same thing to the knowledge work market. It dramatically increases the supplier base. Before the pandemic, we had seen a similar adoption curve: Companies were using remote workers to cut costs for short-term projects that could have been done by their own staff. 

If remote work had evolved organically, we would have seen it transform. Organizations and workers would have changed the nature of the transaction (not short-term penny-pinching projects, but long term jobs and careers), the nature of collaboration (depend less on watercooler bump-ins and interminable Zoom calls and more on deliberate asynchronous communication), and the nature of project planning (every team can work 24X7 now, because it is always 9 to 5 somewhere). 

Instead, the pandemic has distorted the narrative around remote work, making it seem like a perk that benevolent employers grudgingly bestow upon workers to keep them happy at the cost of lower productivity. 

We believe these sand castles will not stand. Truly remote work is a voluntary, mutually beneficial arrangement that will help great remote organizations produce better products faster, and great remote workers make more money more comfortably. 

But what makes a great remote worker, and a great remote organization?

Who is a great remote worker?

For a brief while there, everyone was a remote worker. But now that the captains of industry have summoned the Zoombies back to their cages, who remains a remote worker? Most people think a remote worker is one of the following:

  • An underpaid call center worker overseas, or someone impersonating said worker
  • A freelancing millennial who prefers soy lattes to spreadsheets and ginseng tea to greenbacks
  • An over-the-hill geriatric whose skills are as worn out as their knees
  • A socially stunted nerd whose first language is Assembly

In contrast, we believe the great remote worker is purposeful, ambitious, diligent and motivated. Specifically:

  1. Great remote workers are remote by choice. They are not afraid of social interaction or unable to get a “real job”. They work remotely because they want to work in teams that build better products and services, and the best teams select for skill, not zip code.
  2. Great remote workers want higher-achieving, higher-paying careers and are willing to work hard to get them. They are not choosing remote work because it is easier or less strenuous. They are choosing it because it gives them better careers.
  3. Great remote workers are confident about their current skills and willing to learn new ones. They are not taking a remote job because that’s all they can get. 
  4. Great remote workers build high-quality working relationships because they communicate well, and in any case, a gulf in distance is easier to bridge than the gulf in talent and attitude they would encounter in offices.
  5. Great remote workers want their productivity to be measured because they are very productive, and like to show off. They also want to avoid unproductive peers because they are ambitious and driven (see above). 

The reason you do not see many great remote workers in the wild is that there are not many great remote employers. 

“The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the remote worker but in their masters”.  

When organizational thinking about remote work comes out of the Stone Age, you will see many wonderful remote workers fly out of their chrysalis.

What makes a great remote organization?

Industry leaders have spoken loud and clear : They embrace remote work, because their employees have asked for “freedom”, and it is important to trust their employees, which is why they have asked them come back in twice a week, because facetime makes teams more cohesive and productive, but employees can choose which days they come in, because freedom is important, and employees can choose to work from anywhere, but they cannot expect to be paid the same, but it is important to be fair, and so on.

OK, so maybe we exaggerated the “clear” part.

Out of the smoldering ashes of the office, and the reeking miasma of “hybrid”, we hope the truly great Remote Organization will rise. 

  1. A great remote organization is remote by choice, because its leaders know remote teams can build great products
  2. A great remote organization is, well, organized. It puts the same thought into building a remote workplace that it earlier put into open seating, workbench ergonomics, and potted plants. It invests in products and processes that make it easy to organize and share information. 
  3. A great remote organization does not appease its workers. It has evidence-based trust in its workers, not blind faith that  everyone will continue to work hard without the social conventions that prevented, or at least reduced, slacking off
  4. A great remote organization has high expectations from its remote workers, and it trains its managers to measure and improve productivity. 
  5. A great remote organization pays its workers according to their work output, not according to their zip code.
  6. A great remote organization understands that the remote worker pool is globe-sized. It recruits talent from everywhere, improves its own work standards and processes to deserve that global talent. 
  7. A great remote organization does not accept that communication has to be synchronous to be effective. Facetime and meetings are not inherently good. 
  8. A great remote organization does not force its taste in pay structure or perks on its workers. It lets them choose to receive cash instead of benefits or perks if they want to. 
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