I felt inspired to write this post by the number of messages I receive from recruiters every month, telling me I would be a great fit for their fully remote developer posting.
It's no mystery why this has started happening, of course. Unless you've been living in a very remote cave on the outskirts of Limavady for the last 2 years or so, you are likely all too aware of the global pandemic which has quite literally been plaguing our lives. If you've managed to remain unaware until now, I'm jealous.
As a result of this pan-continental plague, many companies had to resort to sending their employees home for the foreseeable future. For some industries, this meant paying them reduced wages to stay at home and do nothing as they simply could not do their job from home. But for many industries, software engineering being a very notable one, it was mostly business as usual. A lot of us were already prepared for this. At my company we were already more or less enabled for fully remote work. There may have been a bit of IT work required to increase the bandwidth of things like our corporate VPN since it wasn't used to having everybody on it all the time. But otherwise we just went home and continued working as usual.
And I hated it.
I can feel it even more acutely now that I am thankfully able to work in the office again. Zoom is quite simply exhausting. Zoom fatigue became something of a meme during the pandemic but it is a very real phenomenon. It turns out that conversing with a colleague over a remote conferencing tool like Zoom just isn't quite the same as collaborating with them face-to-face.
There are subtleties to inter-personal communication which Zoom just doesn't quite capture, and I can honestly say I have felt a significant productivity (and mental health) boost since being able to work with people in person again.
Unfortunately, a large portion of the industry has gone in a slightly different direction.
Before I go any further I should clarify: I don't think remote working is universally bad. People have benefitted hugely from the extra flexibility and reduced commute time, and probably a myriad of other things as well.
But by the same token it's not universally good either. And yet the narrative that I see play out on social media and in my inbox is that fully remote working is the way of the future, and if we advertise our roles as fully remote we will have thousands of candidates biting our hand off to work here.
For some people, fully remote is perfect and that's fine. I just want to be one voice from the other side and tell you that as soon as I see the words "fully remote" I don't even bother reading the rest of the email.
There is no more immediate deal-breaker for me than knowing I will have no kind of in-person collaboration.
And it's not just loneliness or isolation or Zoom Fatigue. There's more to it than that and it goes beyond just the feelings of one or two people. There's an organisational problem with being fully remote.
Even if you communicate with your team constantly over Zoom, even if you engage in regular collaboration exercises like pair or mob programming, that's still the only team you see.
What about the team that used to sit a few desks away? Maybe you used to chat to them next to the coffee machine, or even just a few words while walking past. Maybe you used to get valuable insights from your occasional off-the-cuff conversations with your immediate neighbours. Maybe they used to get the same from you. But now you are separated by a network boundary. Now your communication with them has become much more transactional. You message their team group channel when you need direct help with something, or arrange a meeting if you need a more open-ended conversation, but it's just not the same.
Being physically separated from the rest of the organisation will stifle the spread of new and good ideas. If others can't see the new things your team is trying, they won't learn from it.
Some organisations have solved this problem of course. There are companies like GitLab who have been fully remote for several years and it works well for them.
My point is that not everyone can be GitLab. The current trend of fully remote is being influenced by the one thing more important to a company than productivity: Money. The executives have realised that they can save all the money they used to spend on office space, heating, lighting, parking etc. and pass that cost on to their employees while getting the same level of productivity.
This is short term thinking though. What they don't realise is they are getting productivity with a small P.
The real productivity comes from talented people collaborating with each other and sharing their experience.
People are making it work because they have to, and they are just keeping the lights on at best. The only companies that will truly thrive in this model are the GitLabs, the ones who recognise the organisational limitations of a fully remote workforce, and invest in addressing it. Companies that just lift and shift to fully remote and keep everything else the same will sooner or later feel the pinch when they see their organisation stagnate. The inability to effectively share ideas will lead to that productivity being short lived. And they will wonder what happened. If a manager ever asks you what happened to the creativity their team used to have, direct them to this post.
Collaboration is dead, long live productivity.