Paul Dowman




A structured way to think about in-office vs remote

It’s amazing that business continued pretty well overall during the Covid-19 pandemic when most companies were forced to close their offices and switch to remote work.

But the experience was very different for different companies. For some it was an accelerant (I saw this firsthand at Shopify) but for many the friction outweighed the advantages. Now that the pandemic is over many companies are returning to the office and there has been much debate again recently.

I think too much has been said on this topic, but most is polarized and lacking nuance, so here’s an attempt to lay out a set of things to consider when deciding whether remote or in-office would be better for your company.

Hiring and retention

Is it easy for you to hire in your local area? Or are you competing with companies that can out-spend you?

🏢 Office advantage

  • If local talent is plentiful and affordable then it can be simpler and cheaper to focus your talent search locally.
  • Host events at your office, sponsor local events, and make the most of your employees’ professional networks.

🏡 Remote advantage

  • If your scale of hiring is large in your local area then remote hiring can remove a bottleneck.

    • Example: at Shopify in 2019 we were struggling to hire at the rate we needed and it was a hard sell to convince global top talent to move to Ottawa or even Toronto. In 2020 we switched to permanent remote and hiring quickly improved.
  • Hiring specialized talent is easier remotely.
  • Reduce attrition caused by folks moving.

Teams already colocated

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If you’re all located within a short commute anyway and things are working well then there’s probably more to lose than gain by moving to remote.

But every company becomes distributed once they reach a certain size and they open a second office or even just another floor in the same building. But remember Conway’s Law. The parts of your product or service that need to feel cohesive need tightly coupled communication so if they’re in an office-based culture but in different offices then you might have the worst of both worlds.

🏢 Office advantage

  • If you’re already having intensely collaborative sessions very frequently then this is too valuable to give up.
  • For a small tightly-knit team where everyone who needs to communicate regularly is always in the same physical space it’s easier to stay in sync, build team cohesion, and onboard new folks.

🏡 Remote advantage

  • If you’ve already taken the big hit to collaboration because of regional offices or “hybrid” work then going all-in on remote can actually improve overall team communication by levelling the playing field.
  • In a remote-first culture you can set expectations of good video and audio setups for everyone. Remote folks are equal participants in meetings instead of being tenuously connected by bad conference room speaker phones.

Communication style

Let’s face it, people are different. Leaders should be intentional about shaping the company in a way that fits their strengths, and probably the highest-leverage aspect of that is how effectively they communicate.

🏢 Office advantage

  • It’s easier to have higher bandwidth and more frequent communication in person.
  • It’s easier to “read the room” in person, and stay on top of gene

🏡 Remote advantage

  • Effective remote communication tends to be more asynchronous and writing-oriented, which has the benefit of documenting important things in a way that’s more shareable and more permanent.
  • Picture onboarding to a team and company where technical knowledge and the important principles about culture are well-documented.
  • Secondary benefits: more freedom for people to have uninterrupted focus time, more flexible schedules, and minimize the pain of being in different time zones.
  • Think “document-centred” collaboration vs “meeting-centred”.
  • For a good description of a culture where this is taken to the extreme read A Year Without Pants, the story of Automattic (the company behind WordPress).

Self-motivated people

The elephant in the room. Do you think your people need a manager supervising them all the time? Or are they motivated by your company mission? Are you able to hire only people with a proven record of self motivation? How well do you identify and part ways with low performers?

🏢 Office advantage

  • A culture where motivation is low or that’s not demanding of excellence will find that remote work adds even more friction.

🏡 Remote advantage

  • A team of truly self-motivated people can create the most productive environment possible, personalized for themselves, by working whenever and wherever is most effective for them.
  • Companies with a strong mission focus usually excel at this, and thrive as remote companies.
  • Makes it obvious that “time in seat” is not the right metric to measure performance.

Company demographics (age and family status)

There’s no question that stronger personal relationships will make your team more effective, so social time is good. But what’s the optimal frequency and amount? Is it daily so that you can have team lunches and regular social events? Or is it a focused week every quarter?

🏢 Office advantage

  • Companies with a majority of young employees sometimes have a company-focused social life, which has obvious advantages.

  • Younger folks are more likely to live downtown and more likely to appreciate in-office perks such as meals and games rooms, so you can have a downtown office that becomes a hub where people want to spend more time.

🏡 Remote advantage

  • Folks past their twenties are more likely to see office social events as a work obligation rather than a perk because they have more family obligations, longer commutes, and value control of their schedules.
  • Quarterly events that combine some work goals with team dinners and social events can bring the team together much more than daily work-only interactions. (Make regular travel an expectation.)

The future

How quickly will technology close the gap? Is living within a short commute to your office becoming easier to do or harder?

In the meantime though, it helps to admit the nuance to the discussion.

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2024 © Paul Dowman