The concept of remote work has been around for a while, but considered difficult or perhaps rare to achieve. With the COVID-19 pandemic, that dream has suddenly become a reality for many, at least temporarily. In this post I'll discuss some of the pros and cons of distributed/remote work, based on my three years at Automattic (2015-2018).
This is the most obvious advantage of remote work. In theory at least, distributed working can allow you to more easily balance your work and personal life. I had teammates who worked while travelling all over the world. Another teammate lived near the mountains, snowboarded for several hours every day, and would split his work day around that passion.
However, It's still completely possible to have no work-life balance while working from home. It's all too easy to start work as soon as you wake up, and keep working until bed time, or slip in a couple of hours of work on the weekend. I found it difficult to resist "taking a peek at things" when I was supposed to be on vacation. However, in theory, distributed work should allow for more flexibility.
I feel like working in a distributed environment has helped improve my communication skills. Since you rely less on verbal communication and facial expressions, you naturally have to get better at expressing yourself in written form. You also learn to better interpret what other people are saying in their messages.
When you're working in a distributed environment like Automattic, you have to become more disciplined and more independent. I quickly realized that getting an answer from a coworker, even for the smallest question, usually took 24 hours. For this reason I found myself asking fewer questions and figuring things out on my own instead.
While this could be viewed as a negative, the positive I see from this is that I learned to be very self-sufficient. I learned how to make progress even when the goal isn't clear. As a developer, I learned to build things without a clear specification, and in a way that would allow me to fill in the gaps as more answers and requirements came in.
Distributed work can allow a company to more easily hire a diverse work force. Additionally, communicating via text can have an equalizing effect. Everyone is on more equal terms in a text chat, and it's harder for one person to speak over others. For this reason, I feel like distributed work can be good for diversity and inclusion.
This is really the flip-side of the self-motivation section above. Communication is "expensive" and colleagues value their flexible time, so it's harder to learn from others. It's also harder to be a mentor. Mentorship can happen more casually in an office environment, over lunch or coffee breaks. You don't have that in a distributed environment.
Asynchronous communication is convenient, and when you can work independently it can be more efficient with fewer distractions. However, sometimes you need an answer from your coworkers before you can proceed. And other times, one answer leads to more questions, followed be more answers and questions. Doing this asynchronously can lead to a multi-day or even multi-week conversation.
Compared to my experience working elsewhere, everything felt slower in the distributed environment. It took a very long time to clearly define a project or a task. A team might go off and spend a year building something, only to find out that plans had changed or that there was a significant misunderstanding of the desired outcome.
Siloing is a common complaint in many large companies. Usually this refers to a lack of collaboration between groups and organizations, where efforts are duplicated or conflicting decisions are made. In a distributed company, siloing like this can happen more easily, and even inside the same team.
Additionally, the distributed nature can also lead to a different form of siloing. Abuses and misconduct can be much harder to detect and eliminate. Imagine being in a fully distributed team and having problems with your manager. If your teammates didn't have these same problems, how would they ever know something wrong was going on? To be clear, this is just a hypothetical case. I was fortunate with my managers at Automattic, but one can't assume that everyone had that same experience.
If you live in India, should you get paid the same as your coworker in New York? What if you live in San Francisco and decide to move to Peru? What if you live in North Dakota and want to move to New York?
I don't have a good answer to these questions, and one might not exist. Needless to say, this can be a problem and it definitely was at Automattic. Some people felt like they were paid fairly or even above average, while others felt they were significantly underpaid.
For me personally, I enjoyed most of my time at Automattic, but there were definitely some drawbacks. Some of the drawbacks are listed here, and others were personal or unrelated to remote work. I realized it would not be a good long-term fit for me shortly after my first year at the company. I ended up staying a total of three years before I was really ready to move on.
It was a great experience, but it wasn't perfect.
I thought of one more con and talk about here: Working from home is lonely