A couple of weeks ago, Zillow's Founder and CEO Rich Barton tweeted:

Makes you wonder how many other business leaders also got their personal opinions about remote work "turned upside down over the past 2 months". It certainly adds credence to the idea that COVID-19, amidst untold pain and misery, more than reshaping the world wholesale, is in fact accelerating existing trends.

According to The 2020 State of Remote Work published last February, from a sample of over 3,500 remote workers:

  • 98% want to continue to work remotely (at least for some of the time) for the rest of their careers.
  • 97% recommend remote work to others.
  • 70% are happy with the amount they work remotely.

In Austria, where I live, a recent survey shows that 7 out 10 employees who have been WFH in recent weeks would prefer to continue doing so after the crisis, while 60% believes their productivity increased. Even my partner, a remote work naysayer, did an astonishing 180º turnaround and now loves it – because no commute and less stress. Who would've thunk it?

Could "The Great Remote Work Experiment" be the tipping point that gets remote and distributed work to escape velocity? Probably. At least, of course, for jobs that can be done remotely. We have been witnessing that not only it can work at scale, it also delivers on the promise of giving power to the people. That is, assuming parents are at some point able to get their kids into schools and child care. Not an unreasonable idea.

But before we get to that, we need to talk about bad leaders and bad managers.

The Case Against Bad Leadership

Years before the pandemic hit, Morgan Housel wrote:

Here’s a problem we don’t think about enough: Even as more professions look like Rockefeller’s – thought jobs that require quiet time to think a problem through – we’re stuck in the old world where a good employee is expected to labor, visibly and without interruption.

The technology evolved, but our good old lizard brains haven't. The reality is that our work practices haven't fundamentally changed since 1899 when Frederick Winslow Taylor asked the question: “How many tons of pig iron bars can a worker load onto a rail car in the course of a working day?”. Thus scientific management was born, anchored on "the notion that management is a distinct function best handled by a distinct group of people—people characterized by a particular kind of education, way of speaking, and fashion sensibility."

Brain and brawn, separate.

If you think this sounds preposterous, think again. 120 years later, despite incredible technology advancement and a tech industry where deep thinking is table stakes across virtually all roles, we still live in a world where the majority of companies:

  • Don't afford their people the flexibility to work when and where they're at their best.
  • See training & development as a cost rather than an investment, dwarfed by the corresponding marketing dollars syphoned directly to the hands of Google and Facebook.
  • Can't meaningfully connect day-to-day work to the mission and vision of their business.

Too many bad leaders have been getting away without putting people first. Being able to (physically) breathe down their necks and with VC dollars pouring from the sky at predictable intervals has perpetuated a culture of busywork – the busier you look, the more "dedicated" and valuable you are. A rat race.

Those days are, by and large, over. Remote work, in jobs that can afford it, is an inevitability accelerated by the pandemic. Lack of physical presence, though, makes bad leadership freak out: are people actually working or are they just lounging around, walking the dog or taking a nice vacation in Bali on the company's dime? It will now be easier than ever to catch bad leaders red-handed – they'll be the ones implementing surveillance software to make sure those hands are tapping away at the keyboard "because that code won't write itself".

Mia Blume, a Design Leadership coach and CEO, pins it as a matter of trust:

Remote management is good management. Going remote emphasizes or highlights the things that were broken before, whether it’s communication or trust. In a time where we need spaces to be highly vulnerable and flexible, trust is the underlying foundation in which that is built. But if it’s broken it’s hard to get there.

The reality is that a lot of bad leaders lack the self-awareness (or possess a healthy dose of the Dunning-Kruger effect) to even realize they're bad. But they also lack the humility to ask for real feedback. One way or another, it simply won't cut it anymore. Up or out.

Outcomes Over Output

The reality is that good leadership will continue to be good leadership. It will just become more obvious, and more good leaders will emerge, having less bad leaders blocking their way.

So what's the alternative? In his insightful short book Outcomes Over Output, Josh Seiden writes:

What you want is to manage with outcomes: ask teams to create a specific customer behavior that drives business results. That allows them to find the right solution, and keeps them focused on delivering value.
To find the right outcomes to work on, we start with a simple question: “what are the customer behaviors that drive business results?”

Customer behaviors, allowing others to find the right solution, focus on delivering value... all of these are properties of good leadership and management. It's about asking great questions and creating an environment where great talent can thrive. It's about getting out of the mindset that everyone can "do" product management, while somehow chronically conflating it with project management at best and micromanagement at worst. Leonardo Fed published an excellent write-up back in December last year, on how context beats control in a remote work environment. It touches on a lot of these topics and is highly recommended reading.

Obviously, this is not new. Many good businesses have their tech teams operate along these lines already. But, in the grand scheme of things, they're still far too few.

Levelling The Playing Field

As we inch closer to a world where distributed work is much more prevalent, there is increasingly less reason for someone to put up with an environment that prizes busywork over delivering actual value. If the world is your oyster, why stick around when priorities change all the time for no reason, when you're told what to do, and where you feel entirely replaceable?

In a remote-first world, location no longer as relevant, an interconnected world opens up to creative, motivated and hard-working individuals regardless of race, gender or where they're at. As I once read from Andreas Klinger, former Head of Remote at AngelList, "international talent deserves international opportunity".

It's not so much that the Silicon Valley magnet will lose its power (or is it?) but more like dozens of other magnets should gain strength across the globe, generating new communities of talent and innovation. Marc Andreessen recently wrote a call to arms saying that it's time to build, but to build what the world really needs – infrastructure, health care, education, and fight back climate change – the efforts need to be heavily distributed.

To that end, we already see plenty encouraging signs. States in the US are launching remote work programs, and a country like Estonia is offering e-Residency allowing foreigners to run an EU-based company fully online without ever traveling there. The website Inc.com has an entire section dedicated to "surge cities", way before the pandemic hit. And these are just a few examples of many across the globe. The wheels are in motion.

Dissolving The Work/Life Conundrum

Morgan Housel again:

But if your job is creating a marketing campaign, or managing a project, or writing software code, the line between work and not work blurs. You’re working with your mind, which is harder to shut off than your arms or your legs.

There's no getting away from the fact that, for a lot of us, we derive a ton of meaning from our work. It occupies a gigantic share of our mental bandwidth. Attempting to separate work from life, however, implies that we're not really alive while working. That may be true in a factory line, but creative work shouldn't make you feel that way.

Continuing to insist on a 9-to-5 schedule, where activity is mistaken for effectiveness, makes any job draining and unfulfilling. If the work requires extreme intellect, even worse. Why should companies maintain an environment where people are expected to do their best thinking at predefined times of the day? Which, by the way, are different for everyone? Madness.

If anything, remote work dissolves what I call the work/life conundrum by letting one structure their work around their life, instead of their life around their work. If you have that flexibility, suddenly work/life becomes a lot more meaningful, and manageable.

The Times They Are a-Changin'

As human beings, we are pretty good at seeing change in hindsight but terrible when we're smack in the middle of it. Technology will continue to evolve, that's for sure. The same happening to our minds, and our "internal programming", that's a different story. Millions of years can't be reshaped in the blink of an eye. But the power of human adaptation is immense. We are hardwired to get better as a species. With the right incentives the adequate forcing functions and positive feedback loops, things change.

As Andrew Wilkinson puts it:

COVID-19 is hurting us right now. But when all is said and done, it may well be the watershed moment ushering the next level of management and leadership practices over the canvas of a remote-first world. One where we have the flexibility, trust (and, crucially, the accountability and responsibility) to perform at our best. One where enabling creativity and effectiveness plays a much bigger role than narrow-minded productivity and efficiency.


If you liked this post, you'll probably enjoy The Weekly Hagakure, a weekly newsletter of some of the best brain food for tech leaders.

You can also find me on Twitter @prla.