2020 was a rough year for many people and businesses globally; America is experiencing record levels of unemployment, and for many, the very nature of work during the pandemic has changed fundamentally. For those who’s profession allows for it, the daily commute has been replaced with working from home, trying to be productive and deliver their work as best as possible. Compounded by the prolonged lock-downs, many people decided to relocate themselves away from historical economic centers in order to seek living conditions that are more conducive to long-term working from home. For example, San Francisco has seen a 26% drop in rental prices through 2020 - for a market that was one of the hottest in 2019, this sudden drop is unprecedented. Such changes have led many in the industry to ask if these kinds of changes are here to stay, or if this is simply a transient situation arising from the pandemic. In this post I’d like to present what I think might happen going forward in our industry, and discuss some of the lasting changes that the pandemic might have on the nature of work.
Everyone Will Work Remotely
In my view, all-remote-all-the-time is a fantasy. The notion that everyone will work from home is simply not feasible, for a variety of practical reasons (not least, high variance between individuals home-life situations). For example, electrical engineers often require a suite of specialized equipment on their workbench in order to complete their work. This is often expensive and intractable for staff to have at home; just think about equipment costs for the business and power usage for the homeowner!
Any company that was geographically distributed pre-COVID is familiar with the challenges of remote work across major timezones. For example, if you are based in San Francisco, working with a team out of Taipei, your effective collaboration time in a week is an hour every afternoon, 4 days a week (as it’s already tomorrow there!). Similar challenges exist with collaborations between PST locales working with Central Europe - except it’s an hour or two in the morning. Remote work isn’t hard because of COVID, it’s always had challenges - it’s just that everyone got to experience those challenges first-hand in the largest workplace experiment ever conducted.
With this frame, I’d like to propose the following spectrum of remote work viability.
- Remote Infeasible: This is probably obvious, but as mentioned above, working with hardware and other such roles are going to make remote infeasible in the nominal case. These positions will remain on-site, and industries that require these skills will continue to geographically cluster. Aerospace is probably the most clear example of this branch: you can’t build a plane in your kitchen!
- Fully Remote: The opposite of Remote Infeasible is being entirely remote, 100% of the time. Software-only businesses are super amenable to this model, and for many people this has essentially been their life through lockdown.
- Hybrid Remote: For some roles - even software roles - there can be benefits of being physically present and colocated with your colleagues. In a hybrid remote model, it seems plausible to imagine working a period remote, and a period in the office. For some workplaces it might make sense to have this on a weekly cadence, such as 3 days at home, 2 days at the office. For other workplaces, it might be less frequent: 3 weeks at home, 1 week at the office for example.
Remote Infeasible is the least interesting category for the purposes of the future of work (as its the status quo), so the following section explores what fully remote and hybrid remote mean for both recruiting, geography and local markets.
How Remote is Remote?
It is my view that the future of work is, at least, partially remote for many industries and roles. This presents an interesting problem for growing businesses: what are your recruiting bounds? Historically, when recruiting for a given role it is common to find companies looking for a candidate within a specific locale as the is role attached to a certain office. In the future working models things change significantly: instead of being attached to a city, I believe that roles will be attached to a timezone. Consider the timezone distribution in the continental United States:
If you attach a role to, for example, Pacific Time (PST), then it would not matter if you lived in Seattle or San Diego; likewise for Eastern Time (EST), New York or Miami. Companies that choose to operate timezone-based recruiting could stand to gain significant benefits: they get access to hiring pools in multiple large metros. This could also be extended to Timezone +/- 1. For example, if you attached a role to PST/PST-1 then you also include everything west of Denver, CO - an absolutely massive hiring pool.
This approach has a few benefits (and drawbacks):
Flight durations within a timezone (and the +/- approach) bound the flight time to around 2hrs. This is short enough where people could travel to a particular metro for in-person gatherings as needed, with relative ease.
Distribution of employment opportunities will in the mid-to-long term cause a rebalancing of compensation and local economic norms across a wider area. In short, a redistribution of wealth at what will likely be a lower cost-basis to employers (it turns out offices, catering, heating etc are all large overheads).
Geographically separate but with timezone alignment makes day-to-day logistics feasible, and requires less fundamental change to how your business operates. As mentioned in the introduction, working internationally has always been challenging and many company cultures won’t (can’t?) adapt to a fully written and asynchronous culture. Don’t put a square peg in a round hole.
The most glaring downside is around administration of benefit programs and taxation. With different systems in different states (different countries are even worse), I am aware this presents real challenges. With that said, there are firms that have been working on solving these problems for a number of years now, so I believe it will become entirely tenable on large-scale in the very near future (if it’s not already).
If you are a person who fits into the hybrid remote or fully remote working buckets, ask yourself this: within your timezone (+/- one timezone), where would you love to live? What lifestyle would you want and what is it worth to you? There is over 1.19 million square miles in the western states alone - our country is massive, with some incredible places to live. In my view, this makes the future of work super exciting and could lead to better lives for all our families.