Remote work is a platform

Back in the mid-90s, just as Netscape Navigator was giving us our first look at what the visual internet could be, web design came in two flavors.

There was the ultra basic stuff. Text on a page, maybe a masthead graphic of some sort. Nothing sophisticated. It often looked like traditional letterhead, or a printed newsletter, but now on the screen. Interactions were few, if any, but perhaps a couple links tied a nascent site together.

And there was the other extreme. Highly stylized, lots of textures, 3D-style buttons, page curls, aggressive shadows, monolithic graphics cut up with image maps to allow you to click on different parts of a single graphic, etc. This style was aped from interactive CD/DVD interfaces that came before it.

Both of these styles — the masthead with text, and the heavily graphical — were ports. Not adaptations, but ports. Designs ported from one medium to another. No one knew what to make of the web at that time, so we pulled over things we were familiar with and sunk them in place. At that time, Web design wasn’t web design – it was print design, multimedia/interactive design, and graphic design. It took years for native web design to come into its own.

The web became great when designers started designing for the web, not bringing other designs to the web.

Porting things between platforms is common, especially when the new thing is truly brand new (or trying to gain traction). As the Mac gained steam in the late 80s and early 90s, and Windows 3 came out in 1990, a large numbers of Windows/PC developers began to port their software to the Mac. They didn’t write Mac software, they ported Windows software. And you could tell – it was pretty shit. It was nice to have at a time when the Mac wasn’t widely developed, but, it was clearly ported.

When something’s ported, it’s obvious.

Stuff that’s ported lacks the native sensibilities of the receiving platform. It doesn’t celebrate the advantages, it only meets the lowest possible bar. Everyone knows it. Sometimes we’re simply glad to have it because it’s either that or nothing, but there’s rarely a ringing endorsement of something that’s so obviously moved from A to B without consideration for what makes B, B.

What we’re seeing today is history repeat itself. This time we’re not talking about porting software or technology, we’re talking about porting a way to work.

In-person office work is a platform. It has its own advantages and disadvantages. Some things are easier in person (meetings, if you’re into those), and some things are harder (getting a few hours to yourself so you can focus, if you’re into that).

Remote work is another platform. It has its own unique flavor, advantages, and disadvantages. Its own efficiencies, its own quirks, its own interface. Upsides, downsides, insides, and outsides. It’s as different from in-office work as the Mac is from Windows. Yes, they’re both operating systems, and methods of computing, but they’re miles apart where it matters. The same is true for the difference between in-office work and remote work. Yup, it’s all still the same work, but it’s a different way to work.

In-office and remote work are different platforms of work. And right now, what we’re seeing a lot of companies attempt to port local work methods to working remotely. Normally have four meetings a day in person? Then let’s have those same four meetings, with those same participants, over Zoom instead. It’s a way, but it’s the wrong way.

Simulating in-person office work remotely does both approaches a disservice.

This is often what happens when change is abrupt. We bring what we know from one to the other. We apply what we’re familiar with to the unfamiliar. But, in time, we recognize that doesn’t work.

The enlightened companies coming out of this pandemic will be the ones that figured out the right way to work remotely. They’ll have stopped trying to make remote look like local. They’ll have discovered that remote work means more autonomy, more trust, more uninterrupted stretches of time, smaller teams, more independent, concurrent work (and less dependent, sequenced work).

They won’t be the ones that just have their waste-of-time meetings online, they’ll be the ones that lay waste to the meetings. They won’t be the ones that depend on checking in on people constantly throughout the day, they’ll be the ones that give their employees time and space to do their best work. They won’t be the ones that can’t wait to pull everyone back to the office, they’ll be the ones that spot the advantages of optionality, and recognize a wonderful resilience in being able to work from anywhere.

And they’ll be the ones that finally realize that there’s nothing magical about the office. It’s just a space where work can happen, but not where it must happen. Anytime a myth is busted is a good time.

Work remotely, don’t port the office.

14 thoughts on “Remote work is a platform

  1. I’m already re-thinking our school’s plans in the fall for our students, staff, and parents. This is incredibly helpful.

  2. More than promoting remote work, you’re always wording it in a way that’s easy to explain and makes things clear.

    I thank you immensely for that.

    Do you allow us to take your points as-is to help people with the situation? Our current client (I work at a consulting company) is choking itself on doing Zoom meetings all day long (they’re even booking multiple meeting at once!) without realizing how wrong they are, and I’d like to educate them on the matter.

    They’re so bad I don’t think they can be saved, but I’d like to at least prevent their bullshit to cascade and leak over us. It’s unbearable.

  3. You guys are so thought-provoking, thank you for pushing us!!

    I am facing this very challenge within my business. A dynamic you guys have not touched on however is that of non technical resources. By non technical I refer to staff whose contribution may be in more manual tasks such as call-centre work and data capture into our systems.

    Do you not believe that an I.T developer has the characteristics that more readily support remote work in that they can self-arrange themselves, their inherent love for their craft will have them plugging in the headphones and sitting behind the screen from 10am through to midnight.

    I think what I’m saying is can more menial, manual tasks across a lower income group be deployed from home with such confidence (read trust) as well?

    1. You’re right, my history was a bit blurry there. I used Mosaic, I should have remembered.

  4. This was solid. Nicely done.

    This reminded me much of homeschooling too, especially for those who homeschooled before all this happened. Some try to recreate the rigid public classroom at home, which “has worked” (maybe?) for some, but doesn’t embrace the relative advantages and distinctions.

    Anyway, I appreciated this post for the view of porting software/media, too. And oh, all those Windows-on-Mac programs…

  5. Article about why you should be remote, written by a company who has 1/3 of their staff residing in Chicago who all go into the office.

    https://basecamp.com/about/office

    You’re either 100% remote or not. Because if even just a few people go into the same office, cliche are created and a huge divide between to grow between those who go to office and those who physically are not located to have the option.

    1. Why does it have to be binary, all or nothing? I don’t get the impression from this article that this is the take home…

    2. First off, facts…

      If you came to our Chicago office while we still had it, you’d see maybe 3 people there on a daily basis. And aside from one of them, they’d be different people each day. Yes we had an office, and yes people who lived in or visited Chicago could work out of that office, but we’ve always been a remote company. No one was ever required to go to the office, and many people who lived in Chicago never ever came to the office.

      Not that the numbers really matter here, but far less than 1/3 of our company lives in Chicago, and if you actually count the people who did come into the office, you’re talking single digit percentages.

      Last, you’re not either 100% remote or not. Your biases are where the majority is, and the majority of our company works remotely, and has done so for nearly two decades. We work remotely even if we’re close.

  6. This is very true. I’m looking at how my side project can build on using remote as a platform as my regular job is now remote and it looks like this is going to be the future of work.

  7. The one thing that might be less obvious is that as the office becomes less ubiquitous is that the need for local staff becomes equally greyer. So maybe you dont have to all be in the same office, so do you even really need to be commutable to it, or in the same city, county, or even country. This could be a flight of well paying jobs to cheaper locations on a scale not seen, even during the off-shoring of the 90/00s?

    That sandwich shop/coffee house which previously relied on all the ffice workers business, now has a much reduced custom and cant survive. Companies renting floor space need less, so combined effect is that commercial real estate prices drop as demand drops. Your pension fund which is likely at least partially invested in some real estate now drops too. All sorts of knock on effects which we probably only know a few of.

    1. You have a very valid point Graham…the second and third order events of this will change the landscape as we know it!

  8. I dislike the term “remote” or “remote worker”. Within our own organization, I have lobbied to abolish these outmoded idioms. Everything about “remote” connotes something unhelpful if not vaguely pejorative. When talking about teammates, I prefer “distributed”, “field” or “connected”.

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