Remote work after the pandemic

What will work look like for developers after the pandemic lockdowns are relaxed? Is this the end of Silicon Valley? Is remote work the new norm? Will overseas remote work with large timezone differences be normalized? Will engineering salaries stop growing? Where are we headed? And where are we at?

There’s a lot of speculation in the air, and some trends are already in motion, but I thought I’d try to add another perspective that’s a bit less extreme. We’ll start by briefly discussing office vs. remote work, then dig into the present and future.

Caveats

As Im a software developer that’s the perspective I will give. Like all speculation, I could be wrong, but if nothing else, I hope this helps us all ask the right questions, and think more broadly about our uncertain future together. If not, at least it’s something to think about as we close out this crazy year.

What is an office?

It’s a physical space where people working on the same or similar things go to do their work. In the process, they sometimes get together in meetings, or impromptu hallway talks, or the infamous “let’s have coffee” meetings that don’t really need the coffee subterfuge. It’s traditionally been a way for companies to simplify people management and infrastructure.

It’s also a state of mind. People are “at the office” meaning that, supposedly, they’re doing work. And people are “going home” indicating that they’re done working for the day. It’s a physical boundary used as a psychological boundary. It allows for a simple to understand notion of work-life separation. It’s also filled with traps.

Real estate value is influenced greatly by workplace proximity, and rightly so. Work commutes are often a colossal misuse of time. It is the exchange of time for a monetary benefit of cheaper housing. With it comes all the frustrations of a commute, the road rage, or other people in public transit. Your income and expenses determine where you can live within your means, but your workplace defines the center of the radius you consider when working at an office.

Managers tend to use sitting in a chair in front of a screen as a proxy for checking whether someone is working, and sometimes how late they leave as an indicator of dedication and hard work. Even managers who understand these are poor methods to gauge productivity are prone to falling for this trap. The office makes this easy.

What is Remote Work?

Remote work is work not done in an office. It’s incredible that even this popular form of working is defined by what it is not, and in terms of an office, but that’s how central the office concept still is to modern society.

When you’re an office worker, it often takes the form of working from home (WFH), either when one is sick, or when one has something to attend to that requires being at home. Business trips often require remote work, or working from another office. At any rate, the understanding is that this is a temporary or extraordinary situation, and that you’ll otherwise keep working from your office.

When working remotely full time, this can be working from anywhere. It might be a coffee shop, or your home, a co-working space, or wherever you’re staying. The internet and decentralized development tools allow you to work from anywhere as long as your computer holds an electric charge, and has periodic access to a network.

Remote work isn’t new. The term “road warrior” existed before it, and terms like “digital nomad” are used today. It’s difficult to point to an exact moment in time that can be said to be the big bang of remote work, but I would cautiously posit that its prevalence roughly coincided with the advent of long-lasting battery laptops like the original MacBook Air in 2008, aided greatly by the deployment of WiFi around that same time, and kicked into overgear with the wide deployment of LTE allowing tethering speeds to be reasonable for development work even in the absence of WiFi. Decentralized offline-capable tools like git played a large role as well. While dial-up modems and laptops existed before for the more pioneering, they were less prone to the serendipity of wireless, always-on fast network speeds, and operating longer than a few hours at a time doing any serious ad-hoc work.

Office vs. Remote Work

Without diving too deeply into it, here’s the main pros and cons of each as I see it.

Office Pros

  • In-person discussions, whiteboarding
  • Infrastructure provided (electricity, network, rooms, caffeine, food, janitors)
  • Clear physical delineation of work and life

Office Cons

  • Commute
  • Distractions, disruptions, self-consciousness caused by others around constantly
  • Judgment based on appearance of work, instead of work
  • Ad-hoc meetings used to cover up failures in planning due to ease of physical proximity

Remote Pros

  • Work from almost anywhere
  • Work at your own pace; pull workflow, instead of push workflow
  • Be judged by the quality of your work, rather than the appearance of work

Remote Cons

  • Tendency toward social isolation
  • If mixed remote/on-site team, preferential treatment given to on-site people
  • Provide your own infra
  • Discipline required to start and stop working without burning out

How to classify working remotely during the pandemic?

“You’re not working from home, you’re living at work.” — unknown

The majority of my own career has been remote work, in many cases with significant timezone differences. I would plan my schedule around a few key meetings of timezone overlap, but otherwise kept a relatively loose schedule. As long as I got something useful done that day, it was a win. Beyond that, I’d go out for lunch at restaurants, go on walks to clear my head, stop by at a cafe, meet friends, but no hard rules. Whatever made life comfortable, fun and productive.

I’ve been working from home since March 2020, so about 9 months now. Restaurants, coffee shops and friends have not been an option. Travel is right out. To say it’s been isolating is an understatement. Instead, I’ve been more relaxed around my productivity metrics to allow for more mental health leeway, and to survive in the long term. This isn’t even a marathon, it’s more of a war, and wars can be lost in attrition; it’s best to keep the supply lines going.

This is not remote work, this is living at work without any real escape. It’s important for folks who are new to the concept of long-term remote work to understand that none of this is normal, and well-balanced remote work does not involve complete social starvation amid massive social unrest, economic collapse, and life-threatening pandemics. With a lot of effort, and a bit of luck, we can get out of this pandemic and begin rebuilding our broken world, and perhaps you’ll get to experience normal remote work, but until then, keep in mind that none of this is normal, not by a longshot.

After the pandemic, what will work look like?

The answer to this varies immensely by company and group. The pandemic has forced many companies to acknowledge and rely on remote work, often exclusively. While many have done so reluctantly, and others were not prepared at all for the challenges associated with a fully remote team, it’s fair to say that most groups that “get it” are now in a groove. That’s not to say that they’re perfect, but that they’ve fallen into a cadence. So what happens after the pandemic ends?

Jobs involving hardware or other physical requirements may be better-suited to an office, where both things and people are easier to keep physically secure. It would be unsurprising if these jobs continued to require being in an office regularly, but perhaps being more lenient to some form of remote work to benefit the employee.

The overwhelming majority of software jobs, especially those of web development, can be done remotely, and in many cases, can be done better remotely. The lack of workplace interruptions, like the tap on the shoulder, the odd loud sounds, the long trips and lines for lunch, among innumerable other sources of distraction and annoyance, can do wonders for concentration and quality of work. Naturally the booking of unnecessary and/or unproductive meetings remains a problem, but that’s another topic entirely.

I fully suspect that many software jobs will remain completely remote, and yet others will go heavily remote. It’s hard to go back to the stone ages once you’ve seen the light, but this will vary greatly by company and group. Old habits die hard, and the false feeling of control and the illusion of great amounts of productive human interaction in an office persist. Serendipity is real, but if you think about it, leaving human interaction entirely up to chance is not a great strategy either. The thoughtful email or direct message, the occasional 1:1 call, all of these have the potential to unlock opportunities, and these are far more likely to happen remotely than in an office where everyone thinks to themselves “oh, I can talk to X at any time if I want to.” Spoiler: you may never want to.

Those who were already fully remote, may now have access to a far larger set of jobs, rather than potentially being limited to companies that are “remote friendly.” This is a great thing both for the companies and for the potential employees.

How remote can remote work be? International?

Can we work anywhere on Earth? Technically sure, but legal and financial barriers exist. A US citizen, for example, can get a work visa and work elsewhere, but often they’re required to work for a local entity (although “digital nomad” visas are becoming more popular). This requires that a company have a local entity, and sufficient HR infrastructure and funds to make it worth their while. This also complicates taxes, in some cases leading effectively to double-taxation.

Timezone differences can make meetings difficult and lead to a lot of email tag, which requires a fair bit of discipline. Some groups aren’t willing to deal with that.

So, what happens to San Francisco?

It’s all over! The “bubble” that has been going strong forever is finally popping. Everyone is going to work from everywhere, and San Francisco is the next Detroit. Get out while you still can!

Yeah… I don’t think so. Silicon Valley aside, San Francisco has been a city in peril since at least the mid 2000s when tech began to grow its presence there. Insufficient housing, a small landmass, and too many factors to name here have made it a difficult place to live for some time. That’s not to say it’s a city without its beauty, because it has it in spades, and many vibrant communities, but just to say its problems are not new.

San Francisco’s tech growth can mostly be traced to the proximity to Silicon Valley’s massive coffers and great number of mentors. Unlike the suburban sprawl of Silicon Valley in the south, it offered a busy city life with everything that entails, drawing in countless youths in search of an exciting life while also working in tech, having it all. Reality is… more nuanced, to put it politely, but the general idea is there.

Network effects are real, and just as Silicon Valley attracted more talent to move there, so too did San Francisco, albeit a slightly different crowd. These were mostly startups initially, some of whom have since gone public and grown significantly. A few of them have since moved away for cost reasons even before the pandemic.

So what now? Already many renters that have been allowed to work fully remotely have left the city, and this trend will likely continue. These are folks who in all likelihood did not want to be in San Francisco anyway, and were only there for work. So what happens to these people? They spread out across the country, and the globe, with the potential to distribute more tax revenue to other places, as well as investment. Meanwhile, San Francisco rents can come back down to less absurd levels, allowing people who actually want to live there to move in, perhaps ironically working remotely for a company based elsewhere. After all, nobody said that allowing fully remote work means that people won’t do it from San Francisco, and people who actually want to live somewhere are far more likely to invest in its survival and quality of life.

Will San Francisco go back to pre-pandemic levels of tech? I think it depends on how serious the local government and people are about fixing the major issues that plague the city, such as housing, public safety and infrastructure. I think that if they make the city more livable, people will definitely start more companies there, or at least work remotely from there, but time will tell. Will it completely collapse or fall into decay in the absence of those changes? Possibly, but I don’t see a wholesale collapse on the level of post-boom Detroit. The marginal costs of software development and lack of need for specific expensive hardware make it more likely to bounce back.

Ok, what about Silicon Valley?

Ah, Silicon Valley. Home to some of the largest tech giants, but that’s not all. Great weather, great nature, some great schools and universities. In truth there are many contributing factors to the high real estate values there, but it’s undeniable that tech is an outsized piece of it.

Startups continue to be founded in the area, but by far the tech giants form the larger set of employers, and many of them have invested in and apparently will continue to invest in offices in the area. The trend of remote work had already been around for a decade or so, yet these companies continued to pour concrete. Why? Are the large companies merely out of touch with reality, clinging to an outdated model to the tune of millions of dollars? Maybe, or maybe they’re betting on something else.

As tech workers age, they begin to expect a better work-life balance, and also start to think about the future. A spouse, children, relatives, a house, leisure time, friends, communities. There are many forms of social gravity tethering people to a physical place, and yet while we could all work from home in the same physical area, why not also have the office be beautiful, and share it with each other? That’s not to say we should live at the office because it’s so nice there, but that we should want to be at the office because it’s so nice there, conducive to creative thinking and work, to desired social interaction, to quality of work life. And if a commute can be sufficiently reduced, why not?

Network effects are also real in the valley. Sure, you can meet people online, or meet them elsewhere, and this does happen, but do you feel more confident working with or starting a company with someone you can see in person, or someone from the internet? Someone you can go outside to a cafe with, or on a walk? While I believe technology greatly helps in this area for maintaining existing relationships, it paradoxically may be a barrier to new relationships. Faking identity while online is easier, and there’s a degree of authenticity to interactions offline that don’t exist in exactly the same way online. That’s not to say you can’t form deep connections online, as I definitely have, but the types of depth are sometimes limited by it.

And Silicon Valley has people, many people that have been here a while and have a lot of experience in the tech world. Socializing with them regularly in person can be desirable. For startups, connections to local venture capital continue to be important. Just as remote workers begin to spread out, it’s likely more venture capital will begin to exist or concentrate in other places, as it has already been doing for some years now. The importance of physical access to Silicon Valley’s VC circles will continue to decrease over time, but for those seeking access to it, a physical presence will continue to carry weight, perhaps even more weight the fewer people are around. I also think that people could do many things remotely online, but those who can afford to travel will gladly do so for a very different experience.

Without high costs of living, will employers keep paying high salaries?

Remuneration is driven by local supply and demand, and the power of negotiation. Yes, companies were basing salary on the local cost of living, but experienced and skilled employees are worth what it takes to keep them working at the company, versus going to another company. A company suppresses its workers’ wages at its own peril, and other companies will gladly pick up the slack.

That said, I suspect companies will play with the idea of adjusted cost of living depending on where a person is based, but if the job market ultimately rewards equal pay for equal work, then a company will have to follow that trend or lose talent.

Negotiation is key. If a company offers much less money when living in one place versus another, and no competing company beats the offer, then it’s up to negotiating how much they think your talent is worth. This also is largely different when moving cities, versus moving countries. Historically, compensation in Silicon Valley is, at face value, much higher than many other places. But if Silicon Valley talent is going out into the world with high wage expectations, and expects a similar level of compensation even while living elsewhere, they may just end up working remotely for a Silicon Valley company that can pay well. Perhaps in time, this will force increased compensation in other places. I’m honestly not sure, we’ll see.

San Francisco is cooling down from its overheated startup madness, but it’s not going away. Neither is Silicon Valley. Remote work will continue to increase, but there will still be a place for offices. Other cities will see an increased tech presence, which may force San Francisco and the bay area to seriously improve its infrastructure to compete. Overall, tech work will continue to be in demand and well-compensated, even if some of it is done remotely. Ultimately, this will distribute talent and wealth more broadly, ease some of the pressures in the San Francisco Bay Area, increase the hiring pool, and increase employee happiness, and overall outcomes. Of course, this will also recreate the frictions of tech startup culture and gentrification etc. with other cities, which is a great topic for discussion for another time.

In any event, the world isn’t ending, it’s changing, and if companies, cities and workers can adapt to these new circumstances, it will be for the better.

Backend web developer. Silicon Valley / Tokyo.

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