The Age of Remote-First “Workplaces” – Ambition & Balance
In 2015 we held our very first team retreat on the small Mediterranean island of Menorca. Of the 28 team members who attended the retreat, I had only met 14 in person. Fast forward to 2017, and we are 53 people, spread across 23 different countries. There are still people on the team who have worked for the company for many years who I have never met.
Just 20 years ago, this style of working would have been impossible, but today more and more teams are discovering the benefits of a remote-first “workplace” where anyone can collaborate with anyone else from anywhere in the world. This post is a reflection on why the remote-first movement could represent a massive paradigm shift with widespread implications for the world, similar to industrialization.
Before we get to what remote-first is and why it’s so important, let’s take a brief walk through the history of work and how the way we make a living, can change just about everything.
The way we work is the way we live
Prehistoric humans were hunters and gatherers who roamed around following their food sources with no fixed address. Yes, lives were generally short, but nomadic societies were relatively equitable. People formed tight-knit communities to survive and were, of course, much more connected to the environment they lived in.
The eventual move to farming offered a few obvious benefits. Agriculture gave us the stability to start building “civilizations”. Bigger settlements and eventually cities were established. Trade became a thing. Lifespans and populations increased.
But agriculture also made us much less connected to nature, restricted our diets leaving us more reliant on a smaller number of crops, and allowed for the concept of personal property to come into existence, for better and worse. Society became divided between the Haves and the Have Nots.
Unlike for nomadic hunters and gatherers, location was critical for farmers. Most people didn’t move far away from where they were born.
Fast forward thousands of years to the next big historical shake-up in work: Industrialization. Farmers left the countryside and followed factory jobs to the cities. Factory wage work was arguably even more stable than farming. When you work in a factory, you don’t have to worry about locusts or hail damage or drought or floods or any of the other creative ways nature can kill your crops. But there’s a reason you probably associate industrialization with lonely, exploited laborers living in grey, smog-choked, over-crowded cities.
Importantly for our story, getting a job meant living near a factory. Families and rural communities became less stable as people concentrated in urban areas like London and New York.
Eventually, things like labor unions improved quality of life for industrial workers, but then technological innovation went and ripped the rug out from everyone’s feet. Again. New, revolutionary things like the computer and the Internet ushered in what we’re now living through: The Information Age.
What work looks like today
Today, “work” is increasingly synonymous with sitting in front of a computer for 8 hours (or more) a day. We call people with this kind of job “knowledge workers”, and they’re mostly paid to do things like thinking and creative problem-solving. Factory jobs and manual labor are increasingly automated with more and more sophisticated technology.
To get a good job, knowledge workers still have to live in even larger cities where pollution, over-population, traffic, and cost of living are all increasingly (de)pressing issues. The rising cost of living — particularly for housing — in urban centers like New York, Beijing, London, and San Francisco mean that many people can’t afford a good quality of life. To add insult to injury, it’s not uncommon to spend over 2 hours a day just traveling to and from work. In an article called A 2:15 Alarm, 2 Trains and a Bus Get Her to Work by 7 AM, the New York Times chronicled the brutal commute of one San Francisco office worker who could no longer afford to live anywhere near her workplace.
Meanwhile, former industrial areas and rural communities are left economically and socially decimated. The conventional wisdom is that this growing economic gulf between rural and urban areas led to Trump’s election as President of the United States as well as Britain’s vote to exit the EU.
What could work look like tomorrow?
From that brief look at the history of work, it’s clear that the type of job we do has enormous implications for pretty much everything else: culture, wealth distribution, politics, society. We’re now on the cusp of what I believe could be another world-changing shift in the way we work.
- Today, people from all of the regions of the world can quickly and cheaply connect online, making it easy to share ideas, learn new skills, and get inspired by others. Cloud-based technology we now take for granted — like video conferencing and collaborative documents — didn’t exist just 20 years ago. We now have the infrastructure and tools to collaborate from anywhere there’s internet.
- It’s never been cheaper to travel. For example for our last team retreat, we flew over 40 people from around the world to Athens, Greece. Even as a completely bootstrapped and remote-first company, we can afford to meet up and get to know one another in-person. 20 years ago this would’ve been too expensive.
- In the last 10–20 years online banking has become sophisticated enough for individuals to send and receive money from anywhere in the world. Some countries are removing the vast majority of physical banks altogether.
All of these changes are creating a new paradigm of work: Remote-first.
What is remote-first exactly? It’s the most extreme version of remote work. It’s not just working from home on Fridays or having telecommuting Bob connect to a conference call while everyone else gathers in a meeting room.
At Doist, remote-first looks like this:
- All processes inside the company — product development, marketing, customer support, HR, and everything in between — are fully distributed around the world.
- There’s no preference towards hiring from any particular region or time zone, except for support roles where we want to make sure we have coverage 24/7.
- We primarily use tools and methods that are asynchronous — when I send a message to a teammate, I never expect an immediate response. This lets us work when it suits us best in our respective time zones without required work hours.
- There’s no single headquarters where things are centralized.
Joel from Buffer, another remote-first company, has written an article on the 5 varieties of remote working in companies that goes deeper into the different types of remote working structures.
Why is the shift toward remote-first so significant? Previously, all jobs required people to live close to their places of work. Even nomadic hunter-gatherers had to go where the food was. Remote-first is the first way of working that is truly location-independent. This change has huge potential benefits not just for individuals and companies, but for the world.
Revitalizing local communities
Remote-first work means that, for the first time in the human history, people can access tremendous career opportunities and high-paying jobs regardless of where they live.
For some, this means roaming the world, exploring different cities and cultures and living the so-called “digital nomad” lifestyle. For others, it means staying in their local community surrounded by family members and long-time friends. For example, Enric, an iOS developer on our team, has lived his whole life on the small, beautiful island of Menorca off the coast of Spain. Before remote-first companies were possible, Enric would most likely have had to relocate to a bigger city to get a job as an iOS developer.
As remote-first work becomes more and more common, people like Enric can choose to stay in their hometowns without giving up access to fulfilling, stable jobs. In that way, remote work has the potential to keep dollars and young people in communities and countries that have been left behind in the information age. A more equal geographic distribution of wealth would have widespread political, economic, and social impacts that we can only begin to imagine.
When I made Doist’s first hire, I was living in Santiago, Chile and Todoist was a simple web app with a few thousand users. It was incredibly hard to find the kind of local tech talent I needed to grow the business. I made my first hire in customer support on Elance, and Doist has been a remote-first company ever since. We’ve been able to find amazing people from around the world without having to compete against hundreds of other companies in the same tech hub. There’s no way Doist could be bootstrapped, independent, and profitable from day one if we had to compete in Silicon Valley.
Currently, we’re heading toward a world dominated by a few tech giants. For new companies, the ability to source talent from anywhere in the world is a substantial competitive advantage. Remote-first can give small, innovative businesses room to experiment, grow, and become viable without being dependent on a small number of investors who hold the keys to the tech kingdom. Entrepreneurs can test their ideas from anywhere in the world without having to uproot their lives and spend their savings trying to “make it” in Silicon Valley. It’s another way that remote-first work could tip the scales away from the current centralization of wealth and power.
Promoting real diversity and global citizens
Real diversity doesn’t come from hiring people from a few cosmopolitan hubs. People who live in London, for example, are likely to share many of the same experiences and worldviews even if they differ in gender, sexual orientation, or religion. If the rural-urban divides that fueled Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election are any indication, metropolitan areas create cultural bubbles.
Remote-first offers the potential for true diversity — you can hire people from very different cultures who provide unique outlooks on the world. This type of diversity has been a huge competitive advantage for our company; it’s allowed us to build services for global markets, not just for the US or Europe. For example, we recently translated Twist into 18 different languages only three months after our initial launch. Why did we make this investment? The vast majority of our team knows first-hand the frustrations of not being able to access an app in their native language. But the benefits of a workforce from around the world goes beyond the company-level.