Derrek Bertrand

Some Companies Can't Handle Remote

Published 10 Jul, 2023
You can't handle the remote work (A Few Good Men)
Image: You can't handle the remote work (A Few Good Men)

There are many successful remote-first tech companies - GitLab, Zapier and Stripe for example. So why do Goldman Sachs and Salesforce insist that remote doesn’t work? Simple. They just can’t handle it.

To understand why, we must first admit that remote work is not easy. If remote work were as easy as setting up Slack and walking away, a lot more companies would fail to pay rent on their office buildings. Intracompany communication is not a given, and continual work is required in order to maintain good report. For some, turning daily communication into a video call is the last nail in the coffin. “Remote makes it hard to be collaborative,” they say.

The information age fuels the idea economy. Sharing ideas is what makes the world go ‘round, especially if you work in a creative or technical organization. Innovations are not easy to come by and require many individuals working closely with their stakeholders. For some, turning Friday afternoon whiteboard sessions into a video call is the last nail in the coffin. “Remote makes it hard to be creative,” they say.

By this point, remote apologists will usually tell you that remote did and/or could work at these companies. I will not be taking such a glamorizing stance on Elon Musk and friends. It was never going to work, because they are not capable of it.

Competing Values

The Competing Values framework (Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture, Cameron & Quinn) provides a method of modeling cultural values on two axes. One axis of note is flexibility vs stability. A stability focused culture will promote hierarchical control and a focus on market competition. A flexibility focused culture will promote collaboration as a “clan” and adhoc creativity. An article summary of Competing Values is here if you’d like a better intro.

The problem is that many of these organizations do not have a culture that will allow flexibility to flourish. They are not asking their employees how to better collaborate; they are telling their employees how to collaborate. Doesn’t sound very collaborative to me. Sounds very hierarchical.

Likewise, they are not interested in new ways of working; they are not interested in finding new ways to add value. What they are interested in is controlling the way their employees work. Doesn’t sound very creative to me. Sounds very aggressive and competitive.

While one can certainly run a profitable business with a wide range of company cultures, do not look at Twitter (okay, “X Corp” or whatever) going back to the office as proof that remote does not work. It is proof that it does not work for the organization X Corp is becoming.

A human-centric, innovative team does not need to be in the same location. It is easy to collaborate when you have a genuine bond with your team. It is easy to create and share a vision when your team self-organizes. These values are going to play well at some companies and play poorly at others.

The cool kids are not cool because it is mandated by the CEO. Remote work is enabled by cultural values, not the other way around. Do not mourn for X Corp. They finally stopped trying to make fetch happen.