When I first started working remotely, people were talking about “remote work” (or even “telecommuting”) in a lot of different ways. COVID has certainly changed how we talk about remote work, but the shift was underway for years.

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The Shifting Trends in How People Talk About Remote Work

I started my remote business in 2017, though it was remote out of necessity, not privilege. My business was a side-hustle until 2019. I still had a 9-to-5 job and couldn’t run any business that required my physical presence. But before that, I was paying attention to the burgeoning remote work movement. 

Remote work had been a thing since the dawn of the internet (and arguably before that), but it started to hit a stride in 2014 after a major Harvard Business Review article: To Raise Productivity, Let More Employees Work from Home. This interview took aim at Marissa Mayer, the Yahoo! CEO that famously stopped all flexible work arrangements and brought everyone back into the office (no comment on how that worked for Yahoo!). 

Now fast forward to 2020, and everyone’s talking about remote work. It’s tempting to say it’s all cause of COVID (and admittedly a lot of it is), but these conversations had been happening for years already.

So for today’s newsletter, I’m diving into the shifts I’ve seen in how people talked about remote work, in particular the evolution over the past five-ish years. 

Without further ado…

From fad to fan fave

Remote work was seen as a novel thing in 2014 / 2015. Despite it being leveraged by many successful companies at the time (Automattic – the makers of WordPress – is remote and was founded in 2005), it was largely talked about as either a fad or the domain of some tech nerds but not the bulk of the economy. 

Now, studies abound on the popularity of remote work. A Stanford University study from 2017 shows how much more productive employees are. OwlLabs State of Remote Work study in 2019 found that remote workers are happier and stay in jobs longer. And now a Gartner study from 2020 shows that 82% of companies are planning some form of remote work for the future. 

From individuals to companies

Perhaps the largest shift in the remote conversation came from a shift in focus. 

In 2015, a lot of the remote conversation was focused on the individual – in particular, the digital nomad, or the person who is a remote worker or freelancer for the sake of travelling the world. One entrepreneur proclaimed there would be one billion digital nomads by 2035. From there, major publications from Forbes to the Guardian covered the digital nomad craze, questioning whether it was the future of work.

It’s also worth noting the gig economy was a strong player at this time, with companies like Uber taking hold. So the whole economic conversation was around gigs, freelancers, and the potential of technology. 

In 2020, the conversation is all about how companies can win at remote work (heck, it’s what I even talk about on Remotely Inclined). With remote assumed to become a common way of work, there’s less need to highlight the rare individuals who made it work. 

Remote became a status symbol

I interviewed Shelly Spiegel, the founder of 80+ person all-remote company Fire Engine Red. The company has been remote since Shelly founded it in 2001, but she didn’t start talking about their all-remote status until 2011. But even at that time, companies were hesitant to make too much of being remote. The same thing happened with Floyd Marinescu, who founded all-remote company C4 Media in 2005.

Pride for being remote started to creep in during the 2010’s, but it was not necessarily an outward or marketing thing. 

Just a few short years later, being “remote before COVID” is a rallying cry. Having technology or services that can be delivered remotely is a competitive advantage (with obvious reasons in COVID’s case). This is something even I’ve benefited from, having been remote in 2017. This isn’t uncommon, though. When things become mainstream, those who did it “before it was cool” will always get a credibility bump. 

Remote washing, bashing, and branding

With popularity comes criticism. That can’t be avoided. But it’s been interesting to see the progression of how people criticize remote work. 

In the early days, it was simply written off. This was perhaps ironic, since people were becoming millionaires on the backs of their remote businesses, a model that naysayers wrote off as nearly impossible. 

Now we see three new trends. Naysayers can’t deny remote work’s efficacy (though I happily admit that remote work is not perfect for every person nor every type of work). Instead, we see conversations around: 

  • Remote washing: slapping some marketing language about how your product works for remote teams. 

  • Remote bashing: leveraging personal negative experiences with remote work to generalize that remote work is actually bad. 

  • Remote branding: shifting the company’s identity to include remote (in some cases, acting like it’s always been there). 

Remote washing is almost a compliment. When everyone changes their marketing language to catch onto a rising star, it helps separate out the people who actually focus on it and do the work well.

Remote bashing is similarly almost a compliment. When you’re written off out of hand, you are considered culturally irrelevant. If you’re being bashed, the underlying truth is that you’re part of societal conversation. Plus, it’s usually pretty easy to tell when someone is universalizing their own negative experience or personal distaste versus putting out an actual criticism (the latter of which is not remote bashing, but honest conversation).

Remote branding is a mixed bag, in my opinion. Sometimes it’s very legitimate. For example, if a company always had some work flexibility but now they are making it official, I don’t really see a problem with that. But then you hear about organizations “embracing” remote work that also won’t let working mothers care for their kids during work hours and, well, it’s clear they just don’t get it. 

Remote as an office equivalent to remote as a way of work

Perhaps the greatest shift in remote work conversations I’ve seen is about the concept itself. For years, remote work was seen as an alternative to the office, or a virtual version of the office. This is half-true in the sense that work is done in an office and remotely, but it misses the point of the story. 

What I’m seeing now (which aligns to how I think about remote work) is that people are beginning to understand remote is a way of work, not an office equivalent. It’s not a cure-all for office woes. It has its own problems. It’s not perfect. But it has some amazing benefits as well that the in-office model can’t replicate, particularly around freedom of location. 

Personally, I am really happy the “remote work is just a virtual office” mantra is on its way out (though COVID gave it a little bump from March to May 2020). When something is held on a pedestal as either a copy or a saviour, it cannot go anywhere and it cannot grow. Remote work is not perfect – and that was never the point. Remote work is a fundamentally different way of work, and people deserve the option to choose it (or not) for themselves.

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