Working from home works as well as any distributed team

I worked remotely in some shape or form for the past fifteen yearsMost of my career involved remote work.

A blanket statement like “Elon Musk Eliminated Remote Work Because Working From Home “Doesn’t Work”” is a logical fallacy in a modern work environment. “Work from home” is not inherently different from “remote work,” which in turn is no different from “distributed teams.” If working from home doesn’t work, then neither do remote work or distributed teams. And yet, as of now, Twitter has dozens of offices in Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania, and South America. Tesla has 16 offices throughout the US alone.

Luay Rahil starts his article with the immediate logical fallacy:

If remote work is the answer, why are most tech companies laying off people?

Could the problem have more to do with the flawed business models at most tech companies rather than remote work? By this logic, if remote work is the answer to flawed business models, then all managers should let everyone work from home rather than solve their failing business models.

Luay continues:

Musk doesn’t mind if you want to work from home, he wants you to work at least 40 hours at the office, and you can work another 40 hours at your house if you desire.

My advice to any self-respecting software engineer: if your manager says something like that, get a new job. I once worked for a company with such a culture — trust me when I say it’s not worth it.

Elon Musk puts an enormous number of hours into his work, famously working over 120 hours per week and sharing his opinion that founders need to work 80-plus weekly.

He defends his extreme devotion and dedication to his work by saying, “If it wasn’t for me working 120 hours per week while everyone” at Tesla worked 100 hours per week at times this year as Tesla would have failed.”

The future is yet to unfold. Tesla pioneered the EV market and paved the way for competitors, and there is no doubt about that. As of 2022, Tesla is one of many players on the market, and consumers have increasingly broad choices now. Tesla stock lost almost half its value this year.

So before you criticize Musk’s stand towards remote work, take some time to examine his successful business records and see how other companies are faring against him. For example, Salesforce Chief Operating Officer Marc Benioff stated that he has a specific plan to cut many jobs based on performance, and if I have to guess, most of these people are working remotely.

I would have stopped the above statement at “based on performance” and avoided making wild guesses and using “these people” to describe otherwise loyal and high-performing employees. Salesforce products enable telecommuting in the first place.

Luay continues:

So, after examining their profit and loss statements, many CEOs are coming to the same side as Elon Musk. For example, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings doesn’t “see any positives” to working from home. Hastings told Wall Street Journal, “Not being able to get together in person, particularly internationally, is a pure negative.”

Netflix has a problem with customer retention, not working from home. Just like Tesla is no longer the only EV-maker out there, Netflix is not the only movie streaming service, and there are others with competitive content and better options. Forcing Netflix employees to come back to the office won’t fix the fact that Netflix is not as unique of a content provider as they once were — just like Tesla is well on its way to not being special.

It is purely negative because you can’t build a sustainable company working from home. Parag Agrawal, the old Twitter CEO, allowed his employees to work from home, and Twitter was losing $4 million per day, so stop talking about productivity.

Twitter was losing millions of dollars per day due to an outdated business model and lack of vision that had nothing to do with where employees worked.

Apple’s chief executive officer, Tim Cook, told his team to come back to work, “I hope everyone is feeling as energized as I am and that you are looking forward to seeing your colleagues in person again in the weeks ahead. I can’t tell you how much I am looking forward to being together again.”

Cook explained that he wants people in the office on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday and work “flexibly” on Wednesday and Friday. Of course, some people are mad, but Cook doesn’t care, and his company is doing better.

Ah, now we are coming to the crux of the matter: flexibility and personal relationships most people seek, not some hard choice between full-time telecommuting or office work. I will come back to this in a moment, right after I dissect the remainder of Luay’s post.

James Dimon is an American billionaire businessman, and the JP Morgan Chase CEO doesn’t see any value in remote work either.

JP Morgan has offices in India, United States, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and many other countries. If “remote work” didn’t work for JP Morgan neither would geographically distributed teams and certainly not outsourcing, and yet somehow JP Morgan strives — better than Tesla, I should add if you compare their recent stock performances.

Some of you will say that technology allows us to communicate with each other efficiently. I tell you this, “Stop confusing digital connections with real relationships. Nothing can replace a real conversation with someone you care about, and if you don’t care about the people you work with, it is time for you to find another job.”

I will revisit the concept of “real relationships” momentarily. If digital communications don’t work for you, then neither do offices across timezones and geographical locations nor outsourcing.

It is harder for companies to build and transfer institutional knowledge when employees are working 100% remotely. So, as soon as someone leaves, the organization will suffer greatly.

Again, this is another logical fallacy. If someone is working for a US company out of their Hyderabad office, for example, this person is in fact, working 100% remotely. How is that different from the same person working out of their home office?

Another benefit of spending time with coworkers in the office is that it strengthens the sense that you share a common mission. But, again, if you don’t feel a sense of belonging, quit your job. You deserve better.

The crux of the matter is the human need for meaningful connection and a sense of belonging, which brings me to the topics I promised to circle back to.

There is scientific evidence that our social network is a network of triads, and the largest median number of meaningful relationships a human brain can maintain is around 150. It means that any meaningful sense of belonging at work is based on no more than being around two closest colleagues (to form a triad), and the largest meaningful, cohesive team can be at most 150 made up of 30 interconnected triads.

In a purely “remote” company, such as a startup, it makes sense to have clusters of 3-4 employees in each geographical location who can meet regularly in person and collaborate. A large company can have centers of excellence larger than that, of course, but any meaningful in-person relationships that yield innovation and spark new ideas will involve gatherings of at most three or four.

Since we know remote work does work, and a sense of belonging requires a clique of no more than 3-4, and there is evidence that meetings much larger than that are unproductive, there is no technological, managerial, or sociological reason why flexible work arrangements and telecommuting (including working from home) cannot work. In fact, remote work is so effective that Luay Rahil also wrote a post about how remote is so effective that all knowledge will be outsourced to cheap countries. In other words: remote work works.