I’ve been working remotely for 6 years straight now. And no matter what my co-founder thinks, I could surely never (?*) go back to regular office life.
Now, I’m sure you’re thinking: not another treaty on the benefits of working remotely from a privileged knowledge worker.
Well, in part you are right: as a developer I am privileged and always have been. But things might be different than you might picture them…
I’m not just a developer, I’m also founder and CTO of a company called whisp — we are the crew behind CLEAR, one of the most popular intermittent fasting apps on the app stores. And my co-founder and CEO is fiercly pro-office.
So I’m also writing this in part as the second half of a picture both of us are trying to paint at whisp. But I’m also doing this as an attempt to understand the office lovers in our team.
whisp was founded as a remote-first company three years ago. My co-founder and I had been working together for about 6 years. First at a dating app company with a strong office culture, including the obligatory table football, billiard, an amazing office space, free lunches, lots of parties and meetups— just what you would expect from a hip start-up in the late 2010s. Later both of us went to work at a remote-first app-agency with employees all over Europe — here we could work whenever wherever we wanted as long as we got shit done.
At one point we huddled and came to the conclusion, that it was time to roll our own thing. Both of us being well into our thirties it seemed like catching the last train for founding a startup before potential employees would deem us too old to be cool, while at the same time having acquired enough experience to avoid the biggest traps in the app business.
So off we went. Apparently we had similar experiences from the past, at least when it came to the last 3 years where we had worked together — undeniably the most influential ones in our career up to that point. It seemed to be a given that we would have similar ideas for how we would want to work together at whisp.
At first it just looked like that. We gathered for quite a few internal hackathons to conceive the next big thing and in the end came up with a prototype for an intermittent fasting app — as intermittent fasting also had helped us a lot to cope with the stress (and unhealthy habits) of our previous gigs we thought it would be something other people might be interested as well.
Then we parted into our own spaces and started hacking on the real thing. Both of us are living in different places, roughly 60 kilometers apart. We knew how to efficiently work remotely, we didn’t have money for an office — working from home seemed like a given.
And so our company became remote-first — at first…
But soon my co-founder muttered. He is an extrovert par excellence, thriving on in-person contact, while I am what many would describe as the typical introverted developer — not being completely averse to social interaction, but only in small doses and with big breaks in between.
So working remotely obviously was more beneficial to me than to him. I enjoyed planning features with him via video call, spec’ing them out from a design perspective in Figma (that was mostly his part) and then technically in Slite and Linear (my part). Afterwards I went head-on into undisturbed development — keeping him posted about my progress in Linear and Slack, but apart from that focusing on doing what I can do best: 1000111110110110111001… (you get the idea)
At the same time my co-founder would go and search for investors and plan new features.
In the meantime we hired a handful of new employees, most on the product and content side of things, but also a few developers.
But while things really looked well on the business side, something felt off, especially for my co-founder. He felt a sense of disconnection. We hired many of our employees and freelancers on the notion of being a remote-first company. At the same time most of them came from our region as we had extensively sourced from our existing contacts from our former jobs.
So we decided to provide them with a place where they could work from if they didn’t want to work from home or didn’t have a suitable place there.
We went looking for a small office space in a shiny new coworking space. Working from there was purely optional.
After some time we observed something interesting: one half of the employees worked from the office nearly full-time. The other half worked from home as much as they could.
The company had become what my co-founder aptly once called remocal. Half working colocated and in-person, half working remotely. But could that work? What kind of team member went for which option? And why?
As mentioned before, half of our company consists of people who strongly prefer working remotely over work from a shared office space — I call us (slightly unimaginatively) Remoters.
People who opted to work remotely most or all of the time (which includes me) usually cited the following reasons for doing this:
- A new-found freedom: many of them never had worked remote-first before. They especially enjoy to be able to choose time and location of their work.
- Additional time for private matters, hobbies and family, as they don’t have to commute to and from work.
- They enjoy the high levels of trust we put into them (when we founded the company we opted for not tracking time at all)
- The abundance of focus time they are getting when working uninterrupted. We are keeping digital meetings to a minimum and try to work async as much as possible.
- Out of reach from certain viruses — yes, COVID, I’m looking at you.
This is by no means to be generalized, but in our company people preferring to work remotely tend to tick the following boxes:
- Rather introvert than extrovert. They enjoy social interaction, but only a limited amount with longer breaks to decompress.
- Good at setting work/life boundaries and shutting off after work.
- Good at planning, scheduling and productivity in general.
- Very reliable, a core trait to make remote work possible. Most expect the same thing from their coworkers.
- Need silence and their mode to get into the zone. You will see them with headphones on all time when they need to work in a space where other people are communicating. Sensory overload is a thing for this group. Most of them also will not be able to focus when someone is constantly looking over their shoulder.
- Learn and improve on their own schedule. They usually prefer a self-paced online course over a three day workshop to get the hang of a new topic.
- Have special requirements for their work setup, e.g. a warm cozy area, a cup of Joe made from their favorite carefully selected beans, a clicky keyboard unsuitable for shared office spaces (that would be me).
- Some have very busy schedules and/or love/have to scatter their work stints over the course the day — parents will relate.
- Some people in this group love to work from different places all over the world which is only feasible when working remotely.
Our office crew which you would find at least 80% of the time in our office values different things as they are a different sort of people. My co-founder is one of those Officionados.
For Officionados choosing the office as their preferred working location feels just logical due to the following reasons:
They needed the in-person meetings and water cooler talks as they considered it a vital part of their creating synergies — and bonding. Also, working on a problem in an office face-to-face can help pushing through difficulties as encouragement comes easier when being in the same room.
- A feeling of connectedness. This group loves to bond via social interactions. Please don’t mistake this with loud people, they may be silent at times, but they are not breaking a sweat when facing a new person and have to do small talk.
- Synergies which often unfold over water-cooler talks. Unbelievable things can grow out of those unplanned meetings and Officionados value this a lot.
- Clear separation of work and (private) life — when at the office it’s work time, when not, private life unfolds.
- High quality and work suited space. Not everyone has access to a perfectly equipped home office, let alone a separate room for work only. And not everyone can switch off at home when there are children, partners or roommates around. A dedicated office solves these problems.
- The maker spirit of co-working spaces. As opposed to exclusive offices, offices and work stations in co-working spaces tend to have many different kinds of interesting people with tons of inspiring ideas and characters floating around. Certainly not the worst place for a startup-team to be.
- Learn and grow with people, not documents. They learn most efficiently in a group, when pushing each other through motivation valleys and to the limits when approaching the apex.
- Love to hang around with their colleagues after work. This obviously is possible with much less ceremony when simply leaving work together to hang out for another hour or two in their favorite bar or restaurant. For them having lots of social contact actively reduces stress (contrary to many remote believers for whom too much of it induces stress).
- Constant feedback-loops are highly valued. The back and forth when discussing ideas with others brings out the best in many Officionados.
Obviously those lists are neither exhaustive nor exclusive and not everyone in every group matches all of them. But the patterns are quite obvious — at least in our team.
Now, for me the most interesting insight unfolds when you look at what Officionados love about working from home from time to time and what Remoters enjoy during their visits at the office.
Here is a secret: Most Remoters actually like meeting their team mates — yes, they do! For them (well, I should say “us”) it is comparable to a birthday. You are looking forward to it, but it would wear off quickly if you had birthday everyday. Heck, birthdays even wear off for most people anyway over the years even if they are just once a year. Similarly Remoters don’t need in-person meetings and water cooler talks to work productively. And they don’t need it daily because it also induces a certain level of stress — commuting to the office, meeting new people in shared offices, different coffee or tea (!) and not being able to go offline if it becomes too much and focus becomes impossible.
So for Remoters visiting the office space and seeing their team in person is something special and unique — a highlight, not the default.
And Officionados? Being social beings means many of them love meeting new people. And where can you meet people better than while traveling? Working remotely from co-working spaces, airports and Airbnbs in other countries makes visiting new places so much easier without spending half of your vacation days on traveling to your desired destination.
And of course many Officionados also have families and non-work obligations and therefore, from time to time (or daily, e.g. during the first half of the day), love the unprecedented freedom of working remotely to get everything done.
It turns out, most of our team members are actually both: Officionados and Remoters. It’s just the ratios which differ — though quite substantially for some. And as life changes, so do preferences and needs.
So maybe, it’s not about Remoters vs Officionados. It’s about finding the right way to work for you at this very moment in your life. And supporting others in doing the same.
And that’s what we are trying to do over here at whisp. Yes, I’m fully aware that this remocal setup is certainly bound to spark a lot more interesting (and at times heated) discussions in the future. 😅
But in the end for a company the most important thing is that everyone working there can do so at their very best. And this is only possible if we can create a work environment that works for everyone. For some this is a beautiful and lively office space. For others it’s a cozy home office. And for many it’s both and is as fluid as life itself.
*I admit this post turned out different than I initially intended it to be when I started to write and I’ve actively decided against going over it once more and redacting it (except for adding that little question mark in the intro). As reflection can result in the most curious insights. Most curious indeed… 🤔 And sometimes it can help to have the meandering river of thought written down rather than redacting it away. As it is very likely that at some point in your life you will be back at the source of river, caught in the same state of mind. And reading written down your thoughts from years ago when you were in the same situation can provide a nice shortcut to the delta and the open sea of possibilities and freedom of mind.
I will surely read these lines again in the future. Here’s a heads-up to my future self:
Panta rhei — everything flows. (Simplikios)
So never say never, you stubborn donkey.