I want to discuss the importance of futuristic trends in remote work as exemplified by Google and Facebook, as well as Tesla founder Elon Musk. In particular I want to demonstrate how diverse ideas can lead to great new products and business outcomes regardless of where staff is located. One of the things that I’ve learned developing products and taking them to market is that I want to serve my clients and deeply understand what my clients care about.
Product Visions For All
One of the things that is true in product development is that you need to understand what your clients value and how these values will influence how they use the product. I have found that working with remote staff can provide incredible insights and value into solving these questions because remote workers are not encumbered by the group think that occurs in offices and are often more connected to real users and real product intent. Let me explain.
One of the first products that we tried to build was called Pennybox. Pennybox with software that helped kids and families learn how to save money at home. Originally all of our staff was in one central office. But we quickly learned to scale through remote workers and at home employees and contractors. One of the things that was so fascinating about scaling through remote workers was the unique perspectives and insights they brought to our conversation about how to develop, launch, and successfully brand our product. For example we had parents that were remote workers who needed customizable hours.
These parents shared insights about how they thought about money and how they thought about financial education at home with their kids. The answers to certain fundamental questions we were exploring depended on the location of our staff and their values. Had we only hired people that could work in our office we would have missed out on this talent, and the viewpoints they shared with us.
Remote Workers: Value Add
A second trend about the importance of remote workers is that getting access to remote talent will come with a lower bill. Human capital is expensive and finding ways to reduce your sourcing, onboarding, and wage costs is likely important. Here is a recent example that came up in an interview that I led, and helped inspire this article.
I spoke with a person who is a very talented software engineer in Boston but was unable and unwilling to relocate to New York City because of his lifestyle and family considerations. Because the company was not set up to scale with remote workers, and he was unable to relocate, we missed out on hiring this individual. Shamefully, the firm lost out on great talent!
One thing that I believe will happen is that people will compete for more jobs in the locations that best suit their lifestyles going forward. They’re already huge pushes to democratize labor markets and make jobs accessible to people that need them regardless of location if the job can be done remotely.
I fully understand that certain kinds of work cannot be done remotely and perhaps changes in these markets will happen at a slower pace if at all. But for many kinds of work, including design, product, engineering, legal, and finance – this work can be done with no decline in value in a remote setting.
Google is widely respected as a terrific company. They need remote workers more than ever. Google has a company goal to provide products for the entire world. Founder Larry Page calls this the toothbrush test; he wants Google’s products to be used by people at least twice per day. If a product is not used that frequently it won’t be successful according to Google and its current definition of scale. But how do you build products that all people can use?
One answer is to deeply understand what people want and what they care about. For example if you have product designers that work in developing markets and their remote work is valued, then this staff can provide huge learning that will save the firm time and effort. Their insights can unlock new value. A remote developer may be able to shed light into developing products for developing markets more so than an engineer in a large urban US city. Certainly their knowledge of local transit and 2G connectivity or bandwidth constraints will be greater.
A second example is Facebook. Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, along with Facebook teams and the rest of Facebook staff, vote on what they think are the best hackathon projects every year. Some teams are remote and fly in for the presentation. The idea is to try to incubate creativity and a lot of new ideas as rapidly as possible. In Zuckerberg’s own words, “we don’t want the final version of a product but some of the biggest things that we’ve done including chat” came from these sprints. Sprints started as a way to think creatively and holistically. And they started as remote presentations bringing people together. Facebook is a very large company. There are over 40,000 employees and by some estimates 4,000 managers. Every employee is going to have a slightly different experience based on their role, their team, their location, their manager, and so on. Each person needs to build, add value, and think critically if they want to add value.
Facebook, like all firms, needs to innovate. Or it too will perish. The company is seeing a sharp increase in costs that has Wall Street worried. Facebook may be forced to cut costs in 2021 and that could mean reducing its workforce or greatly slow hiring. One way to keep its current headcount but reduce costs will be to invest more heavily in remote staff. By some estimates, over the next ten years Facebook may be forced to pay $50-$100 billion in fines for violating privacy laws. That would wipe out most of their cash reserves. They have already settled with the FTC (a regulatory body in a single country) for $5 billion.
And they settled with the State of Illinois (a regulatory body in a single State in a single country) for $550 million. The settlements are just getting started. Facebook might also get sued for running political ads with demonstrably false statements. These lawsuits could cripple the company and lead to layoffs. It won’t happen next month, but it could happen next year, or the year after. Reducing costs, thinking big, and understanding the needs of users are likely all things that Zuckerberg is obsessed with.
Tesla’s Elon Musk
A third example of futuristic work being done remotely can be seen in the words and actions of Tesla Founder and CEO Elon Musk. He was once asked the following: If you were 22 today what would be the biggest problems that you would think about working on? His answer is famous: “I think a good thing would be for people to work on things with high value….to change the world. System Improvements, AI, remote progress…are all likely to affect the future of humanity.” Elon Musk will work on very different things then you or I. But he sees remote engagement as a future trend; it will impact how we eat, sleep, live, and of course – work.
Companies have always wanted to be able to variabilize their labor costs; labor has traditionally been a fixed cost. Historically people have preferred to be full-time employees in an office for decades at a time; that time has changed. This change is bringing about a massive movement. You may very well be part of it. You have people that are making a choice to be at home. The future of remote work is just being written. Clearly people are hungry to add value and can design better products and business outcomes if they know what their clients want. Some of the world’s best firms know this, and now you do too.