Remote work is a big deal for personal freedom

One of the most favorable outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic is the forced experimentation and adoption of remote work. This might be the most significant change in how we work in several decades. 

Our lives are summations of what we experience every moment. When you take on some work, whether as an employee or even as an entrepreneur, you sacrifice some freedom around how you live in exchange for compensation. 

More specifically, you sacrifice freedoms of what, how, with who, when, and where.

1. Freedom of curiosity (what/how): to do what you want to and how you want to. 

2. Freedom of company (who): who you work with and spend time with. 

3. Freedom of time (when): to do things when you feel like it. 

4. Freedom of location (where): to live and be where you want. 

This sacrifice of freedoms is why a lot of people dislike work and look forward to retirement. At its worst, when you lose all these freedoms and don't get compensated, it is slavery. On the other hand, you see entrepreneurs who seem to work all the time but enjoy it too, and that's because they have all these freedoms. 

You can retain and even channel some of the first two freedoms - freedom of curiosity and company - if you intentionally pick a company, team, culture, and role that matches your interests, values, and personality. You may retain even more if you start your own company, or become a freelancer, and define those for yourself. With remote work, you can choose to live in a low-cost area, thereby reducing the compensation you need and rebalance your time between work and other curiosities. 

With traditional physical offices, you lose a lot of the last two freedoms - your freedom of time and location - as you have to go into a particular place at certain times every weekday. 

But with remote jobs, you retain nearly all of your freedom of location. You can choose where you want to live that suits your lifestyle - in a bustling city, beach town, farmland, etc. - without concerns about your job opportunities or commute. You can choose to travel, move cities, or put down long-term roots. You can choose to stay close to friends, family, and communities that you care for. 

You also gain freedom of time in a few ways. You save 1-2 hours each day skipping the commute (or ~10% of your waking hours). With async work, you can schedule work hours to accommodate your preferred lifestyle - like exercise, chores, or spend time with kids - and energy or inspiration levels, rather than strictly aligning to a group schedule. 

Another significant psychological benefit of these two freedoms is that they can reduce the influence of work on your identity and make us much more holistic, multi-dimensional, and happier. 

So you can unlock 2 of 4 degrees of freedom with remote and async work, which is huge for life satisfaction. 

But will the quality of work suffer? 

The shared physical space and fixed time model made sense with farm and factory jobs. The model was extended to creative work when there was no internet or laptops and wasn't critically revisited to a large extent until now. 

Creative work needs teamwork and collaboration. Shared physical presence and casual interactions evoke emotions and creative collisions in a way that moving faces on a screen cannot. Zoom and screen fatigue is also real and staying home can feel mundane. I think those are the main Achilles heels of remote work.  New employees, junior employees, or social people, who require more help or enjoy the interactions, may feel this pain even more. 

You can also argue that activities like group brainstorming are more effective in an in-person setting. But in my opinion, most large group brainstorming sessions go poorly anyway, and the effectiveness depends more on the facilitation and the group rather than physical presence. In a hybrid workplace, where some people work remotely and others don't, these issues may amplify even more and hurt remote workers in both relationships and career progression. 

We can solve the problems of teamwork and collaboration more surgically. Intentional periodic meetups and offsite, more explicit and clear written communication and processes, and well-structured online social hours can help. Shared neighborhood workspaces (like WeWork) can solve some of the social connection and real-estate issues. I'm also confident that the tools, processes, culture, and personal routines will only evolve and improve dramatically over time (it's only been a year of large-scale remote work, and we have made good strides!). Gitlab, an entirely remote startup that's now worth over $6B, has published an excellent guide to remote working. Basecamp, another remote-first company, published a book on the topic. 

On the positive side, I think remote and async work is leaps and bounds better for deep focused work, inspiration, and diversity - which are all really important for creative work and hard to achieve in a crowded office space, with a group schedule in a single city. As Paul Graham says in one of his essays, "There's not much overlap between conventional office hours and the optimal time for hacking, or conventional offices and the optimal place for it." A part of the extra time freed up from commute can also go into productive work. 

Besides the freedom and quality of work, there are many positives for societies. Reduced commutes will reduce traffic and emissions. The ability to work any job from anywhere will improve economic access, reduce crowding, real-estate prices in dense cities, quality of life, and happiness. There will be some displacements and downsides due to these effects, like potential reduction in wages and impact on small businesses and jobs that revolve around physical workplaces. 

I'm rooting hard for remote work to take off and become the norm for all these reasons! It isn't going to be without challenges, but I think the prize - freedom - is well worth it.