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This past February, Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer made headlines when she put an end to the company’s remote work policy. “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices,” the official memo read, adding that speed and quality are sacrificed when employees work from home. “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together,” it continued, stating that working at Yahoo! “is about the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices.”

Jason Fried, co-author of the book “Remote: Office Not Required,” is the co-founder and president of Chicago-based web app company 37signals, best known for project management tool Basecamp and contact management system Highrise. Of the company’s 41 staff employees, only 14 live in Chicago, and the rest work remotely.

Of the Chicago-based staff, “no one is here every day,” says Fried. “most people spend some time at home and some time at the office.”


Jason Fried

While Fried acknowledges that each company and leader is different, and it’s up to individuals to determine what’s best for their group and their culture and their brand, he pushes back hard against the notion that effective collaboration can only happen in an office setting.

“What I don’t think is fair is suggesting that the only way to have a strong culture and the only way for people to feel a part of something is to physically see each other every single day for eight hours a day,” says Fried. “I don’t think the evidence shows that and I don’t think it’s true and I don’t think that’s a myth that should be perpetuated any further.”


Gathering around the Campfire

37signals incorporates occasional face-to-face gatherings, but most collaboration—and off-topic banter—is done online. 37signals uses Campfire, the company’s own chat tool, not just to discuss business but to create chat rooms centered around specific interests such as pets, film, design, cars or comic books.

“Our culture is incredibly tight. People really get to know each other well and in depth around specific interests,” he says. In fact, Fried sees a central place for people to communicate and get to know each other as pivotal for any company that allows remote work.

37Signals has an office where staff can work out of, if they’d like. Extroverts who live outside of Chicago but thrive off of interaction with others can often find co-working spaces, while those who feel more comfortable working alone can hunker down in their home office. But allowing them to choose where they’d like to work gives them the freedom to select the environment where they’d thrive, rather than being forced into a specific situation that they’re not comfortable with.

And it’s not just forcing everyone to be in a physical location that can be an issue. Fast Company senior editor Jason Feifer recently made a rousing case for getting his own office back after a recent full-floor reorganization. “In the past, when I needed to focus, I shut my door. The silence was beautiful. It was calming. It made deadlines easier to meet,” Feifer wrote. This was replaced with a layout he found endlessly distracting due to constant chatter and regular interruptions.


Worrying about overwork, not ‘underwork’

Allowing for remote work not only allows workers to choose the best environment for them, but also increases the applicant talent pool. Distributed companies are as varied as content marketing company Copyblogger, budgeting software startup You Need A Budget, and software companies such as GitHub and WordPress, where retaining top talent is crucial.

One concern with virtual work is that performance will suffer. Although many managers initially worry that remote staff won’t get their work done, Fried and co-author David Heinemeier Hansson actually advise companies to be on the lookout for overwork, not underwork. Remote workers are less likely to leave work at the office at the end of the day, and it’s easy for work to bleed into other aspects of life.

“If someone thinks that because you’re not at the office you work for them 24/7, that’s just completely unreasonable, and hopefully they’ll change their mind on that,” Fried says. “That’s an expectation that has to change. It comes down to treating people respectfully. You can’t expect someone to get back to you at 11 p.m. at night. That’s completely unreasonable, period. This is all part of treating people fairly and properly.”


‘This is about life’

“Remote: Office Not Required” addresses many potential pitfalls of virtual work, including security concerns, ergonomic issues and ways to assure that remote workers maintain a high level of quality in their work.

“Further, it’s not just about work. This is about life,” Fried says. “If I want to live on a farm and I also want to be a programmer, in most places I can’t do that, because there are no programming jobs in town. It’s very unlikely that you’re going to find a programming job in rural America. They just don’t exist. That means I can’t live on a farm. That means my life has to be different because I want a job. It’s the same thing with writing and with graphic design.”

Working remotely eliminates the problem. “I love the idea that someone who works for us can live on a farm, or in the heart of the city… it’s totally up to them.”