“In three months, remote work jumped a decade forward”

Jun 30, 2020

8 mins

“In three months, remote work jumped a decade forward”
Laetitia VitaudLab expert

Future of work author and speaker

Rodolphe Dutel is the founder of Remotive, a platform where candidates (especially engineers) can find remote jobs that fit their ambitions. Rodolphe has established himself as a leading expert on topics related to remote work. I interviewed him on the impact of the current crisis on telework, the geographic distribution of jobs, nomadism, management, and many other topics.

WTTJ: Can you tell us about your career path: how did you go from Google to Buffer, and then created Remotive? How did you establish yourself as a worldwide reference on the subject of remote work?

R.D.: I sort of fell into the internet pot as a little kid in the late 1990s. I used to take part in online forums and be amazed that I could collaborate with people I had never seen “in real life”. I joined Google early in 2010, to work on the Gmail and Google Drive projects. I was based in Dublin, Ireland, and my mission was to sell the Google Drive suite to French CIOs. At the time, there was still a lot of concern about losing control over corporate data. The revolution in cloud computing, collaborative tools, and BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) had only just begun. When CIOs were focused on cyber security and data sovereignty, it was very hard to convince them. But when they looked at usage, they understood what was going on and how we could help them. Since then I have been a fervent advocate of telework. It doesn’t have to be an exclusive thing: in many companies, hybrid models will remain commonplace.

After Google, I chose to take a sabbatical. I sailed across the world. I knew I wanted to work in Tech and I could always come back to Google which has a “Boomerang” program to welcome back employees who went away for months or years. Before I sailed across the Atlantic, I loaded Buffer with tweets to feed my account during my weeks of absence. I grew fond of the tool and the company. It was still a very small company then (Buffer was founded in 2010). They were looking for someone to do business development. I applied and was hired. Then I became Operations Manager, and then CFO. I stayed with Buffer for three years, until 2017. During that time, the company grew a lot. The first two years I was there, we went from 15 to 90 employees. I was based in Paris, but I still traveled a lot.

Remotive started as a side project while I was at Buffer. I noticed that a lot of candidates were looking for a well-paid remote job in an ambitious company. I started with a newsletter. About two years later, in January 2017, I chose to work for Remotive full-time. Today, it’s mainly an English-speaking platform (90% of the turnover is made outside of France) that helps tech candidates find good remote jobs. Two-thirds of my turnover is in B2B sales: companies subscribe to Remotive to post jobs and recruit great candidates. In the beginning, it was almost exclusively tech jobs, but now there are also a few other jobs.

When you started Remotive, your subject was seen as a “niche”. It was marginal for most recruiters. Do you feel remote work has now become completely mainstream?

In 2016, we made a list of companies that offered the jobs that we were interested in, and we found 200 companies. In 2018, we had 600. In 2019, we counted 900 of them. And at the beginning of 2020 (before the pandemic), 2,500 companies were on that list! So yes, it’s definitely a growing phenomenon.

VC (venture capital) firms have recently developed an interest in this phenomenon. They realized that companies like Automattic, Gitlab, or InVision—startups worth more than a billion dollars—can do more than other companies with the same amount of cash when they do without the San Francisco office. These companies proved that it is possible to scale even with a distributed team.

“A company can now be much more competitive when it is remote by default.”

The exponential growth of the remote work phenomenon is due to several things: the spectacular rise in real estate prices in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, the intensification of the “war for talent” in Tech, new aspirations, the popularisation of collaborative tools… A company can now be much more competitive when it is remote by default. It’s also easier to retain talent that way.

What do you think is the impact of the current crisis on telework?

In just 2 to 3 months, remote work jumped a decade forward. Of course, it must be said that pandemic-related telework is forced telework, and that it was not chosen by the workers concerned. But still, enormous progress was made. Before the crisis, only about one in ten workers were not at their company’s office. After the crisis, it will be many more.

There’s still a lot of uncertainty as to how and when people will return to the office. During the pandemic, a company like Facebook can only have a maximum of 25% of employees back at the office. The figures are about the same in many other companies. In addition, a Gartner study published in April 2020 interviewed US CFOs: it turns out that 74% of them said they want to reduce real estate costs by moving more people to telework.

A Manhattan office building is just too expensive now, even more so in the context of an economic crisis that will force companies to cut costs. I’m convinced that hybrid models will become more common as more and more companies want (or need) to limit office space. There may be more and more companies without an office, but mostly it’s partial telework that will become the norm.

Do you think that the normalization of telework is likely to change the geography of jobs?

It’s possible, yes. More urbanites may want to split their time between office life and a quiet second home in the country. It may be a fringe phenomenon that concerns only the rich, but there are enough such people for them to have an impact on the regions where they choose to have their second home. These regions may be revitalized: schools may open and lots of services to serve these new customers (restaurants, etc) may have to be developed. Urban life during the lockdown must have convinced many people that they really do need an escape.

The second phenomenon is the rise of freelancers who opted for flexibility at work mainly to flee the city and high real estate prices. In large cities, there is a growing disconnect between wages and rent. For an extra room, for more comfort, you have to live further and further away from the city center.

Last but not least rural telework may also experience a rise in popularity. I see many initiatives of freelance villages rise. Some elected representatives understand their target well, they launch associations and make nice spaces available that will strengthen social relations. The possibility of meeting other people is the main issue for individuals at risk of feeling isolated and lonely.

How have young digital nomads experienced the pandemic? In particular computer scientists who travel throughout Asia. What do they do when they can’t travel anymore?

In fact, the overwhelming majority of digital nomads return home after one or several years of nomadism. Once their thirst for adventure and exoticism is quenched, they eventually settle down. If they meet someone or want to start a family, they turn the page of nomadism. For many people, the experience ends up being a kind of gap year, nothing more.

As far as the current crisis is concerned, I’d say there are two groups of nomads: those who were at the beginning of their journeys went home before the borders were closed; and those who have been away for a long time who sometimes have solid local bases. Among the latter, many remained where they were when the crisis began. The pandemic probably did not bother them that much. These digital nomads have a life made up of routines: if they have a good internet connection, not much can disturb them. Indeed this is exactly what they are often blamed for: they are accused of living in a bubble and their presence is said to not benefit the local ecosystem (in Bali, for example).

Mark Zuckerberg stated in May 2020 that he expects 50% of Facebook employees to telework within 10 years and that salaries will be “adjusted” according to the employee’s place of residence, which created quite a stir. What’s your take on the subject?

Geoarbitrage is an old subject. Companies open subsidiaries or plants in places where the cost of labor is lower. There are very few companies that do pay everyone the same across all geographies. Many of them make trade-offs to optimize their costs.

Who says you have to be paid the same everywhere?

Another interesting question is, who says you have to be paid the same everywhere? First, you have the workers, particularly the engineers who have a strong negotiating power in the labor market, who all dream of earning a San Francisco salary and living in an area with a lower cost of living. What they say is, “If you pay us less, you devalue us“. And then you have a few companies like Basecamp. With only about a hundred employees, it generates millions of dollars in profits and pays everyone the San Francisco rate, and even a little more. These companies seek to attract talented candidates in a market where they are rare.

In other remote companies, like Gitlab or Buffer, salaries do take into account the place of residence. But these salaries are elastic. At Buffer, if you move to a more expensive location, the company will adjust your salary. What’s important is to prevent the creation of a caste system where some employees become second-class citizens.

It is undeniable that when work is essentially remote, workers will increasingly have to compete with the rest of the world. Your protection is that there are cultural barriers: only those who have had cultural exposure to your country can compete with you. But tomorrow, more and more companies will train people from everywhere to adapt to local cultural specificities. For example, developers based in Nigeria will be able to work more and more with the United States.

Remote workers will increasingly have to compete with the rest of the world.

If you are a recruiter, what do you have to pay attention to when recruiting someone for a remote job? What constitutes a good recruitment process?

It’s very important to manage the candidate’s expectations. Job descriptions should be very clear. Candidates should know how often they’ll be expected to visit the office (if there is an office), how they will interact with their managers and colleagues, and how work will be organized. In particular, is there a culture that leaves room for asynchronous work? Usually, you learn all these things when you’re on the job, and people are sometimes disappointed. It’s a waste of time for both candidates and companies. It’s best to avoid inadequate applications.

Secondly, a lot of emphases should be placed on the candidate’s ability to interact with others. Remote work involves a lot of writing. Therefore the ability to write well is essential. That’s why Jason Fried (co-founder of Basecamp and co-author of the book Remote) explains that he always seeks to recruit people who can write well. Between two candidates with similar technical skills, he will always choose the one who writes best. “Being a good writer is an essential part of being a good remote worker”, writes Fried.

Finally, attention must be paid to the inter-cultural dimension. Culturally, Americans communicate explicitly whereas the French (and to a lesser extent the British) are more implicit. In mixed teams, this can be a problem. It can be a good idea to train people to communicate with colleagues from another culture. It also helps to better manage expectations.

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