Earlier this week, I wrote about the lasting impact that COVID-19 may have on China’s work culture, specifically that more remote work will be embraced after this public health crisis is over and that this fundamental shift could lead to more business software services being purchases: remote work and remote consumption, respectively.
Now let’s do a deep dive on remote work’s connection with open source, the software development model, which I’ve alluded to in quite a few places in the previous piece, but didn’t explain in detail.
Remote Work Rooted in Open Source
Let’s first drive home the deep connection between open source and remote work. “Open source”, a term popularized in the late 1990s by the free software hacker movement, was both a software development and a political statement that was anti-capitalism in general and anti-Microsoft in particular.
As a political statement, it started out fringe just like any other revolutionary message. Twenty-plus years later, it has won the war. Linux is the dominant operating system, not Windows -- Microsoft’s own public cloud service, Azure, runs more Linux than Windows servers. Corporations now embrace open source software, not shun it. In fact, many traditional enterprises (think: banks) prefer to use open source software to its proprietary alternatives because it is more robust, more performant, and more secure.
Why is a piece of open source software more robust, more performant, and more secure has to do with open source, the software development model, which goes hand in hand with remote work. Software that’s developed in the open source way literally means it is developed in the open publicly, where everyone and anyone in the world with an Internet connection can read the source code, run it, change it, use it, copy it, make feature requests, find and fix bugs, and scan it for security vulnerabilities. All the collaboration and communication happens in the public too, typically on a group email listserv like Google Groups, a forum service like Discourse or where the code is hosted and version-controlled like GitHub. There’s a ton more nuances to the actual development and community management processes of open source that I’ll save for future posts, but you can see a clear connection between how open source software gets built and how remote work functions.
Open source is the direct product of remote work organized on a global scale.
It’s no surprise that most of the sizable remote companies in the U.S., like GitLab and Hashicorp, have deep open source roots. Same goes for some of the up-and-coming startups in China, like PingCAP. Almost all the largest U.S. and Chinese tech companies have embraced open source software, including Microsoft, which used to have an antagonistic attitude towards open source software many years go (remember Linux vs. Windows?). You can see that by simply scanning through the highest-tier member companies of the Linux Foundation.
These large companies, both American and Chinese, are also producing open source projects of their own and contributing actively to existing popular open source software. All of that means hiring more engineers who know how to collaborate in an open source way, thus remote work. As open source adoption continues to grow, so will remote work. And a black swan event like COVID-19 can accelerate that shift.
Is Remote Work a Better Way to Work?
In general, yes.
For one, it takes away the one common source of pain and frustration about work that everyone hates: commuting. Commuting to work is universally hated. It drains your energy and ruins your day before it even got started. It is also a public health weak spot when it comes to the spread of contagious viruses, like COVID-19, especially in urban areas where people rely heavily on public transportation.
Based on the 2020 State of Remote Work report conducted by Buffer and Angelist (two tech startups with a strong remote work culture), which surveyed more than 3,500 remote workers around the world, 97% of current remote workers would recommend it to others. The top three benefits of remote work are: “ability to have a flexible schedule”, “flexibility to work from anywhere”, and “no commute”.
The flexibility can lead to both better family management (take care of your children, pick them up from school, save money on expensive child care), better self management (regular exercise, quality breaks in between working sessions), and better quality work product (concentrate with less distraction, work when in the flow, no one looking over your shoulders).
On a deeper level, it speaks to an intrinsic desire of every human being: autonomy.
Once you’ve tasted remote work, it’s very hard to go back. This will be felt by millions of Chinese knowledge workers when the effects of COVID-19 are under control and life returns to normal.
Not All Sunshine and Rainbows
All that being said, this isn’t a pamphlet for promoting remote work. Nothing is perfect, and remote work is no exception.
I’ve been both a remote worker and the manager of a remote team that spanned three countries and many time zones. I can say for certain that it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.
As workers, you need the ability to self-manage, self-motivate, and self-direct. Younger workers with less work experience tend to not do well with too much flexibility and not enough constant guidance. It’s also hard to know when work ends if you don’t know how to draw boundaries between you and your coworkers and managers, which again younger less experienced people have a hard time managing.
According to the same report by Buffer and Angelist, the top three struggles with remote work are: lack of collaboration and communication, loneliness, and not being able to unplug. I’ve seen or felt all three. In short, it’s not for everyone.
As a manager of a remote team, I can definitively say the operational challenges are quite real too. Getting the back office processes (payrolls, taxes, benefits, etc.) running smoothly is not a trivial workload when your employees live in different countries with different laws and norms. (That’s why services like Remote.com are popping up.) Making sure everyone is motivated and has enough context to self-direct requires a concerted effort to be transparent about decision-making processes and break down information silos between teams and different company leaders. Knowing how to effectively leverage software tools to virtually run a team has its own steep learning curve. Last but not least, helping employees combat loneliness and isolation by organizing regular in-person gatherings has its own logistical hurdles.
All these challenges will get better over time, with more remote work experimentation, new best practices, and better software tools.
Remote work is in its early days, but its benefits, especially for knowledge workers, are undeniable. With COVID-19 as the forcing function, China’s large knowledge economy may just jump into the remote work fast lane, which will create new software, new services, and a new work culture.
Chinese Version Below
因此大家应该也不奇怪，在美国的大多数纯远程办公公司，如GitLab和Hashicorp，都以开源科技为基础。在国内的一些新兴的创业公司也是如此，比如PingCAP。更值得一提的是，几乎所有中美的科技巨头都开始拥抱开源，包括微软，完全改变以前对开源软件的敌对态度（还记得Linux vs. Windows吗？）。只需阅览一下Linux基金会的最高级别成员公司就可以看到这一点。