A New Workplace Manifesto: In Praise Of Freedom, Time, Space, And Working Remotely

The coauthor of the recently released REMOTE: Office Not Required on why commuting will kill you and destroy your marriage. (We may be overstating things slightly, but still.)

The conventional idea of luxury is the antithesis of work. Sure, the gilded few are awarded trinkets to soothe their working experience, perhaps with a swanky corner office, a plush company-provided Lexus or--if they're wearing a T-shirt rather than a suit to work--with free gourmet lunches and ping-pong tables. (Or not, as the case may be.) But even for those with the grandest of paychecks and superfluous perks, work is still in direct opposition to luxury.

The vast majority of workers across the world still commute in some form. And no matter how nice your company car is, sitting in rush hour traffic for an hour each way is still a special version of hell. Maybe you ride the train or subway. A step up, perhaps (though certainly not lately, for those commuting into New York City via MetroNorth), but think of all the other things you could be doing.

It's not exactly news that long commutes are brutal, but the science behind just how brutal is mounting, and it all points to the same conclusion: Commuting is a recipe for misery, associated with an increased risk for obesity, insomnia, stress, neck and back pain, high blood pressure and other stress-related ills like heart attacks and depression, and even divorce.

So you suffer through that daily commute, and then the next chamber of the daily grind begins: You arrive at your office (if you're lucky; cubicle if you're not), where a thousand interruptions chop up your workday into tiny work moments.

There's the status meeting, followed by the meeting about the other meeting, the all-hands-on-deck lunch leading into an hour more of idle chatter, and finally back to your office, just in time for your phone to ring or a co-worker to stop by. And you can't just turn off Bill when he's loitering outside your office at the end of the day, eager to chat about this or the other thing.

Before you know it, the day is over, and it's back in the car or train and home so late that you hardly have time to breathe again before it's the next morning. Alarm sounds, and it's time to wash, rinse, and painstakingly repeat.

Of course, that seems like the antithesis of luxury! Nobody wants that kind of drudgery, no matter how much they're paid to do it.

But the problem isn't actually the work itself. It's the fight against the hostile environment surrounding the work that's the laborious slug. Seeing through that requires looking beyond the traditional formula of work that we've been brainwashed into believing is the only way.

Most people lump the accidental circumstances of work together with the actual work itself and write the whole thing off as a torturous exercise from which they can't wait to break free. They sign up for the working man's dream of deferred living. Toiling away for the next three decades in order to reach the nirvana of retirement when--finally!--true luxury can be had.

In retirement, they believe, you can move "up to some paradise, where the trout streams flow and the air is nice," as Bob Dylan put it.

That sounds lovely in theory, but the truth is, most people don't make good on those extravagant plans for retirement. They don't travel the world. Their bum knees and shoulders prevent them from playing their hobbies with the reckless abandon they once imagined they would. They don't go wild with all their saved cash.

It's time to reject the false dichotomy between work and luxury. See, none of this is about escaping the intellectual stimulation of work itself. Work is not the enemy we're trying to outrun. We're simply running from those accidental circumstances.

The fact is that most people like to work. Really work, that is. Engage their brain and their talents in the creation of value. At least if they are fortunate enough to work in a field of expertise, if not passion. Retirement from that is not nearly as luxurious as it sounds. Sudoku puzzles won't replace that accomplished feeling of a good day's work.

So what if we could have both? What if we could retain the stimulation of work and also embrace the true luxury of nondeferred living? That's the inclusive truth that more and more people are finding in working remotely.

It's the new luxury, and the definition is this: Freedom, time, and space. Freedom from that dreaded commute, from that productivity grinder of the traditional office, from being chained to the one city in which your employer happens to be located. Time to spend with friends and loved ones, to do what you really want outside work hours. Space to live and breathe.

But it's still early days and it's still "weird." Like Internet dating was in 1997. Remote working still reminds most people of either scammy signs at the side of the road that promise, "$1,000/day to work from home!" (without mentioning what the work is exactly) or social hermits who never leave their house or put clothes on before noon.

Reality is far more interesting than the lazy stereotypes would suggest. While working from home, or from a coffee shop or a coworking facility, has its drawbacks like anything, it at least offers a credible shot for working men and women to have a taste of true luxury. Access to more freedom, time, and space--without putting up with 30 years of deferred living.

While working remotely obviously frees you from the dreaded commute and the interruption factory of the office, it also lets you pick where to live. If you love to surf, why would you live in New York and only hit the waves a couple of weeks out of the year? If your greatest friends and family all live in D.C., why are you slaving away in Seattle?

Liberating yourself from the geography of work opens a whole new world of opportunities. It lessens the necessity of looking forward to retirement to finally live your life.

This new world was made possible due to progress in information technology, but the technology not only made living away from the city possible, it also made it much more desirable. It used to be that the city had a monopoly on all the luxurious amenities of modern civilization. The most books in the best libraries. The best cinemas showing the most movies. The best stadiums playing the most popular sports. And so on.

We now live in the future without even realizing it: Everyone with an Internet connection has access to (virtually) every book ever written, every album ever recorded, every movie ever directed, and every sports game playing live in incredible resolution. This dramatically opens the map for living ever farther away from the traditional city hub, while still having access to all the fruits of modern culture.

This is not going to stay a best-kept secret for long. Working without the commute, without the shackled office, and living in the place of your dreams, with access to all the world's culture, sounds like a science fiction utopia. But it's very real indeed. It's the future of luxury, and it's called remote work.

--David Heinemeier Hansson is the creator of the project-management tool Basecamp and the web framework Ruby on Rails. He's a best-selling author of REWORK and coauthor with Jason Fried of REMOTE: Office Not Required, released October 30, 2013. He's a partner at the software company 37signals and lives in Chicago, Malibu, and Marbella, Spain.

[Image: Flickr user Sarah Joy]

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21 Comments

  • Steve

    Living and working in an urban setting with all of the other advantages of both is equally outstanding.

  • StoryCentric

    What a great article that sums up the whole experience beautifully. You're also not even getting at the rewards of not having to deal with the exhausting grind of office politics. It's not for everyone; but as someone who spent 25 years as an executive, worked remotely as a solopreneur, then returned to being a corporate executive, I couldn't wait to return to my own client-based company where I can work remotely, with "face time" only as needed. I'm happier, just as successful, and feel my work and relationships are better. Perhaps the best compliment I received was "you're more available to me than the people who work for me here in the office!"

  • AB

    Love this. I worked from home for a year, and while it's not for everyone, I was so happy and relaxed. I recently started working for a company that requires me to be on-site and while I appreciate the work/home division and the social aspect, I miss creating my own environment that works best for me to be productive. I was in control of my time, I never got sick, my back hurt less because I didn't have to carry a laptop every day, and travel was never an issue since I could work from anywhere with a wifi network. Oh, and I ate better and more cheaply because I had my own kitchen at my disposal and didn't have to leave to eat.

  • Lisa - Good.Co

    So true! In this day and age, it almost seems silly how few companies realize the incredible mutual benefits to decentralizing a workforce. Besides being able to significantly downsize property holdings by reducing - or eliminating - the need for office space, they would almost certainly see a decrease in lost work hours that result from stress-related illness. I've taken to calling this kind of dramatic re-evaluation of the status quo 'thinking with portals', a phrase I nabbed from possibly the best video game ever made. Instead of constant reinvention of the wheel, 'thinking with portals' is about making more of the tools available by deconstructing your approach at a fundamental level.
    Thanks for the food for thought!

  • Brian

    I have never really worked away from office for an extended period of time, so I have some questions for those that have.

    Is it easier to procrastinate or be distracted when you are working in the comfort of your own home?

    Is it difficult to connect with co-worker without the face to face interpersonal interactions? Does that in term negatively affect the work efficiency?

  • MarkNH

    I wonder how many firms follow this manifesto or are planning to in the upcoming year? It can be a win-win for the firm and the worker if they can agree on what the expectation of works product actually is. I'm afraid in too many places it's the dreaded soul destroying meeting.

  • George

    As a business strategy consultant, the freedom of remote working also comes with the ability to remotely connect with other free workers. I went from utilizing a small group of specialist from finance to marketing to a network of the best minds I could find regardless of where they were located. Free from drudgery and free from a limited supply of human resources.

  • Becky Jewell

    I've worked from home for the past year or so. Before the year at home, my commute was about 15 miles, or 30 miles both ways. Since I did not commute for a year, the miles saved were 7,900 from the car and about 4 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Imagine the macro-level savings for thousands of larger vehicles every year if just a few more companies took their operations home.

    It's an exciting time.

  • Brian Love

    This article reminded me of the true luxury that I have as a remote worker. I live in Munich, Germany with my wife. We have traveled to over 7 countries in 3 months, and seen more of Europe than my entire extended family -- and I am still working for a company back in the states. Not to mention I am actually getting more work accomplished here than before!

  • Ivan

    It's probably technology related. Well, for doctors and other areas, we still need to be present in the company, but for services, like translating / making documents/ a new computer application, or a delivery system of hand-made products, remote work is waving to us.

  • Find a Coffice

    The size of the location-independent workforce will only increase as globalization advances, entrepreneurship flourishes and more people opt for freelance positions, instead of full time jobs. This is one of the reasons we created Coffices.

  • Tanya Thompson

    I work remotely and for a company I'm really passionate about. Thankfully my employers were forward-thinking 7 years ago and knew this was possible. One thing I do find when working remotely where most of the office does not, a sense of guilt and needing to prove yourself, thus working hours end up going way past office hours. Your life can then become unbalanced if you have family, so this is something to be conscious of. But all the other things you wrote about in this article are absolutely true and I wouldn't trade my remote working for going back to the office!