Long Distance Relationships That Work: Myths and Promises of Remote Work

Jim Kalbach

The nature of work is fundamentally changing. Our companies and teams are increasingly distributed. And the freelance economy is booming: by some estimates 50% of US workers will be freelancers by 2020.

In this talk, I’ll present the results of some original research and share examples from the field. I’ll also show how the possibilities and limitations of digital technology fundamentally change the very nature of “work.”

I’ll also highlight some of the myths of remote work, in general, and then take a critical look at some of the potential benefits.

Developing strong remote skills and cultures is no longer a nice to have: it’s imperative for any success business moving forward. Participants will come away from this talk with broader understanding of the myths and promises of remote work.


Thanks to everyone for showing up. It’s great to be here. This is me, Jim Kalbach. You can follow me on Twitter @jimkalbach. I’m the Head of Customer Success at Mural. If you don’t know Mural, it’s an online whiteboard. It’s a virtual whiteboard that you can access through your browser. It’s great for UX design with remote teams. I’m the author of Mapping Experiences, that’s the latest book that I wrote. It just came out last year.

I’m really glad that Eli went before me talking about some of the benefits and sustainable aspects around remote work. I’ll talk about some of the benefits, but I wanted to talk about remote work and capitalizing on those benefits. A lot of people struggle with remote work. I wanted to frame it that way. How do we make remote work, work?

I want to start with a quote from Henry Ford. He said, around the turn of the last century: “Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?” At the time, going to work meant going to a place. You were a factory worker. Only very few people were managers and leaders of a company. Most people were workers and they worked with their hands. We talk about a hired hand, right? A hundred years ago, you used to hire somebody for their manual labor. But around 1950 or so, Peter Drucker for one recognized the shift. Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, coined the term “knowledge worker”. He wrote of the 21st century, around 1950 or 1960, he wrote: “The most valuable asset in the 21st century institution will be its knowledge workers and their productivity.” There was a shift from working with your hands to working with information or working with your brains. You were hired for what you know, not how strong you were or what you could do with your hands. Of course, once we’re talking about work being information, working with information, we connect to each other and everything is digital, the concept of remote work is now a reality. Here are just some signs of the uptick of remote work. We’ve seen in the past five or so years a focus on remote work in magazines, websites where you can find remote jobs, full length books on the topic, and people starting to talk more and more about remote work. This is the reality of our organizations these days. I have a little bit more on that from a survey that we once did.

There are a lot of benefits to this, and Eli hit on some of these in different ways. There’s flexibilities with your schedule; being able to spend different times of the day with your family and things like that. Costs less. Companies are reducing their real estate footprint by having fewer offices and things like that. Reduced commute time. It’s not just the commute time, it’s the amount of cars and pollution. Eli gave some nice statistics there on the amount of carbon that you might produce from commuting to work. I know Americans spend an awful lot of time in their cars. It’s unhealthy, not only for themselves physically, but it’s unhealthy for the environment. There are lots of benefits. These are just some of them. There are lots of benefits that people have identified around remote work in general. A lot of those can be traced back to themes and topics in sustainability in general. Again, Eli highlighted some of those.

Of course, there are disadvantages of remote work. Isolation, lack of routine, natural communication is a lot harder, you’re missing that social aspect, and then, of course, then we’re dependent on our technologies. We may be less dependent on our cars and things like that, but now we’re very dependent on technology. That brings its own challenges and struggles as well.

What I want to talk about is not necessarily the sustainable aspects of remote work, but in order for remote work to actually have an impact on sustainability, on the environment, on our own personal health and things like that, we have to make remote work work for us. I think there are a lot of misconceptions and myths around remote work. That’s what I want to focus on here in the body of my presentation. Some of the myths that I’ve seen or noticed and studied myself around remote work.

The first one is, remote work is new. I just mentioned in the past five years there’s been an uptick in remote work. But actually remote work goes back much further. By the way, when I say remote work, I’m not talking about taking your work somewhere and working on it by yourself. I’m talking about remote collaboration. The idea of working in a team or working with a company that is distributed. That’s what I mean here in this presentation when I say remote work, you can think about remote collaboration. But actually remote collaboration isn’t new. There’s been some experiments and examples from the late ’60s. I think a landmark study is this one here. This is the title of a book called The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff by Jack Nilles. He coined the term telecommuting. Telecommuting comes from Jack Nilles. This was in 1973. He wrote this study in a book in 1976. He was specifically looking at the tradeoff between costs of commuting physically with your car, moving from point A to point B, versus telecommuting. It’s a very, very in-depth study going back to 1976. In 1976, we had people starting to think about the potential sustainability aspects of telecommuting. He finds that, yes, there are potential benefits there. The tradeoff does favor, for things like costs and pollution and things like that, it does favor telecommunications. But I think we’ve struggled with a lot of those things that I’ve pointed out, as well. Communication, technology, isolation, and things like that. In order for us to realize these benefits, I think we need to make remote collaboration work in lots of different ways. That’s what I want to continue talking about. The first idea, that remote work is new, is a myth that goes back 40 years or more, actually.

The next point I want to make is that remote work means being far away. We think about remote work or distributed team working on the east coast and the west coast in the U.S. or even across continents. I happen to be traveling right now. I’m in Germany. I’m broadcasting here from Germany. You think about remote work across time zones or continents or even oceans. But that’s not necessarily true. We actually do remote work pretty much all the time. Anytime we’re mediating our communication, our collaboration, through a computer, you could consider that remote work. A professor at MIT, professor Allen, Allen is his last name, came up with this curve called the Allen Curve from studies of collaboration in an office space. He found that frequency of communication drops with distance. When you’re about 71 meters, or 200 feet, away from your colleagues, the frequency of communication with that person, or the patterns of communication, are near equivalent to being in a separate location. Being separated by time zones or an ocean or something like that. If you work in a large office, or a campus maybe, you have multiple buildings in your company, or floors. You’re working with colleagues who are a floor or two above you, you may chat with them on Slack or send an email, or join a common Skype call or something, rather than getting together. That’s all remote work. I think we’ve all done that. So the Allen Curve shows us that working remotely or collaborating through your computer is actually something we do quite frequently and we’re motivated to do that when the distance is short, even just across the room or in the other floor of your building. What this really means is that presence matters. When we think about remote collaboration, the idea of being present. That manifests in many different ways. The little green circle on Slack or Skype showing that you’re there, but also answering quickly and communicating and engaging with your colleagues if you’re remote. but presence really does matter in remote collaboration. Here’s an example of the double robotics remote robot, where in a remote office you can drive around as an iPad or tablet device and move over to your colleagues as if you were there. But you have a presence in the office through this kind of technology. So technology is changing. But I think our habits and behaviors also need to change. I think the point to remember is that presence matters. When you’re collaborating, being available and showing you’re there is important to make remote work successful.

The next myth I want to talk about is the idea of remote work being permanent. I’ve worked remote from a home office for much of my career. At least for the past 15 years in different jobs with different companies. I was separated from my office but I would travel. It wasn’t all the time that I was out of the office or away from my colleagues face-to-face. So the idea that remote work is permanent is also not true. We do get together and see each other face-to-face, even if we’re working on different coasts and things like that. Or even if you take Friday off or work from a Starbucks, you can consider that remote work. But it may not be permanent. We move in and out of remote again. Whether it’s communicating with your colleague on the next floor, or going to a Starbucks for an afternoon, or if you are physically distributed, that situation changes as well. Remote work isn’t necessarily a permanent condition.

The fourth myth that I want to point to is that remote work is up to the remote person. Particularly when you have a central office, a headquarters. You may be tempted to set up a meeting where you have a conference room and there’s a group of people there in the conference room. Their communication patterns are going to be a lot more fluid and quicker than the communication with the remote person. You tend to get this here and there type of situation. Where the people in the office are here and the people who are on a conference call are there. It’s up to the remote person, They’re remote so they have to figure out how to butt in and ask a question or help make a decision. Or the one that I love, when you draw on the whiteboard and you say to the person on the phone, “You can’t see this.” I think it’s up to everybody. If one person in a group is remote, the whole team is remote. That’s a behavioral thing. You might notice a lot of these myths point to behaviors, not technology. I personally don’t think the problem with remote work is technology. I think it’s behaviors and attitude. That’s why I want to expose these myths.

Here’s a picture of a design workshop. These people are going to be able to collaborate at a different pace and in a different way than somebody on the phone. If you have a phone on that table, the people listening and trying to participate in this conversation are going to have a different experience and a more difficult time. But I contend it’s up to everybody to think about how the remote collaboration is going. Whether that’s a healthy and balanced collaboration or not. It’s up to all of us, regardless if we’re face-to-face or not, to think about remote collaboration.

Finally, you can work from anywhere. You hear that a lot, too. Might be kind of true. I know things like co-working spaces are cropping up. So you can work from different cities. Those are also very efficient. You get high use of workspace, high use of things like your internet connection and electricity and things like that. Co-working spaces, I think, in general, are a sustainable move. The digital nomads, as they’re called, can work from anywhere. But when we’re talking about business collaboration, I think you do need to think about your environment in lots of respects. Background noise, whether you can concentrate or not. Focus, and things like that. Or my favorite one, working from the beach. We always have this romantic notion of working from the beach. But if you’ve ever taken your computer out in the sun in your backyard, you know you can’t see it. People aren’t working from the beach like in those pictures that you see.

But with remote UX, I think it’s different. It’s different from doing a conference call and listening to people’s voices. When you talk about UX and design, it’s visual. We have to diverge. It’s not linear. You don’t go through bullet points on by one. You’re trying to explore problems. You don’t know where it’s going to take you. That’s hard to do through a Skype call or remote sometimes. It’s also iterative. Very often remote work tends to be scheduled. You don’t have that spontaneous ability to think through ideas and come back to them in an iterative way. I think one of the challenges when we talk about remote work and then talk about remote design, I think remote design is where we particularly need better skills. If we can make remote design function and work for us, then we can gain the benefits that remote work has, and I and Eli pointed out.

To better understand this, my company Mural did a survey at the end of 2015. We have one going now that we should have ended in December but it’s still open. We surveyed 275 designers from around the world. Mostly digital product designers. I want to talk about some of the highlights from the survey that we did at the end of 2015.

What we found is that pretty much everybody is working remote at some point in time. The frequency of remote work was one of the questions that we asked. Over 2/3 of the people are doing it all the time or most of the time. Only a few people say sometimes or never. Remote design, this was specifically asking about remote design, asking designers about trying to design with a remote team, it’s very prevalent. I actually stopped asking this question, “Do you work remote?” and asked people, “How do you work remote? How do you get by as a designer?” Here’s the one that was troubling. This was from 2015. We asked, “Does the quality of your design work go up or down with a remote condition?” About half of the people said it’s worse or much worse. I think that’s the problem. That’s the point of my presentation. We’re in these situations where our companies are distributed, our teams are distributed, and we’re expected to perform, but we feel that the quality of our work suffers. In order for us as designers to function better and again, by association, reap the benefits of a more sustainable, balanced work life, I think we need to make remote design work for us better.

I want to give a quick example. We work with Intuit, a big tax software company in the U.S. We did a case study where we were working with a team of participants. One in California and another group of people in the Philippines. We were using our laptops, Mural, the online whiteboard served as the platform. We were doing a service blueprint exercise. We had iPads and laptops and obviously a webcam and we had a conference call going with the group in the Philippines. On the right of this image, you’ll see the Microsoft Surface hub. This is a large 84″ touchscreen TV with high resolution and high touch sensitivity. At times, in this particular picture, we happen to all be sitting down. But we stood up and facilitated from the touchscreen. This is all cloud-based. Mural is a cloud-based application. Anything that anyone added on any of their devices got added to the whiteboard and was immediately visible to anybody else, whether they were in California or in the Philippines. It was a very interesting experiment to see if we could do a full service blueprinting exercise without using a sticky note. The sticky notes you see in the background on the wall are from a completely different project. But we successfully did it. Not only that, it was quicker, and when we got done, we didn’t have to take pictures of the whiteboard and send them around as JPGs that no one can read. Or type them up. Spent a lot of my career typing up sticky notes. State of the art technology for design in the 21st century is sticky notes and butcher paper. That’s great but that assumes you’re going to be face-to-face. I think when we talk about remote work as being something that can help sustainability, we need to make remote collaboration, or remote design in particular, we need to make that really work for us. That’s what we’re committed to do at Mural.

I want to quickly show you Mural. I should sharing the Mural that we worked on in that workshop that I was talking about. You’ll see here that Mural is an online whiteboard that you can zoom in and out of. We were doing this service blueprinting exercise here. You can zoom in, kind of like Google Maps. But we created the map. If you add a sticky note here, from the lefthand toolbar, I drop that in and now it’s in the cloud and all of the collaborators, just like Google Docs, you can have multiple people in it at once time, they all see that happen as well.

When you think about remote design and the visual challenges that you have, I think tools like InVision are great. Slack, obviously, has been a game changer. InVision is great for prototyping. I think Mural complements those, with a virtual whiteboard that you can draw on and add sticky notes to and screenshots and things like that. In this example that I showed, we were able to get through a service blueprinting exercise with folks in the Philippines and not using a sticky note.

If you want to learn more, you can go to We have a free trial for 30 days. You can also find on, I don’t know if anyone has mentioned that resource. Erik Flowers, who was pictured in that picture that I had, runs this website. He’s got a nice little demo of how to use Mural for service design. He’s got some great resources there. A whole community of service designers as well over there. That’s a shout out to Erik’s group.

I started the presentation talking about hired hands and talked about knowledge workers, working with your brain. But this was a really interesting article that I happened to come across. There’s nothing particularly special about this article but some of the thoughts in here are really, really interesting. He’s talking about another shift from the knowledge economy to what he calls the human economy. We went from manual labor to knowledge work, he’s saying we’re moving from knowledge workers to what he calls the human economy. Basically, in the human economy he talks about passion, human qualities of collaboration. He writes: “In the human economy, the most valuable workers will be hired hearts.” If 150 years ago, we were hired hands, manual labor, and working with information, now he’s talking about the future being about passion and whether you have a common vision and things like that. I bring that up because I think when you talk about remote work, people complain about the technology. I know all of the problems of technology. We’ve experienced them on this call here today. “Can you see my screen? Can you hear me?” You waste time doing that. I get that. But I think that for remote collaboration to work, for remote design to really work, so that we do have the benefits of sustainability, I think it’s about teamwork. I think it’s about passion. I think it’s about being together, being on the same page as a team. That goes a long way. If your heart is in it, you can do a lot.

Mapping Experiences
The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff
Practical Service Design
From the Knowledge Economy to the Human Economy


Jim Kalbach is a noted author, speaker, and instructor in user experience design, information architecture, and strategy. He is currently Head of Customer Success at Mural, the leading online whiteboard. Jim has worked with large companies such as eBay, Audi, Sony, Elsevier Science, Lexis Nexis, and Citrix. He has worked on several projects with O’Reilly, including two books: Designing Web Navigation (2007) and Mapping Experiences (2016), which focuses on the role of visualizations in strategy and innovation.