Interview: J.D. Alex on the Benefits of Remote Work Culture and Being an Effective Remote Work Advocate
J.D. advocated for remote work at Zoom, and when he was told he would not be able to work remotely, he voted with his feet and took on a remote role at GitLab. He then moved on to Stripe, where he is currently a Technical Sourcer.
Prior to the pandemic, very few companies offered remote work, so J.D had to campaign for the right to work remotely.
We talked to J.D. about his philosophy around remote work, what remote work culture looks like, and how to effectively promote remote work as a leader and as an employee.
How did it feel to be named one of Remote's top remote work influencers for 2022?
It felt really cool! It came as a surprise. I literally had no idea. They sent me an email saying I've been selected and asking if their writeup is accurate.
It felt good because I speak my piece on social media and then it's just that. There is rarely a back and forth. I don't argue with people. I'm not going to convince people that working remotely is the best thing for everyone.
If I'm being 100% transparent, I don't miss the office per se. But I understand why people miss the feeling associated with it. It's like going to church almost. People enjoy the idea of going but no one enjoys sitting there for an hour and just listening.
I guess that's a poor example.
I really don't think people enjoy sitting at a desk in an office in a temperature-controlled open-plan space. What they enjoy is the ritual, the tradition of going. And that's what I meant in it being similar to going to church.
It's like... we've been programmed to think and feel it's the right way to do things. And when it's suddenly removed, we start missing it.
People say, 'I miss going to the office', but nobody says 'I miss being at the office'. Nobody says, 'I missed the lunches'.
And that's the thing.
For instance, I love Portland. I love going to Portland. But do you know what I love more? Leaving Portland.
I love going to the city, eating some food, doing some shopping and coming home to this really small, super quaint town that I live in. That's how I picture office work.
What do you think about some of the reasoning behind the return to the office, such as the social aspect, company culture, and productivity?
For some people, there's the social aspect. But I'm not at work to make friends. I have friends and a community that I'm involved with. So that fulfils my social needs.
My wife and I were talking, and it'd be really hard to let go of remote work. If we had to put our kids in daycare, or get some sort of care for them, it would be about $3200 per month for two kids.
And again, I don't mean this in any way, shape, or form to be disrespectful. I know some people have to send their kids to daycare. We choose not to.
I grew up with a single parent and I was in daycare from 5.30 in the morning. First one dropped off. My mom was a single mother, a nurse in downtown Denver. So she was busy. She worked in the ER. And when she worked nights, I would go to the hospital with her and sleep in the doctor's lounge.
I had to be in daycare all day. That's just something my mom had to do. She had no choice.
But now we have these choices, at least some of us do.
And this is where I feel that some people get kind of offended. When I talk about remote work, I am speaking directly to people in tech. I'm not speaking to teachers or doctors. I'm not speaking to roadwork. I'm not speaking to that world.
I'm speaking to tech.
Tech has this opportunity to kind of change the game and just give people that option. And there's absolutely zero reason that anyone should have to be forced to be in the office anymore. If you don't want to work in the office, don't work in the office.
It doesn't affect the company either way.
I will be extremely combative if someone were to say, what about company culture, and what about making sure people's work gets done?
I'll tell you something right now. I've never worked less in my life than when I worked in the office itself. I did the last amount of work over the most amount of time.
I wish I would have taken pictures of this, but I remember how on Friday, everyone at my old office would just have their feet up. Music blasting, no one doing anything... because as a sales team, on Friday, everyone else had left for the weekend. And I thought to myself, 'Why am I here right now? Why?'
And I would ask the manager, 'Hey, I want to leave. Nobody is working. Can I go home?"
And the manager would say, 'No, you need to stay until like three or four depending on the shift you came in.'
It's just so aggravating to me. And again, if you want to go to the office, awesome. Stripe lets you do that. You want to do the office, do the office. You don't want to go? Don't go. Part-time? Sweet.
At Stripe, most of our offices are being revamped into co-working spaces. If you want to go to the office, you have an app on your phone to reserve a desk.
I also think that it's funny when companies say they won't offer remote work or remote work doesn't work.
But name me a major tech player right now that doesn't have multiple offices. If they have one office, they have multiple. So when you're speaking to people in the other office, you're technically working remotely. This was what Zoom was built for. To connect offices.
I'm a very strong believer in a company is not your family. It's not your community. It's just a network. It provides you with a salary and benefits and you provide it with whatever expertise you bring. And I like to keep my work and life extremely separate.
Yes, I'll share some personal stuff. I'll talk to a colleague. I'll be supportive. We may vent to each other and things like that.
But at the end of the day, I'm not going to your wedding. I'm probably not going to your birthday party. I have things in my life that fulfils me. Work fulfils a section of my life for me. That's how I want to keep it.
The idea that your company should be like your family can be toxic, can't it?
Extremely so! Like, say if I was robbing banks left and right. My mom would still love me. She would not agree. She would be disappointed. But she would still love me. Even if I'm doing things I shouldn't be doing, there will still be love from my family and friends.
But at my company, if I don't hit my metrics, I get fired. I can't go to them and say, 'Hey I thought we were family, where's the family support?'
Family helps family. They don't let go or cut ties.
Why do you believe remote work is important for the health of an organization?
I'll start by saying this first, so I can nip it in the bud right away. There are always going to be people that take advantage of a situation. There are always going to be people that, if your company offers remote work, they may not do what they should be doing.
Those same people will not perform in the office either.
I can already see people say things like, 'How do you know everyone's doing their work if you can't see them?' You're always going to get people who take advantage. But those people are few compared to the people that are producing.
And why do I think remote work is healthy for the company culture? It is an opportunity for people. But you've got to be diligent and you've got to work hard when building the company culture and offering remote work.
During my time at GitLab and my time at Stripe, I have worked closely with people in China, people in India, people in Europe, people in Africa, and people in Australia. I would not get that diversity if I was sitting in an office in downtown Denver with a bunch of white dudes.
We know that, across the board, there's an issue with underrepresented groups in tech. We know there's an issue with a lack of female leadership in tech, especially in sales and engineering.
I have never experienced a less diverse population than when I worked in an office.
One of my colleagues is now sharing recipes with me from his place of work in Nigeria. He sent me pictures of all the food they had at a wedding in Nigeria. I said, 'hey, I've heard this food can be crazy spicy, teach me how to make it!' So he sent me recipes.
That won't happen when I'm working with Joe Smith who is exactly like me and we're keeping our chats in the office on a surface level.
Now I get to see inside people's lives. And as much as I believe there is a separation between professional and personal life, it's about building a diverse network.
What do you think about Google asking employees to return?
Google is a place where I would love to work. It's a great technology. It's changed the world. It's insane. But when it comes to their office policy, I'll never understand the rationale of what these companies are fighting for at the end of the day.
Instead of forcing people to come to your office, why not open up the space to colleges? There's things you could do with these spaces. But I think at the end of the day, it's about the bottom line.
A company is there to do one thing, and only one thing. Make money. And until we realize that, we're going to be stuck in this trap of thinking they're our family. If you're not checking the boxes, nobody has your back.
What would you say to leaders who are hesitant about adopting remote work?
There are always hesitancies.
Take me for example. I grew up in cities my whole life and now I live in a town with a population of less than 4,000 people. There's one main road. There are no street lights.
And at first, I thought I'm never living anywhere but a city. I love the city, the convenience, and the intermingling of different cultures. And now? I'm literally faking a lumberjack lifestyle in the middle of a forest.
And I was hesitant. It took time, but it's been for the better. And I think that if someone, especially leadership, is heading towards remote work, they need to start with themselves.
It should start top-down. Perhaps the manager doesn't go to the office one day a week. They can then set boundaries and work through issues. If it works for a day, they can change it to two days or three days, whatever works for them.
But they have to try it. They can't just say it's not going to work because of x, without even experimenting. No experiment, whether social or physical, has ever worked without someone attempting it.
And when it comes to people saying, well, look at people's mental health and these suicide rates over the past two years, I'd say you can't really judge the lockdowns as real remote work.
We showed that it works. We showed that it's possible. But the whole world was on lockdown for like, 18 to 24 months. We couldn't live our lives like before or travel.
Before Covid, my wife and were in Europe with my 18-month-old son, travelling around the countries and visiting all these amazing places because of remote work.
I didn't take days off. I just worked when it worked for me and I was so much happier for it. I'm so much happier for it now.
And there are things that weigh down on us. I have two sick toddlers at home now, and that is extremely stressful. There's laundry to be done. The kitchen's probably a mess.
But you know what? I'm able to handle that. I'm able to take care of these things instead of leaving them for 10-12 hours of the day and just thinking about them or having them pile up, and coming home, and then not having time with my kids because I take care of all the housework.
No, we make our own schedules. We're both extremely productive. I mean, my wife is a kickass individual and a strong female professional at Zapier and she's crushing it. We work remotely and she hasn't stepped inside an office or met her team in person ever. To me, it's not even necessary.
What do you do to promote remote work in your current position?
Everyone I work with is remote. We have offices. And I believe that a couple of my teammates in New York go quite a bit. It's their choice.
Stripe has a wonderful remote culture. So it doesn't take a lot of promoting.
But I do promote async working. People know that I work extremely async and it's really surprising because I thought it was a very GitLab thing. But it's common at Stripe too.
I block out my schedule. I work Monday through Sunday. Not in a way where I don't have time off. I work through the day and spend time with my family at the same time. And then on the weekends, when my kids are napping or doing something where I'm not required, I'll come out to the office, I'll hop on my computer and knock out an hour of work and then go back in.
It just works for me. I enjoy it.
It's just another layer of remote work.
I think promoting a healthy async mentality is important to working remotely. I won't respond instantly if you send me a message. But I will get you the information, and no one is going to die without it in the meantime.
I think my team has a very healthy appreciation of async working and giving each other the space we need.
Also, it's great knowing that we can do our jobs and, unlike in the office, nobody is going to just come over and bug us. We can be in the zone.
Here, there is nothing ruining my concentration. My family is inside. I have my own office. I'm separate for now.
And that's the one thing I think that remote leaders need to understand. Remote is awesome. It works. But you have to let it be remote.
So, I have a friend who works remotely. He is a software engineer. And he interviewed with a remote company and they told him they expect him to be online 9 to 5 and to answer all his messages. Why does he need to be answering messages from 9 to 5? There's no reason.
I told him that's a red flag and I wouldn't accept the offer because it's only going to get worse.
Would you say going remote without offering asynchronous work is a huge missed opportunity?
Who am I to tell someone when they work best? So I'm a sourcer. I love doing my screens and interviews during the day, I love sourcing at night.
I can go inside. I can get a snack. My kids are asleep. And I am focused for an hour or two, just sourcing people. And I love it. And my managers don't say, 'Oh you can't do that! No, no, no, I need you to be productive only when we say you can be productive!'
That doesn't work for anybody ever unless you're a professional athlete.
That's another pet peeve of mine, when people compare work to being a professional athlete. And I'm not much of an athlete, unless you count typing speed as athletic prowess maybe.
Where do you see remote work in five years?
Remote work is not going anywhere.
We all know that if you're not giving people the remote option, you're missing out on top-level talent. The first question asked by candidates in the past six months has not been about compensation. The first question asked by candidates is, 'do you offer remote'?
Even if people don't take full advantage of remote work, they want to know they have that option.
In the next five years or so, I see lots of organizations, especially smaller organizations, say to themselves 'hey, why wouldn't we start remote and save money on office space'?
Especially in the Bay Area and other tech spot pop-ups, like Boulder, Austin, Miami...
So small companies can save money and hire more people, or hire junior people to bring them up in the organization. They can offer more opportunities for underrepresented groups to get involved.
And then there's the big ones, too. Large companies with office space could partner up. They could say, 'hey, look, we don't want to have our offices anymore. You don't want to have your offices anymore. Why don't we both just get together and form a pod of coworking spaces?'
That way, companies can go remote, but if they want an office in a central location, they are splitting the tab with other companies looking for coworking spaces.
In the next five years, remote work is going to blow up even more.
You're going to see more advancements in the home office set up and companies will come up with ways to be more connected.
But companies that offer it now are going to get a head start. They're going to be able to hire at a much higher rate than companies that don't.
Because at the end of the day, if any company came to me and said, 'we're going to pay you $500,000 a year, but you have to move to Palo Alto and work in the office full-time', I'd say 'hell no, I'm not doing that, it's just not on the cards.'
That's a lot more than what I make right now, by the way.
And I know people would say, 'that's insane'! Because it's so much money. But I'm making enough money to be happy right now where I live doing what I am doing and spending more time doing things I enjoy doing.
Allow me to be productive at work, rather than being stuck in an office and having to use the weekends to be like, okay, let's cram everything else in.
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