They Led the Cult of Remote Work. Now We’re All Members.
It only took a pandemic for us to live in Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson’s remote work fantasy
“Obviously, the news is a big deal,” said Jason Fried on a call last week. The markets were spiraling, his hometown of Chicago had just issued a stay-at-home order, and the coronavirus pandemic seemed to permeate every aspect of life. “But otherwise, it’s absolutely no different than any other workweek in the past 20 years.”
Fried wasn’t being sarcastic. The author, blogger, podcaster, and co-founder/CEO of Basecamp — a remote project management platform that was sort of Slack before there was Slack — was at his home office 15 minutes outside of downtown Chicago. Meanwhile, his CTO co-founder, co-author, co-blogger, and co-podcaster, David Heinemeier Hansson, was thousands of miles away at his home office in Malibu, California. And if they stayed off Twitter and ignored the howls of frustrated children (their own) who should be at school or daycare, they could almost pretend that the world wasn’t falling apart.
Basecamp has been a virtual company for all of its 21 years. And apart from a dozen or so temporarily displaced workers at the company’s headquarters in Chicago, all 50-something of its employees were in their usual personal headquarters — behind laptops and monitors in remote offices across the country and around the world, including one guy in the middle of a forest on a lake in Canada. “That part of the equation is really unchanged,” Heinemeier Hansson says. “Self-isolation and a normal workday for us — they kind of look like each other.”
Tireless promoters of contrarian views about the workplace, the tech industry, and Silicon Valley, the duo have long hoisted themselves onto every platform and medium available.
But as Covid-19 clamped down hard on Americans’ lives and companies trepidatiously scrambled en masse to shift their workforces online, Fried and Heinemeier Hansson couldn’t ignore this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to evangelize a philosophy of work — and their personal brand — that they had been talking about, and living, for years. Tireless promoters of contrarian views about the workplace, the tech industry, and Silicon Valley, the duo have long hoisted themselves onto every platform and medium available — TED Talks, their Signal v. Noise blog, their weekly Rework podcasts, YouTube, three books, including a New York Times bestseller — to tout the benefits of bootstrapping, staying small, growing slow, and to rail against venture capital, IPOs, tech industry monopolies, 100-hour workweeks, physical offices, and, perhaps their favorite target, the meeting.
“We can’t seem to figure out how to shut up,” Heinemeier Hansson says. “I suppose that does help the business, sometimes, by raising awareness. Other times, it hurts the business, when people think we’re idiots.”
Heinemeier Hansson confesses that in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. he spent a good amount of energy “channeling furious outrage with the tons of companies that were way too slow with following medical guidelines, doing the reasonable, kind, and safest thing of letting people work from home.” Putting the call out to his 395,000-plus Twitter followers, Heinemeier Hansson received hundreds of messages, then named and shamed dozens of companies — including Accenture, ATT, Cognizant, Epic Systems, Tesla, SpaceX, and Wells Fargo — in an archived thread that’s gotten millions of views. “I outed dozens and dozens of companies for having shitty policies and, in some cases, even keeping the office open after they had active Covid-19 cases,” he says.
Heinemeier Hansson, a serious amateur race car driver with chiseled cheekbones, comes across as a bomb-throwing Nordic James Bond. (He plays to type: In January, he also testified in front of the House Antitrust Committee on Big Tech’s tightening monopolistic grip on the internet.) Fried, a vintage watch collector, projects more of a cool professor vibe, surprisingly modest and self-effacing given his brand of fame and influence in entrepreneurial circles.
Fried started writing software as a somewhat dorky teenager growing up in an affluent Chicago suburb. He opened a web design shop called 37 Signals with a couple of friends in 1999. Heinemeier Hansson, from Denmark, got his first computer at age six. In 2001, he sent Fried a programming question — he’d been reading an early iteration of Fried’s blog — and ended up getting hired to build (remotely) some project management software to help coordinate 37 Signals’ growing workload.
That product eventually became Basecamp — and in 2004, Heinemeier Hansson also spun out Ruby on Rails, the now-iconic open source software framework that grew out of his work on Basecamp and has since been used to launch roughly a gazillion web applications. After graduating from the Copenhagen Business School with a bachelor’s degree in business and computer science, Heinemeier Hansson moved to the United States in 2005 to join Fried’s company. The two have been inseparable — spiritually, if not physically — ever since, as they shifted their business model away from software consulting to software-as-a-service, changed the company name to Basecamp in 2014, and grew to serve more than 6 million monthly users today.
Since the virus hit, sign-ups for Basecamp — which is profitable, with annual revenue in the tens of millions, according to the company — were up 25%. But rival virtual work platforms — from wildly popular but less comprehensive services like Slack and Zoom to more directly comparable project management tools such as Asana and Trello — were also seeing a surge. So Heinemeier Hansson and Fried made a point of getting out in front of those users, old and new, to offer reassurance and advice. They’ve also been virtually “stopping in” at companies that have asked them to speak with employees about going remote, and have given away some 600 copies of their 2013 distributed working bible, Remote: Office Not Required. “I never charge for my speaking engagements,” Fried says.
As Zoom quickly became the pandemic’s go-to lifeline for businesses, it irked them to see how companies of all sizes — in a blind rush to go remote — were merely replicating the worst aspects of the workplaces they’d left behind.
On Tuesday, they hosted their second Twitch livestream, a Q&A on remote working — Fried in a baseball cap and sweatshirt, and Heinemeier Hansson with gelled-back hair and a T-shirt, both sporting scruffy near-beards — guiding an online audience, which peaked at about 250, through the nitty-gritty of remote project management for nearly two hours. Imagine Bill Gates — or a lower-budget, indie version of Bill Gates — showing off some of his favorite tricks for optimizing Windows. “We don’t normally spend hours doing product walk-throughs, and in normal times it’s not necessary to do that,” Heinemeier Hansson says. “But these are not normal times.”
The duo manage to toe a fine line between self-promotion and selflessness. The webinar was understandably Basecamp-centric — the company still uses its own software for internal project management — but much of their advice could be generalized to other tools and other workplaces. “Find whatever works for you,” Fried says. “What I would just encourage people not to try to spin up four or five or six separate products right now. You’re just making things difficult for yourself.”
More than pitching a product, though, what they most want — sincerely, it seems — is to make sure that people who find themselves suddenly thrust into working remotely actually have a chance to “get” what’s good about it. Fried and Heinemeier Hansson tell me this over the course of two interviews, conducted separately and — if you can believe it — over the phone. Fried had pushed back, firmly, at my suggestion to connect via video chat. “Phone seems perfectly fine with me,” he emailed. Faced with the prospect of even one more virtual meeting than was absolutely necessary, the guys who wrote the book on virtual work just couldn’t.
As Zoom quickly became the pandemic’s go-to lifeline for businesses, it irked them to see how companies of all sizes — in a blind rush to go remote — were merely replicating the worst aspects of the workplaces they’d left behind. “Having video conferences all day long is totally the wrong direction,” Fried says. “The beauty of remote working is the opportunity to improve the way you work, to cut way back on meetings, to cut back on the number of people that need to be involved in any decision, to cut back on the need to FaceTime constantly.”
When the pandemic eventually subsides, quarantines lift, and companies start returning to their offices — behavior across corporate America will be forever changed.
Heinemeier Hansson and Fried’s feelings about meetings are well known among their followers: They are terrible, too long, almost always unnecessary, “the ultimate time suck.” Most meetings can simply be replaced with writing, Heinemeier Hansson says. “Instead of sitting around at a table with your team and, one by one, describing what you’re working on, we have each person jot down what they’re going to work on that week,” he says. That can be a couple lines or a few paragraphs, but the point is that others get to read at their leisure, not at a mandatory Monday meeting where everything else stops. “The great thing about working asynchronously is you get to string together long stretches of uninterrupted time, and you get to do the great creative work that only happens when you have long stretches of uninterrupted time,” Heinemeier Hansson says.
Fried and Heinemeier Hansson, whose most recent book is titled It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work, have long advocated for a more humane version of work life than the one promoted by startup culture at large. They’re big fans of the 40-hour workweek, families, and a good night’s sleep. But that whole work-life balance thing, Fried warns, can get even trickier once you’re working remotely. “Most people initially think that people are going to slack off at home,” he says. “Actually, because there’s not as much separation, the bigger risk is overwork.”
Right now, especially, they want managers to scale back their ambitions and expectations, because the risk of burnout is so high. Even for the guys who wrote the book on remote working, it’s no picnic. “We can’t pretend that just because we’re a remote company already doing this for 20 years that we’re going to be firing on all cylinders,” Heinemeier Hansson says. “You can’t expect people to have 100% of their faculty and attention available for work when the world is in the biggest upheaval that most people at Basecamp have ever been through.”
About half of Basecamp’s employees are parents, says Fried, who is married and has two kids, ages one and five. “It’s important for companies to recognize that there’s no such thing as a full-time job right now for most people who have kids at home,” he says. “They’re doing their best, but they’re not really putting in a full day’s work.” Heinemeier Hansson, who has been sheltering in place with his wife and their three kids, ages six months, four, and seven, says there’s been “a lot of screaming,” especially between the seven- and four-year-old. “We’re all on edge. Adults just internalize it. Kids verbalize it into screams.”
Even if your company already has some familiarity with remote work and the tools for doing it — as many tech companies and smaller businesses already do — don’t underestimate the time it takes to get everybody on board, even at the basic proficiency level. “If you threw a guitar at me, and I’ve never played a guitar before, everyone would understand that I’m going to suck,” Fried says. “It’s the same thing for remote work. If people haven’t practiced before, they’re going to suck for a little bit.”
Companies need to prioritize, says Heinemeier Hansson, whose main focus now, as CTO, is making sure the Basecamp platform doesn’t melt down in this real-life stress test. “If [we have] any outage — even a short one — now, it would be even more catastrophic than usual,” he says. “I feel a great responsibility to make sure that our systems are resilient, fast, safe, and secure.” To that end, he and Fried made the call to delay launching any new features and products for now, including Hey, a new email service that had been scheduled for an April release. “Who the fuck wants to hear about a new email product right now?” he says.
Although their message and product seem ideally suited for the current moment, there’s also built-in uncertainty for them. “While we might be picking up a bunch of new customers, we might be losing a bunch too,” Fried says. “A lot of our customers are small business owners, and small businesses are getting hit really hard right now. I’m less worried about losing business to competitors than losing business because companies are closing or cutting a cost.” Heinemeier Hansson believes the worst is yet to come: “We’re in the eye of the storm, and in about two seconds, it’s going to move and shit is going to start flying and then all our plans are going to be out the window.”
What is certain, however, is that when the pandemic eventually subsides, quarantines lift, and companies start returning to their offices — hordes of commuters once again grumbling about delayed trains and bumper-to-bumper traffic and spilled coffee— behavior across corporate America will be forever changed. “My hope is that people look back at this time and see that they ended up getting a lot done and people enjoyed it,” Fried says. “And that it will spur companies to revisit the way they work.”