Shift to Remote Work Based on 7,000+ Hacker News Job Posts
The COVID-19 pandemic has generated many headlines for remote work. Microsoft is letting employees work up to 50% of their time from home. Stripe is paying a $20k bonus for employees to relocate out of cities with high cost of living. Dropbox and Shopify are foregoing headquarters in the traditional sense altogether to become remote first.
Indeed it sure feels like everyone is leaning into remote work. But how is it backed up by data? Can we quantify the remote shift? Can we observe the data over time? Can we extrapolate the data to form views about the post-pandemic world?
To answer these questions, I parsed "Who is Hiring" posts on Hacker News. The monthly hiring thread goes live on the 1st of every month and on average 500+ companies respond with job openings. Companies are encouraged to specify whether a position is remote or onsite. This dataset is interesting because it captures temporal shifts and represents a broad sampling of the tech industry.
Chronicling the Remote Shift
Let's start by looking at how many companies advertised permanent remote positions as well as the proportion of those companies in relation to all companies. Note that a pandemic remote position that is expected to revert to onsite is not a permanent remote position and not tracked in this analysis. From here on, remote means permanent remote.
The data naturally lends itself to splitting into four periods.
January–March: The pre-pandemic business as usual
The first three months of 2020 are essentially free of the impacts of COVID-19. During these months 33-34% of companies posting jobs on Hacker News were hiring remote positions. These months serve as a baseline.
April–July: The hiring freeze
Job post volumes dropped 33% MoM in April and stayed subdued for the following three months as companies grappled with macroeconomic uncertainties and remote transition disruptions. However, the drop in companies advertising remote positions was much less severe (20% MoM drop in April) compared to those that were hiring onsite only (40% MoM drop in April).
Simultaneously a rapid mix shift took place as companies changed their stance on hiring remote employees. In March, the last unaffected month, only 34% of companies advertised remote positions. By July, that number ballooned to 54%.
August–November: The new normal
Hiring roared back from August onward with job post volumes exceeding Q1 months. The shift towards remote continued during these months and eventually stabilized with 67–68% of companies posting remote jobs by October and November. Overall, the proportion had more than doubled from 33% — truly a sea change in the hiring landscape in the short span of a year.
December–January: Post vaccine announcement
With Pfizer-BioNTech announcing landmark COVID-19 vaccine trial results in November and the vaccine receiving FDA approval in December, companies could finally start creating a timeline for a return to normalcy.
However, this did not translate to a reversion in hiring trends where more companies asked candidates to report to the office post-COVID. If anything, the remote hiring trend continued edging upwards, with 70% of companies posting remote jobs in January 2021.
Blossoming of Remote First
A progressive subset of remote hiring companies are remote first companies. Remote first companies assume by default that employees work remotely though they may still have onsite employees for various reasons. Their workflows and internal processes are built around remote work. For a discussion on various flavors of remote first, refer to "Why Remote Friendly Won’t Do".
Remote first companies are a rare breed — they were rare before the pandemic and they still are. But their numbers have doubled during the pandemic.
In January, 6% of companies — or 34 out of 545 companies — were describing themselves as remote first. That number doubled by December, 12% of companies — or 75 out of 644 — claimed being remote first.
If the first chart was significant for showing remote-resistant companies becoming open to permanent remote work, this second chart is significant because it shows companies that were already remote friendly going further to establish remote as the default mode of work.
Drivers Behind the Remote Shift
What are the drivers behind this shift? There is no easy way to extract intent from the Hacker News data. However, the job posts occasionally offer glimpses into the thinking processes. Here's an attempt to distill anecdotes into takeaways:
First, companies are increasingly accepting remote candidates because they sense the broader market is shifting. Job posts mention "cultural tides shift[ing]" and a sense of "doubt [that] it will ever go back". Hiring managers realize that remote work is quickly becoming a necessity to remain competitive in the talent market.
Second, everyone was thrust into remote work and many teams thrived almost unexpectedly. Companies wrote in job posts that they "went fully remote when COVID-19 hit and ... aren't going back" and that "it's been going great". For these companies the pandemic was an unforeseen opportunity to reassess their office policy with fresh eyes.
Third, some companies had been gradually adding more remote employees to their ranks over time and the pandemic provided a catalyzing moment to formalize their remote stance. For example, FullStory started the pandemic with 25% of its employees remote. In September they announced the decision "go remote" because they felt they "needed to take a more long-term stance".
Lastly, though not a pandemic-specific driver, the strategic benefits of remote hiring is broadly resonating. Companies cite access to world class talent, diversity in thinking, and proximity to local customers as key advantages for going remote. These benefits are likely to be amplified for companies headquartered in smaller talent markets and those that serve a distributed customer base.
What will Happen in 2021?
The big question is whether the shift to remote hiring has staying power. As companies eventually start re-opening offices in 2021, will they revert back to onsite only hiring? Will the newly remote first companies roll back their stance? No one can say for sure, but here are a few observations that make me think the new baseline for remote work will be much higher:
First, the above analysis captures only permanent and not temporarily remote positions. These hires are not expected to report to the office after the pandemic. Companies that have welcomed permanent remote employees for the first time to their ranks will be held to their commitments to supporting them even once the office reopens. And once you allow a part of your team to be permanently remote it becomes hard to disallow it for further team members.
Second, I expect the shift to remote first in particular to be sticky. These were highly deliberate decisions on company culture that required re-writing the social contract with employees. Imagine having to ask your team to relocate back to headquarters after your remote first announcement gave them the green light to move out. Reducing organizational entropy will require much more effort than increasing it.
Third, remote work tools are getting better and teams are developing, adopting, and spreading best practices that will reduce friction in remote work. Everything from running payroll to whiteboarding will get dramatically easier as the ecosystem matures. More workers that have experienced the benefit of remote work will ask for it and companies will have less reasons to refuse it.
Follow me on Twitter @_shinkim as I continue exploring these trends.
Thanks to Yin Wu and Chris Cheng for reviewing drafts of this article.
 I use companies as the atomic unit instead of positions or job posts. For example, multiple positions advertised within a single post or across several posts are consolidated as one record.
 If a company is open to both onsite and remote (even if the preference is towards onsite), the position is still a remote position for this analysis.
 The March data is not impacted by COVID-19 given most companies respond to the Hacker News thread in the first few days of the month. Many parts of Europe and the United States went into lockdown in mid-to-late March.
 For the purposes of this analysis, remote first includes remote equal (very few), remote first, and remote only companies. I did not count remote friendly companies as the descriptor is ambiguous. Read “How Remote is Remote Enough?” for a full discussion of the different types.
 Remote first disclosures are voluntary and unprompted on Hacker News. So it is possible that some remote first companies do not mention this attribute in their hiring advertisement on any given month. As a result, the uptick in data may partially represent more remote first companies merely including this information in their job post.
 FullStory’s December post on Hacker News says that they strive to be remote equal.