Weighing in on the Remote Work Argument

Nov 11, 2020 | Innovation, Technology

In a post I wrote back in April, the early days of the pandemic, I posited that many companies will ‘adopt a full or partial work from home schedule’ post-COVID. It’s now November, more than 8 months into the pandemic, and I’m more convinced that the way people work will be forever altered. This will shift the demand for office space and effect home and apartment design.

We’ve been thinking about remote work all wrong and the current argument is lacking key points. First, let me paint you a picture; you’re working from your dining room table or spare bedroom, you have young kids running around the house in ‘virtual school’, and your significant other is loudly speaking on a video conference in the bedroom. You haven’t been on a vacation in months or seen your co-workers since March. It’s miserable and far from an ideal work environment. However, this is what many of us are experiencing as ‘remote work’ today.

To make matters worse, your company is not remote-first and has scrambled to implement remote technology. You’re learning new technology and your company is trying to make the most of it.

Despite all these challenges, many people have enjoyed working remotely, embracing the asynchronous schedule and ability to work from anywhere, while maximizing the time saved not commuting. Companies have found that many employees are as productive or even more productive outside the office and committed to a partial or full remote flexibility moving forward.

This is where the argument tends to end. Many people point toward announcements by Facebook and Twitter and say the office is dead. Others say we’re not as productive outside the office, we can’t onboard new employees, and it’s impossible to build company culture without being in person. They believe things will go back to normal after the pandemic.

While each side has valid points, I think the argument is missing important elements:

  1. The remote working technology is going to evolve to the point where we’ll be able to not only replicate the in-office experience but create a remote experience that is superior to that of the office.
  2. Companies will embrace remote work (because they have to) and implement a remote-first structure.
  3. Remote does not mean everyone will work from their kitchen table. Homes and apartments will incorporate fully equipped home offices, co-working hubs will pop up in densely populated residential areas, and workers will embrace working outside a traditional office.

It’s predictable that companies will adopt a remote strategy and office space will accommodate more flexible workers, but what’s les obvious is the impact of evolving technology supporting remote work.

In a recent episode of Seth Godin’s Akimbo podcast, he talked about how low-latency video conferencing (Zoom) is going to ‘rework the fabric of our culture’.  Here are a few points he brought up:

  • With video conferencing we can have short meetings (5 – 15 min, for example) since commute time is 0 and everyone knows how to get there on time.
  • If used properly we can improve the joy of connecting with coworkers socially via technology.
  • Video conferencing allows companies to conduct meetings of any size. Recordings and shared Google Docs encourage and enable participation. Flexibility and flow will happen as people are added and leave meetings throughout the day.
  • On a video conference you can interact in many ways such as editing a shared doc at the same time. Side conversations can be had via chat don’t have to detract from what the meeting was for. Seth compares it to a Harlem Globetrotters game with all these little interactions are happening simultaneously.
  • Breakout rooms change the rhythm if what is happening. A group of 8 can be broken into two groups of 4 or four groups of 2. People can work inside the medium to create something of real value.
  • Video can be asynchronous. You can create a video and send it out for everyone to watch at their leisure. They can re-watch it, take notes etc. and be prepared for the meeting.
  • Videos can be recorded and once they’re recorded, they can be transcribed. That means we have a written record of everything that’s been said that is also searchable.
  • When the AI becomes aware and knows a lot about our history, it can chime in on meetings.
  • The power dynamic shifts from one organizer to many organizers working together.
  • Gamification – companies can offer points/badges etc. to employees throughout the day based on certain deliverables.
  • It’s always on – drop in and out of Zoom rooms as you please.

Videoconferencing technology such as Zoom creates opportunities for ‘people to go out of their comfort zone, speak up, and be heard. It enables team members to connect with the people they need to be connected to. This is the dynamic of the future. Figuring out how to be great at it is the new frontier.’

I agree with Seth. The first time I ever used Zoom was in 2017 when I participated in Seth’s altMBA program. I was amazed by the programs use of Zoom, Slack, and WordPress and how that technology allowed me to connect with other classmates, collaborate on work, and feel like part of a team. Those classmates were located all over the globe and I never met them in person.

Why will working look any different?

Remote working technology will continue to improve and, when used properly, will be superior to an in-office experience. That’s not to say the office is dead and we won’t go back to working together in person, but the way we work is changed forever.