New ways to work

Photo by kate.sade on Unsplash

In case you haven’t heard, this past week was a seminal moment for the work from home movement. Many of the most important technology companies of our era announced their plans to allow their employees to work from home indefinitely. 

When the news made its way across social media, my initial reaction was to say *fuck this shit*. I couldn’t imagine wanting to be stuck all day at home without a break in between work and home life. Part of the frustration stemmed from being in forced confinement for the past two months. Yet, it wasn’t the only thing that bothered me. There was something else. Given that I’ve always worked away from home, I couldn’t imagine that not being the case. How much of this frustration was simply because I had never experienced anything else beyond the current pandemic? 

There was something else I realized about my deeply ingrained habits, there are two illusions about myself – office and home. It’s not that I transform into another person in the office, it’s just that it made me feel that I *worked*.  Maybe it’s the effort spent commuting, the sense of punching in or some nostalgic “honey I’m home” moment. 

My thinking has completely shifted over the past few days. I’m super excited about what this means for the future of work and the new possibilities that come from decoupling work from the office.

It goes without saying that this depends on the type of work that you do. If you run a restaurant, chances are that you will have to keep on going into work. However, if you run a chain of restaurants, do you really need to have all your administrative staff coming into the office every single day? Given that so many tasks are now performed on a computer, there are fewer reasons to lock people in a cubicle from 9 to 5. It’s clear that every single knowledge worker will see their routine change over the decade.

The upsides

  • More human: What are your life’s priorities? Chances are that health and family are above work. If so, why spend so much time travelling to a location to do work when it can be done closer to your loved ones?
  • Less pollution: Needless to say the planet needs fewer cars and buses on the roads
  • Flexibility: The current confinement has given me more free time to work when I want to and not feel part of the rat race every morning. For instance, I used to wake really early to get in a workout before heading into the office. Now, I’ll lift weights after work and it gives me something to look forward to after working all day. I’ve also had more time for skillset acquisition by taking an online course.
  • Fewer costs: As a business owner, I don’t feel the need to be tied into a five year lease anymore. I will surely consider more flexible options moving forward.
  • Deep work: This is a big one for me. The ability to think deeply about important matters requires solitude and tranquility. Being in a crowded space with constant interruptions is not amenable to deep work.

The downsides

  • Employee friendly: Some companies will surely see this as a way to pass off costs to employees. Lower salaries for instance based on location is already being thrown around. 
  • Less human: what happens if you’ve never met your boss in person? Will they be as empathetic when you’re dealing with a personal issue? I strongly believe in a meritocracy but when you’re only measuring OKRs for instance, it will be difficult to be nuanced especially when working remotely all the time. My fear is tied to a scene in WestWorld where the actor Aaron Paul gets laid off by an algorithm. I don’t want to be fired by an AI!
  • Culture: Transmission of culture, both good and bad, will be hard to do over Zoom or email. For companies that have not been born distributed, the challenge will be to teach the technical aspects of a job and also the softer cultural ones. When I was at Google, there was a distinct camaraderie among the teams. And for those that argue that engineering roles don’t require an office, I don’t buy it. The engineers at Google had a strong bond and were also recognized as exceptionally performers. 
  • Serendipity and problem solving: “There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat. That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.” This is a quote by Steve Jobs who insisted in designing the Apple office to create casual collisions as much as possible. People are social animals by nature. We like being with people. Being alone is not always the best way to solve a problem. Being with your team in a room (with a whiteboard!) creates a safe space to be creative and imaginative. This is the biggest reason why I believe I don’t expect most companies to be 100% distributed. 

Decoupling the office and work 

For companies that were born with centralized offices, it will be much harder to make the shift to being entirely distributed. They will surely adopt some kind of hybrid approach. What I’m most excited about is the new ways to work that will emerge for new companies that are not tied to this past convention. 

This opens the door for crazy new experiments to emerge. Maybe Monday’s can be spent working from a Breather space as a team and the rest of the week remotely. Also, instead of working together, teams can get together more often for play and bonding. New types of work cultures will emerge which will give people more options to consider when looking for a new job. On top of everything else, a candidate will want to understand where and how their team works together. This opens up the door for new innovations and will make work better & more meaningful. 

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