We all reminisce about the good old office days — Office pranks, brainstorming on a whiteboard and furtive glances by the water-cooler. But our efforts to emulate a physical world in digital space is a Sisyphean undertaking that fails to recognize the respective strengths and weaknesses of in person vs remote work.
This is how we end up with digital team lunches with 20+ people where there are no side discussions. Imagine how absurd this would be in person, where you couldn’t talk to the person next to you but had to talk to the entire group anytime you wanted to say something.
Friendship doesn’t scale easily to large groups and especially not forcibly. Friendships happen spontaneously at smaller scales.
People have simply given up on trying to find better remote processes — “oh it’s gonna be another 6 months, the vaccine is coming soon”. We’ve treated COVID as a bad hangover that’ll just go away if we wait long enough.
Maybe this was all a bad dream, and you’ll wake up Jan 2nd and commute to work, you’ll be annoyed at the traffic, you’ll smile at your colleagues without showing your teeth and tell them about how busy you are.
I’ve been operating under the assumption that the virus will grow legs and steal my lunch money — that the new normal will last about another 5 years.
But who am I to lecture you on how you should work?
Well, here are my credentials
- I’ve worked in an office at Microsoft for 4 years
- I’ve worked solo from my apartment on my own company Yuri.ai for 2 years (Pre-pandemic)
- I’ve been working at Graphcore for a year entirely remote (Post-pandemic)
- I am not losing my mind
There are few people I know in person that have worked at home for as long as I have so I may have learnt a thing or two.
Remote work forces a writing culture. In person work encourages an oral culture
If you’re trying to meet in person there’s a physical cap on how many people can fit in room and reasonably participate whereas with Zoom there is no such constraint. This constraint essentially necessitates middle managers who act as information shields/hubs on behalf of their employees.
If a culture is writing heavy then that flattens the organization dramatically, you don’t need to present the same deck to your manager, your skip, skip + 1 all the way to the CEO.
A common retort I’ll hear is “well not everyone can write well” and I couldn’t disagree more. The fact of the matter is you don’t need to be a virtuoso, all you need to do is write short sentences that communicate your plans and ideas clearly. (And if you don’t think this is possible please reach out to me directly and I’ll help you become a decent writer)
Even if you really love meetings, you can only attend about 10h of them per day but a single well written document will continue being read even while you’re sleeping.
It’s unlikely that Christianity would have garnered millions of followers if Jesus Christ had to get on a “quick call” with each new potential prospect
Oral cultures don’t scale.
So why do we have meetings? Everyone hates them but we keep having them because they’re an effective social pressure to get things done. You never wanna be the person saying: “Um no updates for me this week either hehe”.
Meetings are effectively a socially acceptable form of procrastination where work magically finishes just in time before the next meeting occurrence. A meeting heavy culture effectively shapes an organization to benefit chronic procrastinators vs doers.
Nothing keeps me awake at night like knowing that at anytime someone can message me and tell me “Let’s sync” or “let’s align on objectives”.
You can whiteboard just fine with a Wacom tablet over Zoom.
Office banter is now happening in meme groups on Slack so natural charisma is less relevant than the ability to produce fresh memes. Slack is the best digital watercooler in the world but it’s a terrible place to collaborate — long winded disagreements should happen over Zoom and collaborations should happen in a document instead.
Anyone with a Twitter account can now create a conference “THE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE SYMPOSIUM OF THE FUTURE” and invite a bunch of panelists who are often more than happy to oblige. You’ll prerecord a talk, click on some new event software, listen to yourself talking for 30min and then accept a few requests to “Connect” on LinkedIn.
Virtual conferences are not assets like a YouTube video or a Blog post.
Virtual poster sessions are just sad. Try Twitter or Hacker News instead if you’d like to share your work.
And finally enjoy the ride, it seems like COVID is here to stay
Write more and Talk less
Remote work isn’t a silver bullet there’s 3 main problems I see with it that are easily addressed in person. They can be somewhat mitigated.
- Ramping up new employees: It’s a lot easier for people to reach out for help in person, ramp ups are really about making a person feel confident and independent as quickly as possible. When I was ramping up at Graphcore many of my peers offered to pair program with me which was invaluable but as a general repository of knowledge Slack channels worked great.
- Building friendships with your colleagues: Small scale off-sites are essential in a remote first world, make sure everyone is tested, wearing a mask and get everyone to do some activity together. If your primary source of social connections was work then you can fix that. Remote work gives you the opportunity to work around the people you love the most whether it’s your parents, siblings, partner or friends you have a lot more flexibility than you once did. You just have to actively make it happen.
- Delivering negative feedback: The issue with delivering negative feedback remotely is that you can’t really observe how the other person is taking it, so techniques like the “shit sandwich” don’t work as well. The recipient may be smiling on the call but may be incredibly triggered right so make sure to book LONG meetings to tease the issue and solutions to it.