I hope distributed is not the new default

It’s in vogue to say that COVID-19 has changed the nature of work forever and that many of us won’t be going back to the office.

Having worked for years on Google Chrome, which is a globally distributed team, let me just say: I sure hope we’re going back to the office. I also hope that the office looks a little bit different for most people.

I’ll be the first to admit that an office-only culture is problematic. Even when I worked on office-first teams at Google, I was always afforded the flexibility to work from home for appointments or frankly if I just didn’t want to put on pants for the day.

It’s also not in anyone’s best interest to commute an hour and a half to work each way, like I’ve had some friends do in the valley. Offices force you to be located in a particular location which may put stress on your budget or lifestyle. (See: the children per family in San Francisco or New York.)

However, even the fiercest distributed team advocates agree that an office provides some benefits that are difficult to replicate on a distributed team. I want to dig into some of those benefits.

It’s easier to initiate outside of work experiences

In my time at Google, I found that having experiences with coworkers from outside of a work settings would significantly strengthen the relationship with those coworkers.

At Google Chicago, we had a yearly two day team ski trip. I found that I was always more thankful for who I worked with after that ski trip than before. If a conflict arose with those coworkers, I found myself naturally more willing to “assume positive intent”.

While it’s certainly possible to boot up Among Us during work or schedule Zoom lunches between random teammates, the set of remote bonding activities is significantly more limited than the set of in-person bonding activities. Furthermore, the spontaneous and critically important break-outs (small conversations) that happen at team off-sites or conferences are near impossible to replicate over any remote tool I’ve used.

One question that I’ve used in planning my own team bonding activities is “how different is this context from what we usually do together?”, with the belief that something completely different gives you a better opportunity to see different facets of your coworkers. There’s not much hope for the answer to that question on remote teams: the activity will probably include the same glowing rectangle you spend the rest of your day looking at.

Zapier, a great distributed company, famously has quarterly offsites for its teams where everyone meets in person to replicate this effect. However, I highly suspect that most big companies won’t make any such effort to do this. Even if they do, once budgets get stressed, it seems likely this will be the first “perk” to go: its benefits are hard to quantify and it certainly seems frivolous to the short-sighted.

It encourages the spontaneous collision of people and ideas

Steve Jobs famously proposed a Pixar headquarters with all restrooms located in the central lobby in order to force people together and encourage chance encounters.

While working from home certainly increases the amount of control that people have over their day, it does so at the cost of essentially all of these chance encounters.

Despite my best efforts at scheduling random meetings, all of the most authentic connections I’ve made since transitioning into the Ann Arbor startup world stem from the coworking spaces that I was in for two months pre-pandemic. The quality of connections in the year since have been significantly lower: Zoom calls with strangers always feel transactional, whereas running into someone at a lunch table doesn’t.

It gets you out of the house

When I lived in Chicago, I tracked my steps and found myself regularly getting 10-15,000 steps per day without any effort on my part. Walking was a key part of any transportation strategy, which made me healthier and happier.

I later moved home to the much less walkable Detroit and found that my default step count plummeted to 4-6,000 steps per day.

My point here is that while there will always be exceptions, healthy defaults are incredibly important in shifting human behavior.

Getting out of the house and into a setting with other human beings builds a heck of a lot more socialization into your day than sitting at home in your office. While it’s certainly possible that some people working from home will choose to socialize more, I predict that the majority of people will socialize less as they have fewer opportunities to meet and talk with people built into their days.

Integrated beats segregated, every time

I suspect that some of the above problems with remote work will have much better mitigation strategies five years from now than they do now. However, it’s likely that combating these problems will require a whole suite of tools that, at best, provide a vague approximation of the benefits of a great office.

As we all know, it’s certainly possible to build a mediocre office-only culture. And, in my opinion, it’s better for a mediocre culture to be remote than in an office: at least you can work in your pajamas.

However, I would argue it’s much harder to build a great distributed culture than it is to build a great one that includes an office. It requires incredible amounts of work to mitigate the problems inherent to remote teams and I suspect that almost all companies will fail to put in the effort.

Lastly, I think it’s going to be near impossible for employees to win back the “concession” of an office from a company once it chooses to go remote. Doing so feels a little bit like your kids asking for a really fancy backyard treehouse: sure it’d be neat, but we just don’t have the money for that sort of thing.

Personally, I hope to always be on a team where in-person interaction comprises a significant chunk of work.

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