What if remote work at home was never meant to last this long?
As someone who has worked in an office by myself for decades, I’ve started wondering about the benefits of telecommuting for a while now. Recently, I read a new book about AI and automation that made me question whether remote work is for me.
For years, I’ve wondered why it feels like I’m never quite “up” on the latest office chatter and have such a hard time getting contextual information.
As an example with one recent role, I didn’t realize a colleague actually had a minor injury to her leg and ankle and was wearing a brace. You don’t know that from a Zoom video chat. In another, I had no idea the main office had free cookies and pop in the break room all day. Must be rough!
We seem to be missing out on something.
In his new book called Futureproof, respected The New York Times columnist Kevin Roose (not to be confused with Digg founder Kevin Rose) explained what’s really happening. In fact, when I read it, I stopped short on the page.
“People who have regular, in-person contact with their colleagues have an advantage when it comes to doing the kinds of deeply human work we will need to do in the future,” he writes in the book, elaborating further that we’re “frustrated by how hard it is to generate creative ideas, build team camaraderie, and on-board new employees over Zoom calls and Slack threads.”
He notes in the book how execs at Adobe and Netflix are not advocates of long-term remote work. Roose even explains how Reed Hastings plans to bring employees back to the office “twelve hours after a vaccine is approved.” I won’t spoil where Roose takes it from there, but he cites multiple studies and explains how what I’d call “work by osmosis” is the key to the future office landscape.
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“One of the reasons people who do remote work are more productive is that they tend to work longer,” he explained to me in a Clubhouse chat recently. “But there are trade-offs in things like creativity and collaboration. People tend to solve complex problems when they are in the same room. There is something that is lost with remote work.”
He also says our global economy is moving toward softer human skills, since “the pure play productivity stuff is being done by AI more and more.”
What he means is that, as we move farther away from the corporate office and stop collaborating with humans in person we become more like endpoints. We start competing more and more with the AI that is highly automated and meant to replace human work.
Roose said he learned about journalism early in his career just from being around other writers. He heard conversations around the water cooler and on the phone.
I kept thinking about that leg brace. What else am I missing? The brilliant idea someone mentions in a parking lot chat. The times when a person from accounting walks over to marketing and mentions a funny story from an article, which leads to inventing a whole new product.
Osmosis is more valuable than any of us think. With technology, ideas are always linear. Information goes from point A to point B and never travels far from that route. With human interaction, it travels in fits and starts (in a good way).
In a recent chat on a podcast, the author who popularized the concept of EQ (or emotional intelligence) explained how there is a form of EQ called cognitive empathy, which is our ability to speak and communicate in a way that cares mostly about someone understanding us, not in sharing what we know.
It’s fascinating because we don’t pick up on those cues in a video chat, which means our cognitive empathy has been short-changed. We are merely transferring information. It’s why I’ve always hated Skype calls.
So what do we do about it?
I doubt Roose wants everyone to go back to an office tomorrow, but maybe soon. What he says in the book is that we need to address the problem. He suggests changing your role or finding a way to stop competing with automation. My suggestion is just as dramatic: if you feel like an endpoint as Roose suggests, it might be time to pick up your laptop and head back to the office. Before it’s too late.