If you follow Seth Godin’s blog, or especially his podcast, you’ve probably heard him talk often about remote work, and this is a common thread, that actually, we can do the things we used to do in an office better if we design for it. This is one example:
“The real challenge of remote work isn’t that it somehow erases the mysterious serendipity of magical office collisions. The problem is that making connections digitally requires enrollment and effort. If we do it with intent, it actually works better.”
He’s right. The problem isn’t that we no longer have a water-cooler, the problem is that we have never intentionally put people together to collaborate. We’ve just stuck them in the same space, more often than not one large space, and assumed that magic would happen. And, oftentimes, it did, but not because those were the best connections, they were just the ones we had and we worked with them. Sometimes, it would become obvious that maybe people needed to be grouped differently, and we’d make some sort of office space adjustment, but that usually took a really long time to become obvious, because we weren’t really thinking about it.
When I worked in law firms, for example, the “technical” staff was almost always not in the same space as the legal teams we were supposed to be collaborating with. We were on a different floor, or even a completely different building. Because that’s where the technical resources went. We worked together, even if it was very limiting in terms of collaboration with the legal side of the business.
Seth has often talked on his podcast about this in another way too, one that I think really reframes the debate about remote work much better, and that is to imagine it the other way around. We created offices to be attached to factories, and warehouses, where the clerical work got done. They needed to be close to those facilities and have everyone together because of the need to communicate. The only way to make a change to production was to walk out on the floor and do it. Then the factories moved away from the office, but since that is what we’ve always done, we kept the office in one space.
But imagine if it hadn’t started that way. Imagine if we had started office work by being detached, doing it in various places, with the technical ability to communicate and get work done, regardless of location. Asking people to change, and go into a central office, would be ludicrous. There would be no reason for it. We’d be wasting so much time commuting, and deciding where to love based on a work location, etc. that no one in their right mind would make that choice.
The only thing preventing most offices from being fully remote is simply a lack of know-how, or an unwillingness to commit to that change and design the workplace around it. Once you do that, what you’ll find is that rather than hoping for some magic collaboration, you decide who to invite to the table, and ask for their input, on purpose. Intentionally.
I would offer, that in my humble opinion, most of the surveys that show workplaces as having less collaboration and it hurting productivity a tad while remote working is not an indication that remote work doesn’t work. My lived experience as a remote worker tells me that it’s really just an inability to adapt and to know how to intentionally work together that is missing. Solve for that, and your employees can be anywhere, and still work together.