Everyone is grappling with these questions right now: can remote teams produce the same results as in-person teams? Do companies need to go remote to stay competitive in the technology job market? What effects, if any, would a sea change in remote work have on the way we engage with our occupations?
I think that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of us closer to an answer to the last question because it is a personal one, but the first two are less clear. Still, there are many highly suspect claims being made to justify a return to in-office work that I want to talk through.
According to a survey by the Best Practice Institute, 83% of the 280 CEOs who participated want employees back in the office in 2021, while a meager 10% of the 3,300 employees who responded want to be back full time. In our informal surveys where I work, we see similar numbers; about 90% of folks want to continue to work remotely at least one day per week, and 26% would prefer three or more days per week.
The Best Practice Institute survey did not collect nuanced reasoning behind the responses, but many technology leaders—including those at the helm of huge enterprises like Google and Amazon—have opined publicly that their companies are less innovative as a result of remote work. I believe that statement is false, and I also believe that Google and Amazon are attempting to disguise their true reasons here.
First, there are numerous fully remote companies that are constantly innovating, among them InVision, Zapier, Automattic, and GitLab. If we accept the premise that a tech startup must innovate to survive, then the mere survival of these businesses is proof positive that innovation can be achieved remotely.
Second, it’s debatable whether Google can actually capitalize on the claimed advantages of in-office collaboration, hindered as they may be by their size and internal politics. All the way back in 2018, Blog-famous former employee Steve Yegge wrote, “The main reason I left Google is that they can no longer innovate.”
“But,” I imagine the CEO of a traditionally on-premise company might counter, “we have developed fewer novel solutions during 2020!” And that is likely true. But correlation does not imply causation; not in scientific research and certainly not in this case, either. The fallacy is in assuming that being remote stifled innovation.
That hypothesis overlooks two incredibly meaningful (and, I think, obvious) facts:
The pandemic put everyone through a psychological trauma, constructing an atmosphere so opposed to creativity and whimsy that it is frankly surprising that anyone had an original thought in 2020.
Many leaders perceived the remote work atmosphere as a temporary and undesirable condition, overlooking opportunities to optimize for it.
Those are big claims, so let me go deeper on each, and then you can roast me.
We all lived through a trauma
The COVID-19 pandemic is a global crisis. For months, people were forced into isolation from one another and bombarded with news of overwhelmed hospitals, experimental drug treatments, struggles to deploy equipment and supplies to healthcare workers, and sharply rising death tolls. All of that set against a political backdrop with a markedly anti-science tone and a toxic “us vs. them” framing of public health policy.
Though Americans have suffered through other kinds of disasters, the pandemic is different because it robbed us of one of our most critical coping mechanisms. In a paper published in Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, a publication of the American Psychological Association, the authors write, “Social support plays a key role in well-being, yet one of the major preventative efforts for reducing the spread of COVID-19 involves social distancing.”
But what effect has that had on companies’ ability to innovate?
Rick Hanson PhD, a neuropsychologist who has written several books about stress and mental wellness, in a conversation with Forbes, said “As ten-thousand studies have shown, when you are chronically stressed, you’re less able to be at your best. Particularly when you’re talking about a knowledge economy which really places a high premium on creativity.”
Going through a long-term traumatic event can put our brains into a low-grade “fight or flight” mode (called a sympathetic stress response), which slows or interrupts many autonomic bodily functions including digestion, sleep, and yes, creative impulse. Chronic stress is known to cause high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, addiction, among many others. Nobody is inventing new products and solutions while depressed and drinking heavily.
The notion that a workforce operating under these conditions for many months should be expected to produce quantities of novel ideas and product solutions is not only absurd from a psychological perspective, but in my mind, quite callous. Corporate leaders have taken this opportunity to place the blame on remote work, because, as I’ll show later on, it may save them money.
Moreover, these employees struggling through stress, anxiety, and loss, were also expected to work in a remote environment cobbled together, metaphorically speaking, from sticks and leaves.
We failed to optimize for remote work
Many employers, primarily those outside of the tech industry, perceived the remote work situation as temporary; a discrete hurdle to get over rather than a shift in the ground itself to adapt to. Companies were forced to find ways to replace in-person interactions with digital ones, and, as I have observed myself, did so mostly naively.
Setting aside the effects of chronic pandemic stress, some companies may be confused as to why their remote-first peers seem so capable—even flourishing—in this mode of work; surely after purchasing Zoom and OneDrive for the company, they are now on par?
But distributed work, which includes work across geographically separated office locations as well as individuals in coffee shops, requires more than forklifting your in-office behaviors onto the internet. You can open Microsoft Word and use it the same way that you use a typewriter—it will work—but will you be as fast, or produce a final result of the same quality, as someone who really knows how to use Word?
Investing in “remote work infrastructure” like Slack, Zoom, Google Drive, or Miro is not, by itself, “a shift to remote work.” It’s the bare minimum first step. It’s disaster recovery. It’s business continuity. It’s opening up Microsoft Word and using it like a typewriter.
Absent any new guidance, a workforce accustomed to “drive-by” interactions between colleagues and frequent in-person meetings in conference rooms will simply port all of those behaviors into the digital world. Then, realizing that video meetings aren’t limited by conference room availability, many will jump at the chance to create even more meetings.
We had an unprecedented opportunity to shift our mindset about how we collaborate, observe, recognize, direct, and make decisions in a fully inclusive and asynchronous way, and we mostly didn’t take it.
So why repopulate the Googleplex?
My hypothesis is that Google and Amazon in particular make this innovation claim deliberately, to redirect attention from the true driving factor of their decision to call employees back to the office.
In short: huge corporations like Amazon and Google receive massive refundable tax credits and construction subsidies (among other financial benefits) for building their offices, and can deduct large “Property, Plant, and Equipment” (PPE) depreciation expenses associated with owning them. In 2020, Amazon reported $113 billion in property and equipment value, of which some 25% is deductible.
For companies that have invested many billions of dollars in creating unique office environments, and which enjoy the tax benefits of owning them, giving them up would feel nothing short of unthinkable.
Cynically, we also know that Google employees tend to work longer hours when they’re in an office with numerous full-service dining rooms, on-site laundry and dry cleaning, and so on. If you let people work from wherever they are, what are the chances they spend some portion of their time not working? We can’t have that.
Certainly there are many folks who enjoy working in such an office, and the office space itself is a famous differentiator for Google as an employer. But you can imagine the anxiety they must feel at the highest levels of these companies when considering a future where these extravagant offices never return to full utilization.
“Why would someone choose a Starbucks over this incredible space?” they might ask. Well, maybe the Starbucks is down the street from an employee’s grandmother’s house, so now she gets to see her more often. Or maybe, by reclaiming commute time, she can spend more time in her garden, or with her family, or doing an innumerable list of things that are more gratifying than incrementally increasing Google’s ad revenue.
Where do we go from here?
The ability of a team, or teams, or a company, to thrive in an asynchronous and distributed working model is dependent on so many variables. Cultural norms, willingness and ability to adapt and experiment, and the work itself and how it maps into those types of interactions.
There are no universal answers, but I hope that I’ve made one thing very clear: remote work can work, and any perceived failures during the COVID-19 pandemic or superficial arguments based on “innovation” are a distraction at best and willful misdirection at worst.
Humans are infinitely adaptable, innovative, creative, and persistent. With all we’ve achieved in my own lifetime, it feels rather patronizing to be told that we couldn’t make this work if we wanted to.
If we wanted to.