Right now, remote work isn’t working for most companies, and that’s because we spent the last 120 years learning how people can be productive in an office. The rise of the telegraph and the railroad in the late 19th century didn’t just give us retail, advertising, and mass distribution; it also gave us managerial capitalism—middle managers, top managers, and modern hierarchies at corporate headquarters. The 21st-century economy has already changed retail, advertising, and mass distribution. Perhaps inevitably it will also change work and management.
But first, companies will have to learn that remote work is different work. Managers will have to get better at judging productivity by setting and monitoring specific goals rather than using the proxy of office attendance. Workers will have to adopt extraordinary conscientiousness when it comes to dividing their day into deep work, office communications, personal time, and civic or family life.
Employees will have to develop new habits, such as keeping copious documentation of every meaningful work interaction, so that teams across space and time are always up to speed on what’s happening “down the hall.” And bosses will have to normalise more video conferencing and corporate retreats, because their employees will continue to crave face-to-face interaction.
In the current panic, Twitter is filled with rosy predictions that the virus will be an inflection point in the future of distributed work. But a pandemic is not an appropriate time to determine what kind of labor arrangement is optimally productive on a per-worker basis. It is rather a moment for companies to build out the kind of technology and culture that, when the economy is back to full force, could make remote work easier for those who want to take advantage of it in a future where white-collar work might involve a little less commuting and a little more home.
The share of the labor force that works from home tripled in the past 15 years. Two of the accelerants are obvious: living costs in urban jungles with the highest density of knowledge workers, and technology, such as Slack and Microsoft Teams, that moves collaboration and gossip online.
But the early returns from at least America’s offices are mixed. In The New York Times, Kevin Roose writes from his makeshift quarantine bunker that remote work impedes the creative sparks that fly when we are interacting with actual people rather than their thumbnails on Slack.
In the 2016 paper “Does Working From Home Work?” a team of economists looked at Ctrip, a 16,000-employee Chinese travel agency that had randomly assigned a small group of its call-center staff to work from home. At first, the experiment seemed like a win-win for workers and owners. Employees worked more, quit less, and said they were happier with their job. Meanwhile, the company saved more than $1,000 per employee on reduced office space. But when Ctrip rolled out this policy to the entire company, it caused a mess. One complaint swamped everything else: Loneliness.
Beyond lost creativity and companionship, the gravest threat to many companies from remote work is that it breaks the social bonds that are necessary to productive teamwork. Several years ago, Google conducted a research project on its most productive groups. The company found that the most important quality was “psychological safety”—a confidence that team members wouldn’t embarrass or punish individuals for speaking up.
But online communications can be a minefield for psychological safety, according to Bill Duane, a former Google engineer “Whenever we read a sentence on Gchat or Slack that seems ambiguous or sarcastic to us, we default to thinking, You fucker!” – “But if someone had said the same thing to your face, you might be laughing with them.”
Office banter, bad jokes, and even unctuous corporate talk in the hallways can be dismissed as empty blather. But Duane calls these things “the carrier wave for psychological safety.” Almost everything that doesn’t feel like work at the office is what makes the most creative, most productive work at the office possible.
Remote work might not work for many people in the future. But the status quo is already failing millions of people.