Why We Work Together

The many gifts of an in-person workplace

Z. Bryant
Journey Group

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Photo by Michal Matlon on Unsplash

It’s been a bad month for remote workers. In fact, it’s hard to look at the news without seeing reports of another round of layoffs at big technology companies, often with little or no warning beforehand. Setting aside the troubling trend for our economy and near-term challenges for those tens of thousands of job seekers, there is—in my view—a quieter tragedy behind the headlines.

For almost all of the teams involved, the colleagues who’ve just been terminated were known only as rectangles in a grid of interchangeable faces — backgrounds blurred or absurd, identities carefully curated if not manufactured entirely. Now these disconnected avatars of productivity have vanished as easily as they appeared. We shrug as if this is an unavoidable cost of doing business, but this virtual anonymity—this humana obscura—is a new and problematic approach to work.

Industrialists have always imagined abstraction to be something that increases efficiency and yield. And it does, but the reality typically looks like a shrinking number of more standardized humans using increasingly powerful machines to remove the weaker humans from systems of production altogether.

Degree-wielding professionals employed by tech giants have assumed they somehow exist outside this reality—autonomous units of labor able to come and go as they please—but this describes interchangeable cogs, not skilled members of a collective. The disconcerting truth is that remote work in the 21st century west is peak industrialism, and our growing mental health crisis reflects its many costs.

Humans are meant to work alongside other humans—ideally very different from themselves—toward a mutually profitable goal. And as we were reminded during the pandemic, this can be inconvenient if not downright risky. After months of government lockdowns, I’ll never take it for granted again. So in preparation for Thanksgiving, I’m profoundly grateful for the privilege of officing with other humans. And after fifteen years of serving at a company committed to in-person collaboration, here are five things I love about working together:

Immunity

With cold and flu season looming, you may assume this is about permitting my body to build resistance to germs. And sure, that’s a tremendous perk of being around other humans, but I actually intend something slightly more esoteric. The world is full of half-truths and outright lies and I think one of the best antidotes is a diverse and trusting community—the kind historically found at a school or workplace. I’m talking about our collective immunity to terrible ideas—the sorts of ideas that undermine trust and breed cynicism.

A robust culture of collaboration allows for the free exchange of harebrained schemes and theories but also for a swift and natural response to utter nonsense. The virtual workplace is excellent at the former and evidently impotent at the latter. Each and every day at our office, our team eats lunch together, goes for walks together, sits in rooms together, tries to earn a living together—and you know what we’re doing the whole time? Creating antibodies to fight the pathogens that kill little companies like ours. By physically inhabiting one another’s lives and creating time and space to really see each other, we become more immune to things that would do us harm.

Familiarity

Proximity reduces complexity over time. If you’ve ever worked at a difficult craft with the same small team for many years, you know exactly what I mean. Tasks that were initially very challenging become muscle memory. The shared catalog of already-encountered dead-ends expands. You develop a shorthand for maneuvers and tricks. The choreography of problem solving becomes innate in cascading ways that have allowed small teams of humans to change the world more than once.

Work that does not benefit from this intimacy — a wide range of perspectives combined with mutual trust and shared experiences — is precisely the kind of work being assumed by machines. It is the deep familiarity available to those working together from which the most humane and durable work emerges.

Taste

Related to familiarity are the magical ways our desires and values are shaped and reshaped by in-person work. While remote, asynchronous collaboration engages one or two senses—say, sight and hearing—working together in time and space involves all of them. We prepare and share meals, we listen to and occasionally make music, we read aloud to each other from books and give each other handshakes and hugs. It’s highly invasive and can’t help but challenge and shift our individual preferences.

We are, in other words, not left to our own devices. And the resulting amalgamation of sensitivities—our aesthetic coherence—is much greater than the sum of its parts. Great ideas are like yeast, and it’s wonderful to see them swell within communities of like-minded people. Rather than leading to boring uniformity, this integration of tastes over time is more like honey in the hive. Thousands of new interests and discoveries are brought in every year—some sweet, some funky, some exotic—and what comes out in the comb is rich and complex because of it. We are scouts hunting for something that catches our eye to bring back to the group. What’s sticky will stick.

Chemicals

A radical commitment to working together physically unlocks millions of tiny interactions we are otherwise missing. Microscopic pupil dilations, shared microbiomes, and a zillion pheromone responses all serve to create deep bonds of mutuality and compassion. In ways we’re only beginning to be curious about, physical proximity is almost certainly a prerequisite for long-term trust. In some strange relational version of quantum entanglement, humans become connected at a cellular and even chemical level.

At this point you could be forgiven for thinking, “Pheromones! Entanglement! Frankly, that’s the opposite of what I want from coworkers!” It’s certainly not for everyone. Many of us have bought into the idea of Work/Life Balance™—an insidious contract in which we sacrifice the best hours, years, and decades of our lives to a machine in exchange for the possibility of having money left over after we die. If, however, you see work as a wonderfully integrated part of life, you may, like me, choose to spend it among actual friends. Here’s to chemistry! Bring on the entanglement!

Change

While we’re on the subject of popular lies in the Age of the Individual, the myth of fixed self is the blue pill of remote work. Regular interaction with the same group of people working on the same projects over many years leads to an unavoidable sort of reckoning with past versions of yourself. Like reading old diary entries, this serves to illuminate our personal evolutions—and devolutions. A workplace inhabited by devoted colleagues, then, has the possibility of becoming a living record of personal growth. Like rings in the trunk of a great tree, we see our years of drought and abundance reflected in our coworkers and what we make together.

Lastly, this orientation invites a reframing of the work itself. We do not contain in ourselves the raw materials of our own greatness. That’s right, friends, self-actualization (at least the DIY type) is a crock! The only possibility of real change—the sort that sands off rough places and polishes our natural grit and grain into a beautiful, glowing, truer version of us—is found in communities of real people. What if, instead of that product or service you’re so focused on, you are the project?

Like I said, humans are meant to work alongside other humans toward a mutually profitable goal. The world needs people who are more patient. People who are formed by the values of friends. People who confront weakness in themselves and attend to it in others. People who live out of the ancient wisdom: If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together. In this fast-moving, flickering wasteland of post-Industrial communities, we’re better together.

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