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Work From Home…an abstraction (!?)

Pic credit — Pexels

The Background

Somewhere in early 2020, when we as humanity were slowly getting to terms with realizing how easily we could disappear as a species (read Covid19 😅), NonStop as a company was facing a rather insignificant problem. We had recently rented relatively bigger office space and had decked it up nicely. The idea was that we grow as a team, and while doing so, have a physical space to collaborate and build world-class tech products. Little did we know that we were to witness waves of lockdowns and infection which brought the whole world to an almost standstill.

What happened next wasn’t a surprise at all. We collectively embraced one (not so) revolutionary concept of “Work From Home (WFH)”. As a species, we have always done an excellent job to persist and innovate through the toughest of problems to survive some and then thrive some! “Work From Home” got adopted like wildfire, and in the process made a few tech. companies multi-billion dollar gaints💰😎 Laying in the bed, churning out the meanest code, and memes galore…almost every one of us embraced this change with both hands.

Pic Credit

However, the leadership team at NonStop got thinking if it made sense to still have our new (relatively) big office. To add the to this thought problem, we more than doubled our team strength through the Covid times, with many of our team members scattered geographically.

It was during these precise times, that I stumbled upon a gem! Now I’m not a voracious reader, however, I happened to come across this excellent book authored by Simon Sinek called “Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t”. And boy, was that a fun ride! I had been following Simon’s work (mostly talks on YouTube) for some years, but what I read opened my eyes to many things. Side note: This book is one of my strongest recommendations for any person (even remotely) in any leadership position.

Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t — By Simon Sinek

Of the many insightful things I could learn through this book, one eye-opener was Abstraction and its impact.

The Milgram experiment

The book details one “The Milgram experiment” which was highly criticized to be unethical (probably for all the right reasons). This was a set of social psychology experiments on obedience to authority figures conducted by a Yale University psychologist named Stanley Milgram.

The experimenter (E) orders the teacher (T), the subject of the experiment, to give what the teacher (T) believes are painful electric shocks to a student (S), who is actually an actor and confederate. The subject is led to believe that for each wrong answer, the learner was receiving actual electric shocks, though in reality there were no such punishments. Being separated from the subject, the confederate set up a tape recorder integrated with the electro-shock generator, which played pre-recorded sounds for each shock level — Reference Wiki

The Setup

Participants were led to believe that they were assisting an experiment in which they were “teachers”, and had to administer electric shocks as instructed by the scientists to the “student” if the student makes a mistake.
These (fake) electric shocks started small (15 volts) and gradually increased to levels that would have been fatal (450 volts).

The 160 volunteers were put through the experiment with four variations:
Variation 1: First 40 volunteers (“teachers”) had to sit right next to the “students”, and the teacher had to physically place the student’s hand onto a shock plate before fliping the switch.
Variation 2: For the next 40 volunteers, the learner was in the room with the teacher. The teacher could see and hear the student’s reactions after each shock was administered. There was no uncertainty about the impact of each successive decision to flip a switch.”
Variation 3: For the next 40 volunteers (“teachers”), the student was kept in a separate room. Though the teacher was unable to see the effects of the shocks, they could clearly hear the student’s protests and screams through the walls.
Variation 4: For the last 40 volunteers (“teachers”) the student was kept in another room. The teacher could neither see nor hear the student’s reactions to the shocks.

The Experiment

The experiment goes as follows:
1. The scientists instruct the volunteer “teachers” to zap the students with an electrical shock whenever a student makes an apparent mistake.
2. The scientists command the volunteer “teachers” to keep increasing the intensity (voltage) of these shocks without any choice till the point where they instruct the volunteers to administer shocks of 450 volts which are literally fatal.

Observations

1. As expected, all the volunteers expressed concern as they realized or believed they were causing pain to the students
2. However, they continued as they were instructed to do as they were ‘ordered’ to do so by the scientists in the room
3. When the scientists ordered the volunteers to administer shocks of a very high intensity (400+ volts) which could cause fatal harm, the volunteers started raising serious concerns

Assumptions

Before the experiment, the scientists predicted that at most 2–3% of the volunteers would go all the way and administer fatal shocks, and those people would exhibit psychopathic tendencies. The rest of the people would reject such commands/orders way before their actions would seriously harm people.

Surprise-Surprise!

To everyone’s surprise, the point of no return where the volunteers outrightly rejected to follow an almost inhumane command was different for different variations.

  1. In Variation#1 when the volunteers had to physically place the student’s hand on the shock plate, 70% quit the experiment without going very far
  2. In Variation#2 when the volunteers were in the same room but didn’t have to physically touch the student, the number went down slightly, with 60% refusing to continue
  3. But in Variation#4 when they could neither see the students in pain nor hear their cries, only 35% refused to continue. That means 65% of the volunteers were able to go through the entire experiment, reach the final switch and, for all intents and purposes, kill someone.

Lessons for us to contemplate

Direct Insights

Reading this book, and specifically “The Milgram Experiments” a few very relevant direct insights:

  • Abstraction separates us from the responsibility for our actions and decisions
  • It enables us to divorce ourselves from accountability and in the long run humanity
  • Real, live human interaction is how we feel a part of something, develop trust and have the capacity to feel for others. It is how we empathize…and then innovate.

Deductions

In my humble opinion with my limited knowledge and understanding of how people and the world works, I’ve concluded that —

  1. Work From Home might just not be an ideal way to work for everyone. Don’t get me wrong…it is one of the best things that have happened to us, but its magic works when used in moderation…esp. for teams like NonStop.
  2. People do tend to learn a great deal from osmosis, and complete remote work robs this opportunity for the team members
  3. (Even) A tech. career is a lot more than documenting, designing, coding, testing, deploying, and managing a tech product. It is also about creating bonds, friendships, and memories along the way
  4. Being together in a physical environment empowers you with a thing or two about how to survive, thrive, and then make an impact

This coming from a rather recluse person, who to date prefers listening and writing over speaking, prefers corners of rooms over center stage, and prefers backends over frontends seems a bit ironical in a way. Now that I think of it even expressing reclusiveness requires to you ‘express’, and ‘being there’ 🙂

For me personally, experiencing the unknown, uncomfortable, and unpreferred is the way to true leadership. It is a journey, and at the moment I sense value in creating a physical space for the team to share, experience, experiment, and innovate 💡

Conclusion

At NonStop we are proudly embracing a hybrid working model, where the team is free to work from anywhere, and have a physical space to come together, sync-up, chalk out the roadmaps and go achieve the world!

At the start of 2022 we went a step forward and purchased a nice cozy place that we can call our own, and we will be moving in there pretty soon 🤩

GeoPin to the new NonStop…very soon🤓

The idea was, is, and will always be to build a collaborative, creative workspace of our dreams where we can think-relax-work and build something meaningful for the world and ourselves!

Peace ✌🏽

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