Remote Work Will Never Replace Offices
If you read even a small amount of business articles on a regular basis, you’ve no doubt seen countless articles on the future of the workplace and how every company will move to a telecommuting standard in order to save themselves money and be able to hire more broadly. In fact, just today I came across yet another author espousing this, a CEO whose article was titled Companies Who Adopt Remote Work Will Replace Every Company Who Doesn’t. Sounds awfully confident.
I call bullshit.
Over the years I’ve worked at places where telecommuting wasn’t at all possible, whether it was because it was the military or a company stuck in the eighties. I’m in a role right now that allows me to work from home whenever I want/need to, which is great and should certainly become the norm in workplaces wherever possible. As a parent and someone who has to commute a long way every day, it’s a godsend.
That said, I feel I can confidently predict that remote work isn’t ever going to replace offices. The world isn’t just tech companies made up of introverts with social anxiety who want to spend all their time at home coding, never interacting with anyone except via keyboard. Just about every industry relies on people doing business face to face which is why video conferencing, even at the high standard it is today, isn’t even close to fully replacing in person meetings.
If you’ve been in the business world for any length of time, you’ll know how hard it can be to work with people when the only contact you have is over email. You ask for a coworker to do something that’s well within their job description, but they don’t know you. All they know of you is a signature that says your job title, so your request might go days without a response. Or maybe they seem obstructionist and unwilling to help. I’ve experienced all of this, especially when trying to get answers out of colleagues overseas.
But something changed with those overseas colleagues that meant I could get whatever I needed from them, and they did it with enthusiasm. Can you guess what it was?
I went over there to meet them.
Well, to be fair, the company didn’t send me over just for that (although it still would’ve been worth the money considering my role). It was for training, but I built in time to ensure I could meet and spend time with all the people I needed to while I was there.
We had a few meals together, a few drinks, they showed me what they did, I told them about what I did, how our arm of the company worked and we bonded over all of it. From that point on, they couldn’t help me enough. They’d always ask how I was doing and how things were in Australia. I didn’t schmooze them or do anything special while I was there either, all I did was make a human connection.
You can’t make human connections over a phone line or through a chat program. We’ve evolved to read facial expressions, body language, tone of voice and appearances. This forms the backbone of our ability to trust other people, work towards mutually beneficial goals and to do favours for one another. It’s the absolute core of our cooperation as a species, because for most of our time on this planet, we’ve lived in small tribes. Even when we did stop moving and adopted agriculture, we still lived in villages and had a strong sense of community based on face to face interaction.
That’s what our companies effectively are nowadays. We spend most of our waking hours there, and the people we work with constitute a community. If you work remotely all the time, people never see your face. They don’t know what you’re doing and they begin to question your value if it’s not in the form of dollars for the company. Soon enough, out of sight becomes out of mind.
Is it fair? No. But it’s reality. You can’t divorce how work should be with how people actually are. People build connections at work every time they meet in the kitchen to heat up their lunch, or to make coffee. They make small talk about each other’s families and the weather in the minutes they wait for everyone to arrive at the meeting. They bump into each other in the hallway and say things like “wow I haven’t seen you for a while, how is everything?”
You can’t do that if you aren’t there. Those interactions may seem shallow and meaningless, but they are a kind of workplace lubrication that ensures people continue to help each other out even when it might be more work for them. They’re often the start of much longer term and deeper friendships, lending further satisfaction and community to one’s job.
The other thing is, I find it hard to believe most people want to work remotely all the time. A couple of days a week? Sure. It means you don’t have to dress up, don’t have to worry about packing your lunch and facing traffic. It’s a nice break. But full time? No way. Most people need the presence of other people. Hell, I’m a strong introvert by any psychological standard, but during my time working on the road where I might speak to one or two people a day, it was incredibly lonely.
Just imagine what that would be like for the extroverts.
You can’t get away from the fact that most people need and want to be around other people. It’s part of our DNA and isn’t going away. So no, I don’t believe that companies need to fully adopt remote work to stay competitive. Hiring the right people and trusting them to get quality work done whilst having the option to work from home when they need or want to is definitely the way of the future. I support that 100% and I think the companies that don’t do it are going to have serious issues attracting talent in the very near future. But the reality is that offices won’t go away until the only employees in companies are robots.