Virtual work
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Virtual work

Nine reasons why virtual work is a new medium

Soap operas began in the 1930s as radio shows. Despite their popularity, the transition to the new medium of television in the 1950s was not assured. The networks first introduced news and variety talk shows, avoiding the riskier business of reinventing soap operas for TV. All radio needed was a microphone, a sound man, actors and a script. The new visual medium required costumes, sets, makeup and a myriad of technical people to shoot, edit and produce the shows. And then there were the worries about demand. Would the core audience of housewives watch instead of listen? Wouldn’t it distract them from their housework?

Seventy years later, we seem to be at a similar inflection point with work. The Covid pandemic of 2020 has massively accelerated the long-term trend towards remote work. Of the 60m Americans eligible for desk jobs in 2019, an estimated 43.5% are working from home today, according to Sector & Sovereign Research, an investment research firm. That is more than double the 19.8% who were working remotely in 2019. And yet, like those radio soap opera producers of the 1950s, our understanding of how to perform remote work well is in its infancy. We believe the first step is to recognize that, like TV was to radio, virtual work is a new medium to office work. What works well in the office may or may not work well remotely. Likewise, what works well remotely may have never been tried before in the office, because it would never have worked there.

To become better at remote work, we must first understand the differences of the medium. Here are our thoughts.

1. Remote work has no inherent structure.

Office work is somewhat structured. We observe conventions about when we arrive, and when we leave. The physical space constrains and defines how the work is performed. The number and size of meeting rooms constrains the number and size of meetings. The size of the whiteboards in those meeting rooms constrains the exercises we can perform using them.

Remote work has no inherent structure. We begin work when we find the motivation to get out of bed. We end when we end. The only thing limiting virtual space is the computing power required to render it. It can take on any shape, form or structure we choose to design for it.

2. Remote work can be performed asynchronously, as well as synchronously.

Office work can be performed asynchronously too. But the office is designed specifically for synchronous work. The ritual of going to the office is the ritual of being with colleagues in the same place, at the same time. The meeting — the most familiar work habit of the office medium — is a ceremony that brings people together to work at the same time.

Remote work has no inherent design or structure (see point 1. above). We can design it to optimize for synchronous work. We can also design in to optimize for asynchronous work.

3. Remote work accommodates flexible team structures.

As agile coaches, we have long preached the benefits of small teams. This is because the complexity of team communications (and hence human relationships) grows exponentially: a team of four people has six bilateral channels of communication; a team of eight has 36. The eight-person team has an exponentially larger potential for miscommunication, misunderstanding and confusion.

This effect can show up during remote work. We can also design the remote medium to support the effective coordination of very large teams. Wikipedia and open-source software are both good examples of effective coordination at a very large human scale.

4. Remote work affords “low bandwidth” human communication.

Communication at the office involves much more than what we say or write. We also communicate with the language of our bodies — how we sit or stand; the expressions on our faces; making, holding and dropping eye contact; shaking hands; embracing.

This rich, non-verbal language is much less available to us online.

5. More remote work must be planned in advance.

The office medium has low barriers to interruption. For good and ill, we can get out of our chairs, walk to a colleague and ask a question, or do some problem solving.

The virtual medium requires more upfront planning. We must plan and book a whiteboarding session if we want to do some ideation. We cannot necessarily expect an instant answer to a question posted on Slack.

6. Remote work supports one speaker at a time.

A large conference room can support multiple simultaneous conversations.

A single virtual room requires that we speak one person at a time.

7. Remote work provides equal access

Office space is designed to support and reinforce hierarchy. Employees sit in open-plan spaces. Their managers sit in glass-walled offices around the perimeter, observing them. The design is as old as office space itself.

Virtual space has no inherent hierarchy. In fact, a lot of the tools we use assume equal access in their designs. The boss’ Zoom window is no larger than anyone else’s, nor is her Slack any more or less prominent in the thread.

8. Remote work emphasizes productivity over presence.

Going to the office is in good measure about being present. We clock in. We clock out. We make sure we look busy.

None of this is true for remote work. No one is watching us perform it. Only the output is visible.

9. The remote-work medium is continuously improving.

Office space is made of glass and steel. Trends in office design do come and go. But fundamentally, the office doesn’t change much.

Virtual space is made out of software. Software is continuously evolving and improving. As the software changes, best practices in virtual work must continuously evolve and improve too.

That’s our list. We’d love to hear yours.

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Ben Edwards

Ben Edwards

Storyteller, coach, un-management consultant. Prolific author of books never written.