The empty promise of remote work — and why it falls short
A recent New York Times article paints a picture of a deserted San Francisco with offices only at 50% of their pre-pandemic capacity (at most). In the article, the CEO of Yelp touts the benefits of having distributed workforces and reducing the company’s real estate footprint in expensive urban centers. Does this mean thriving business districts are a relic of the past?
No, it doesn’t. And here’s why: The key to building innovative products that solve real problems is to gather people in person and have them work alongside each other. You simply can’t achieve the same levels of creativity, innovation, and even productivity when your teams are working remotely.
I’d like to share some of my observations over the past few years as the CEO of Productboard, a company with multiple offices across several countries.
The remote work experiment started strong, but can’t keep up the same momentum
In the early stages of the pandemic—when working from home was often a necessity due to government lockdowns—many teams were just as productive as they had been when working in the same offices, and many workers expressed a preference for flexible work arrangements. Business leaders were pleasantly surprised to see that productivity didn’t take a major hit. And they interpreted this as a signal that we could simply do away with offices and switch to a remote-first model moving forward.
But they were overlooking a critical point: The reason why many teams were able to transition into remote work so seamlessly was because they’d already been working together in person beforehand. They’d already built up the “trust capital” that allowed them to do things like: ask questions without fear of looking silly, interrupt others, give honest, critical feedback, and share and build on ideas in brainstorming sessions.
However, over time, and as team composition started changing, that trust capital began to erode. Now most teams experience a deterioration in both the quality and frequency of communication with their teammates. Consider the following everyday scenarios:
- Asking a simple question now involves the friction of scheduling a Zoom call or typing it out in an email or over Slack. And with written communication like Slack and email, the fact that there’s a written record of your “silly” question is yet another point of friction that causes many questions to go unasked.
- When you want to interrupt someone during a Zoom meeting, it’s so much more disruptive than when you’re in person, which leads to a lot of dead airtime, and again, people keeping a lot of valuable questions and thoughts to themselves.
- Sharing feedback—whether it’s on someone’s design, idea, or performance—feels awkward and uncomfortable if you don’t have a personal bond that’s been built in person first.
- Brainstorming, an activity that is by nature chaotic and disorganized, ends up feeling stilted and awkward in a virtual setting.
You can see how all these questions, comments, and ideas that don’t get shared can gradually make teams slower and more inefficient, but there are other ways remote work further erodes trust capital.
With remote work, we’re doing a disservice to our teams
Beyond the time penalty we’re paying for those everyday interactions with our coworkers and team members, remote work does us a disservice in the following ways.
- Onboarding isn’t as effective
When we don’t onboard people in person, they don’t build a sense of belonging and forge relationships with their team members (something that’s been linked to better engagement, efficiency, and innovation). They start with the “trust capital” gauge at zero and don’t get the chance to build it up.
- High-innovation activities suffer
If we don’t hold brainstorming or important cross-team kick-offs in person, we lose out on the ability to be truly creative and innovative. This means our projects are less likely to succeed and we’re slower and clunkier with decision-making.
- We don’t learn as much from our customers
Our relationships with customers are the same as our relationships with our coworkers—they’re just as likely to be guarded and awkward during virtual interactions. We only get to truly know and understand our customers when we spend time with them in person and build trust capital. Skipping these in-person interactions and relationship-building opportunities will ultimately impact our ability to build products that truly meet their needs.
- Our professional growth is blocked
All those missed opportunities for sharing feedback—because we don’t want to interrupt or it feels awkward to do so with someone we don’t really know—limit our ability to grow. When we don’t get constructive feedback, it’s much harder to identify the areas where we need to develop.
The future is flexible
I understand that there are many reasons why people are in favor of remote work arrangements: it cuts down on commute time, workers can be more productive in cases where they have fewer interruptions and distractions, and there’s the much-touted reduced cost of expensive office real estate.
I don’t want to say that employees should never work from home. There are benefits and it makes sense to let people work from home occasionally, especially when the work is more focused on execution than ideation.
But based on my experience—and what I’ve heard from other CEOs—the “savings” associated with remote work are not as impressive as what they appear to be on the surface. Whatever you’re saving in real estate, you’ll need to pay in travel fees to bring the team together, recruiting fees to backfill all of the people who have left, or in lost revenue because you’re not being as innovative and competitors are gaining an edge. In other words, there are hidden costs that need to be accounted for.
I believe the future of work should be more flexible than it’s been in the past, but we need to accept that remote work is not the utopian ideal that it’s been made out to be.