In recent years Novi Sad, Serbia and Lisbon, Portugal, became two of our central locations — people either live in the city or live close enough to come meet from time to time. Most of the team is still working remotely from other places that vary a lot, but mostly it’s Eastern Europe (for example Poland) or Middle East (Israel).
This week I was meeting with the team in Novi Sad. We decided to spend a few days working in the same room as an experiment, to spend some more time together and to compare remote work and office work in real life. This was optional and those who were not feeling like changing their cozy home environment to a room full of colleagues were free to skip it — we were meeting together in the evening anyway, although this too was optional. After all, one of the benefits of working remotely is that you can live your own life without meeting people, which is huge if you’re an introvert or live by your own schedule.
Since I was visiting for a short time, I rented an Airbnb and was lucky enough to rent another one that was just next door. The setup was simple — I lived at my own place and we used the other one as our very own coworking space. The reason for this was that we couldn’t find large enough commercial space for a short period of time for a reasonable price, and since we’re working remotely we don’t have a big enough space of our own.
The experiment went well — we enjoyed working together, having the option to ask each other questions while working in person instead of sending DMs or scheduling calls. We had lunch together and even had our very own water cooler effect in the kitchen while making coffee and tea.
Productivity Takes a Hit
But we all noticed how the productivity went down. This was fine for a few days, but I can’t even imagine how much more we get done daily by working from home in sweatpants (or without pants at all, it’s summer after all). People who opted out of “coworking” cited that they need a lot to get done, so they feel like they need some quiet focus time, something you don’t get in an open space with people around you. And I do believe them because it’s not like they had to lie — it was optional and our culture is the one where you can just say “No, thanks, I don’t feel like it” without the need to make an excuse.
Improved Communication and Connection
We were not productive, but the connection was clearly so much better. There’s a huge difference between discussing things in writing and on a scheduled call versus briefly talking to a person or a few people in the same room.
But these advantages come with a price. Most importantly, lack of focused uninterrupted time, which is fine if you’re for example a manager and half of your day consists of small tasks that can be done in small chunks of time — replying to emails for example, or reviewing something (see an essay on Makers and Managers schedule). But even managers need quiet focused time to do some deep work.
Office space poses a danger to it:
- Someone is constantly talking. Either it’s someone discussing those things that would be an isolated call when working remotely, or people just having a small talk or reacting to what’s going on in their own work right now. It’s perfectly normal, but it’s a distraction.
- People distract you by asking questions. Meaning that you have to stop whatever you’re doing and think about whatever the person is asking you about. Then go back to your own work.
- Everyone have different ways to work. Someone likes to listen to the music and it’s not the one you like (hello headphones), someone likes to eat and drink at their workspace and you have to see and smell all of it.
You just get to be around people and it’s a distraction in itself, because we react at each other. If your colleague is stretching his back, you’re going to talk about it.
I get that some of the benefits of working in the office can be achieved with tools like Discord for example, when everyone’s on the voice chat. Same way, some disadvantages of office work can be mitigated with eating and drinking coffee at the kitchen that is far enough, wearing headphones and “do not disturb” sign at your desk.
But still, there are differences. And so far our team’s choice is still remote undistracted work. And I’m not even touching the topics of commute and limiting yourself to working with people who live only in a certain area.
The Ideal Hybrid Approach
Yet, working in person only once in a while is amazing. I think we’ll move towards having quarterly meetups like this where everyone from remote locations gets the option to fly to either Serbia or Portugal and work with teammates for a week or so. This way I think we’ll get the best of both worlds. We’ll have better connections within the team, we’ll spend some amazing in-person time and listen to stories about each other’s lives and meet each other spouses, but we’ll get to work from home for the rest of the time.
There’s only one problem with these periodic meetups that I can see — some people won’t attend. They will be optional, they can’t be a requirement because everyone has their own limitations. Some have kids and it’s hard for them to arrange someone taking care of them. Some have parents they take care of and can’t leave even for a week. Someone has a disability no one knows about because of remote work and don’t feel comfortable revealing it or simply can’t travel. I can imagine dozens of reasons why people won’t travel to meetings.
This is normal and totally okay, but it may have an effect where part of the team that meets in person has a stronger connection and everyone else that couldn’t make it feels left out. I don’t know how serious it may be and it’s not clear how we can fight it, but that’s the exact reason why I always felt like our 100% remote team had an advantage over a regular company with an office that decided to add a few remote team members because they couldn’t find anyone locally. I worked in such teams and I always heard stuff that they discussed on some in-person meetup or made a decision there and I didn’t know about it for a while.
Maybe there are ways to deal with it. For example, we could stream the whole meetup on video — this is common for mixed meetings where there’s a room full of people but there’s also a bunch of others invited to join online. Some tech setup needed for this to switch the video focus of online participants on a screen in the room depending on who’s talking, but it’s doable in a “coworking scenario”. It wouldn’t work for simulating watercooler and night-outs with coworkers though.
The Complexities of Remote Work
Overall, I think office work is less effective for people who need to do deep focus work — for example engineers. It’s better for managers though, maybe that’s why there’s so much pushback — it’s the managers of various levels who make the decisions after all.
Then there’s a big topic of fairness. If managers and those for whom office work is effective get to commute, why others get to stay at home? Let’s bring everyone to work then. I guess that’s the line of thinking there (I think Elon Musk mentioned this at some point).
Finally, if some people work remotely and others are working in-person, there will be this growing disparity and disconnection between the two groups. This won’t make HR feel good either.
Oh yeah, there’s also a big topic of salaries because when everyone is in the office you just pay local salaries and there are no complications of remote work compensation and disparities. And if you’re office is in the right location you may even save quite some amount.
Originally published on Medium.com