In the two decades since the internet made this a theoretical possibility for all kinds of knowledge workers, remote work plodded along quietly from niche to niche – from an unavoidable compromise folks made when they were too ill to go into work, to a fringe movement of travel junkies, and most recently to Silicon Valley’s uber-cool answer to a housing crisis and the soaring costs of hiring in the Valley. Why hire in San Francisco when you can get fantastic talent in Austin, TX?
It was always that weird idea that seemed cool and yet incredibly impractical. “It’ll never work!” was always the refrain! Now, thanks to COVID-19, it’s got to work!
Remote work is the new normal – we’re all going to have to adapt, and we’re probably going to change the way we work quite substantially forever!
Why’s Remote Working So Hard?
“Office” is less than a 100-year-old concept. It’s something that we take for granted, but in truth, what we think of as “jobs’ and “work” has existed in this form for an incredibly short duration of time. For most of us in the workforce, it’s the only way of working we’ve ever known, but most folks made a living working to very different norms and outcomes for most of civilization.
In many ways, the concept of an office replicates the concept of a factory that birthed the industrial revolution – a place where “resources” were brought together and “transformed” to make things for value to be shipped out to market. When we look at the taxonomy of modern work, a lot of the terminologies and labels of the factory persist. “Productivity”, “Shipping Product”, “Working hours”, “shifts”…
Many of our work rituals also hark back to more fundamental social and cognitive behaviors that we try to leverage to achieve the outcome we’d like.
- Leaving for work gives us a routine to adopt each morning – something that frees us from the cognitive load of answering the question “What should I do now!?”
- Norms like having to be at work by 8/8/10 AM gives us a social commitment that helps build a flywheel of positive outcomes
- Just watching others at work taps into our mimetic tendencies, helping us overcome distraction or boredom and stick to the task at hand.
- The possibility of casual social interaction with your manager or your colleague reinforces one’s desire to have something to talk about or risk losing face.
Meetings and discussions help us clarify the doubts that skulk around quietly in our heads, oftentimes too foggy and diffused for us to even be articulate as questions clearly.
When we work remotely, we work alone, and all these external guide rails that help us channel our efforts disappear and we’re left to fend for ourselves, on strength of our own discipline, resolve, and sense of what to do. All those behaviors that help us “muddle along” as groups figuring out problems collaboratively disappear.
We’re alone on the Serengeti again – trying to figure out how to survive. It’s incredibly hard to pull off!