The Coming WFH Standoff
Is remote work here to stay?
Covid forced us all to our houses and for a while it seemed like this would be a permanent trend, at least in the IT space. People were surprised when productivity stayed consistent or even increased. They started talking about making it permanent. Some even took the plunge (Dropbox, Twitter, Upwork, Zillow).
But grumblings about a potentially remote-working-world were circulating as well. Particularly on social media. Doubters claimed that teams cannot build trust remotely, that work relationships must be built face-to-face.
These comments, however, stand in contrast to successful companies like Hashicorp, Basecamp and Automattic that worked remotly even before the pandemic.
So what is the truth? As far as I can tell, the remote work critic’s argument doesn’t center on productivity, but on relationships and may be an expression of personal preference — the classic difference between introverts and extroverts. People are different, and they need different things from their place of employment. For some, work doesn’t need to provide both coworkers and lunch companions. For others, more personal contact is crucial for effective collaboration.
If the need for face-to-face communication is individually determined, then we should settle on a hybrid solution that respects that difference.
Consider how a university is configured. There are study arrangements for all types of people. Some spend their time in study groups in shared spaces in libraries or elsewhere. Some take to a university carrel where they can be by themselves for long periods of quiet concentration. Some study in open areas like cafeterias or dormitory lobbies for the calming background noises and activity. There is something for everyone.
A university caters to all personality types, and does not glorify or disparage any specific style. Work should strive to do the same. We should not project our own preferences on anyone else, but respect them and seek to accommodate them where possible. And where people choose to work has such a significant impact on happiness and productivity that it deserves particular attention.
By a hybrid solution, I do not mean that some days you are on-site and other days you are not. That only promises to make people unhappy half the time. But a hybrid solution where the employees get to choose between a remote-only or on-site team — where everyone on the team is either 100% remote or 100% on-site¹.
Why does this determination needs to be team specific? Because teams with only some remote workers are problematic. If building trust with remote employees is difficult now for the face-to-facers, that won’t change after they return to the office and still have to collaborate online with half their team. It also doesn’t seem practical to ask them to limit their interactions to video conferencing from their desks. If face-to-face interaction was what they were craving that scheme would only further deprive them. Remote workers also suffer in these schemes. They are likely to feel excluded, wondering what decisions are being made without them.
We just came off a decade or more where engineers were forced to work in open office plans because of a minority preference of corporate executives. Plenty of engineers complained about the distraction. It would be a mistake to force it on them again. Likewise, forcing everyone to work remotely would be the other side of the same mistake.
In our future working arrangements — even after covid — let’s have it both ways. It’s not that hard. No matter how much either side may try to project their own preferences on the other, let’s stay strong and remember the lessons we’ve learned. Most of all, let’s be sensitive to each other’s personal needs. This pandemic has at least taught us that much.
 Another popular idea is for teams to all be on-site some days of the week and remote the rest. This scheme could work, but has some potential pitfalls. First, it requires that everyone be on the same in-office schedule, but that can be difficult to ararnge. Second, over time people will naturally prefer one working mode over the other and drift towards it primarily. Then all the same failed dynamics of a half-and-half team will be present.