The extreme situation of lockdowns around the globe caused by the corona pandemic has quickly led to a lot of companies allowing their employees to work remotely. With more people having experienced how it’s like to work from home, companies might wonder if this should be the default way of working in post-corona times.
There are many benefits remote work offers: no commutes, no noisy offices that might cause distractions, easily providing 24/7 service times if the company has employees around the world, potential job candidates from everywhere, working whenever and wherever you want etc.
Should all companies be fully remote if they can?
Putting the obvious benefits of remote work in special situations like a pandemic aside, we need to consider what kind of future this would create for us as a society and individuals.
Modern life is lonely. More people move away from where they went to school or where their family is based. Long-term relationships are harder to build due to dating apps and less people go to church or join other communities like political parties. These are just a few reasons why people feel lonely although living among millions of people in big cities.
It has become so problematic that countries experiment with new solutions. The UK has a minister for loneliness, young and old generations share apartments in Sweden and in the Netherlands some supermarkets have coffee corners for elderlies to chat.
With all that in mind, is giving up the office a good idea, when it might be one of the last places for people to build meaningful relationships?
If you have experienced remote work you probably know how hard it is to still have casual chats with your colleagues and even when you do, there is a qualitative difference of talking in person and through a computer.
Connecting via machines
Video chats are currently a popular way to socialise during lockdowns. For most people I know, this worked for one or two weeks, but then it decreased rapidly again. The reason is that even with long-term friends socialising via screens is exhausting.
The bandwidth of information decreases when communicating digitally. Body language, volume of voice, gestures, position in the room, the way people interact with each other and other details are lost when talking over the wire.
Besides typical connection problems and delays that also complicate digital communication, there are also our biological needs of interaction which are not fulfilled. We need physical contact with other humans. This usually happens naturally, when we greet each other, laugh together, hug or just move closer when there isn’t enough space.
If maintaining connections to our closest friends is already difficult, one can imagine how hard it is to form long-lasting relationships in a fully remote company with people you might never meet in person.
So shouldn’t the default way of working in times where people already struggle with making connections support us in forming new ones rather than making it harder?
It’s not just our social connections that suffer from remote communication. Looking at screens in the office all day has already been a problem and with remote work it gets worse.
In the office there are opportunities to have face-to-face conversations, but working remotely every interaction happens through a screen. This isn’t just stressful for the eyes, but also for the whole body, because there are fewer incentives to move around.
Walking to different meeting rooms, walking inside a meeting room, walking to the coffee machine, going outside to get lunch and the commute itself are all opportunities for us to move our bodies. Remote work optimises them away.
Additionally moving to a different space for work isn’t just good for our physical health, it also helps our mental one too. Having different environments for work and private life creates a clear boundary, which reduces the risk of working over-hours and eases the mind into putting work aside.
Since we spend most of our time working and our bodies and minds suffer from lack of movement, isn’t it desirable when work incentivises us to move around?
All of these arguments were not about the work itself though and there are a lot of people that feel more productive when working remotely.
Humane work space
One major reason remote work can feel more productive for us, is that our current offices are badly designed. The open space office has been criticised for years, yet it still remains the default in most digital companies.
Despite the current layout problems, the office as an idea is still great: It’s a space designed for people, where they can work at their best.
If we feel more productive on our sofas at home, it says more about the devastating state of office designs than about remote work.
The thought of going back to the office should be a relief and not a threat. If that isn’t the case, our offices are clearly not what they are supposed to be.
Imagine an office that’s comfortable, where you can focus, yet allows you to connect with your colleagues. An office that brings people together and gives them space to concentrate at the same time.
Shouldn’t we redesign offices to be places for work again, instead of turning our homes into places for work?
This is where our main focus should be when the restrictions are finally lifted again. Let’s go back to our offices and transform them into what they are supposed to be.
Limited remote work
Remote work is not bad in general. It has its place and can work really well for some companies and people.
I have colleagues working remotely full-time and we will probably hire more. There are also loads of advantages to being very flexible when it comes to home office and allowing workation. In my opinion these possibilities should be a given in any company that can offer them.
This post though is about the question if remote work should be the default for companies that can do it. Because of the reasons above I believe remote work will never be better for us than a well-designed office space.
Our way of working needs to keep us physically and mentally healthy and support forming meaningful connections with people.
Remote work doesn’t make it impossible, but it takes a lot of effort instead of coming automatically. With effort it can work for individuals or companies, but it would cause a lot of problems on the scale of society.
As often the sweet spot is in the middle, not the extremes.