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In-Office vs Remote. What Is It Really About?

By Vlad Zams.   

management, communication, cognition

I’d posit it is about long-lasting productivity, akin to most work-related considerations. Or at least it should be, shouldn’t it? And I’d argue, what drives long-lasting productivity is emotional engagement. If an individual can maintain an emotionally engaged state of mind along with exchanging information with their peers – congratulations – we have a seed for a productive team. However, the devil is in the details, or, as engineers might say, “bugs are in the implementation”.

It appears that some people may need to have five short chit-chats with five of their peers, and maybe 1-2 cups of coffee to bring themselves to this productively creative and engaged cognitive state. And it can be the case that most of those five peers a person attempted to engage with became significantly less productive for the next hour or so simply because they happened to have a distorting emotional response after that particular chit-chat on that particular day. And it can even be unconscious. That is, these ~5 badly affected people may not even realize why the heck they could not accomplish something meaningful the whole next hour after having that chit-chat. Rationally they may not see anything for treating that chat as unpleasant or not friendly. It may be just a bad day or a bad moment.

And it can happen in the office, it can happen over a call. We may argue about the chances for different kinds of distortions depending on a type of physical environment where the interaction takes place, but I don’t see it’s significant. And I’m not talking about transcendental miracles or one-off occasions; I’m talking about biologically-rooted emotional responses that accompany our conscious lives 100% of the time. You know, catching a strange smile, or a strange smell, or a look – and then, one hour later, realizing that your thinking is rather frequently interrupted with that memory instead of sticking to the tasks you carefully planned for yourself.

It can be either the chit-chat, the person, the smile, or some more distant factors that you can hardly associate with the colleague you interacted with. It’s just like a bunch of memories were triggered, that brought another memories with yet another emotional response… and now, for the whole damn hour you’ve been mostly saving yourself from drowning in some random thoughts. And it can be thoughts of regret, or sadness, or pleasure, or excitement, or something hilarious – not necessarily bad thoughts, but definitely not the problems you were hoping to be solving and eventually feel professionally appreciated. The intoxication happened. And you’re lucky if you spend some time during that hour reviewing your social feed and enjoying some likes by see-the-rarest-daily-promos accounts. That implies at least some pleasure in a situation where an alternative might be a self-torturing reflection on how unproductive you are.

And a separate point to realize is that it happens without anyone’s bad intent, or any conscious intent at all. Talking about toxic people often makes so little sense to me… gosh, we all just respond to our emotional deviations. Sometimes I’m stunned by how much effort people put into trying to establish universal standards for what toxic words or behaviors are. …It feels like I can’t wait for the moment someone comes to an unshakable conclusion: it’s toxic to be a human – a biological being living in a colony. (To clarify, by no means I’m suggesting there is no point in analyzing behavior or which words to pick and in which context).

The point I’m leading to is that everyone needs a space that is free from distortions, a place perceived as a mental office – a room that allows putting aside numerous things and people: colleagues, children, “just-1-minute” questions, deliveries, notifications. It’s not about the difference between staying at home or going to a corporate building.

I heard a number of managers equating being in the office with increased opportunities for human interaction—an assertion that is reasonable on its own. Yet, upon revisiting the notion of human-induced distortions, I question how many of these “interactions” might actually qualify as “collisions”. Despite this, I acknowledge that there’s a certain ease in maintaining an appearance of normalcy amid disorder when people convene in larger groups within expansive spaces, scattering communication across a vast array of channels and formats.

How do we increase the interactions/collisions ratio? Frankly, I’m not sure there is a recipe that would work regardless of a company size. However, here are a few considerations.

Why do some startups put a noticeable emphasis on working with friends and soulmates? One of the reasons may be that that environment bears a bigger chance for facing positive emotional responses for every individual. Positive not in some standardized sense – I’m not talking about people walking and smiling to each other. But positive in a sense of how given individuals interpret interaction with their peers. And from the outside of some companies, those interactions may seem quite harsh: teasing, using profanity, bursting with non-euphemistic humor. For the participants, however, it may be like living their best professional lives.

How does it feel more precisely? It feels like there is no better place for them in their career, and there are no better people to be surrounded by. And One of the key contributors to that feeling may be a person with a sense of humor who just seems to be close—mentally, not necessarily physically—whom they talk to occasionally, exchange looks of appreciation and respect with, provide small bits of support, either technical or social, and share an edgy joke that seems to be just damn funny in some context accessible to their imagination only. The person who brings unfathomable uniqueness to the days, which, at times (please let me say it), are just enormously hard to distinguish from a monotonous burden of a seemingly perpetual game of making small bursts of inflated business trivialities sound more exciting.

Talking about an office, it’s certainly easier to catch up for lunch with someone if you both are at the same building. However, unless someone with whom you have work-inspirational synergy is sitting next to you, it also requires an effort to maintain regular interaction. And in certain cases, that effort is higher than jumping to a conference call, or sharing a work session, or referencing some fascinating reading.

I wish, as managers, we would think more about creative ways for connecting peers while pursuing the chance for them to become work buddies rather than about a location for the workforce to reside in general. Along with, as usual, keeping their finger on the pulse of their direct reports’ work, one of the wisest things a manager can do is bootstrapping a long-term peer-to-peer relationship by spotting people who welcome each other into their mental space. And I know for a fact that, for some people who are on the path of becoming work buddies, remote work may be just an additional topic to reflect on, share tips and jokes about, and hence build trust even further.