Formal interactions

Over the last couple of years, as the covid-19 pandemic has hit us and people have been asked to work from home, there has been a raging debate on the utility of office, especially for “knowledge work” (where the only “tool” you need is a computer).

Some companies such as Twitter have announced a “remote work in perpetuity”. Others such as Goldman Sachs have declared that remote work is inefficient and people need to return to offices asap. I probably was closer to the twitter position not so long ago, but now I think I’m firmly in the GS camp.

If you look at all the articles on remote work (I think Derek Thompson of The Atlantic has written some interesting pieces on this), one of the main arguments in favour of getting people to office is “informal interactions”, “bumping into colleagues”, “water cooler conversations”, etc. These kind of unstructured interactions can lead to new thoughts, which lead to innovation which lead to growth, goes the saying.

And in response to this, some companies have been trying to replicate these informal interactions in the zoom world. Instead of bumping into a colleague, you are forced to do a random “coffee chat” with a random colleague. There are online events. The hope here is that they will stand in for offline informal interactions.

Whether these events actually work or not, I don’t know.¬†However, as I come close to a year in my job, it is not the informal interactions that I care about when I think of office vs remote. It’s “formal interactions”.

The lightbulb moment occurred earlier this week. I’m working on a fairly challenging problem with two others in my team. Two of the three of us were in office, and started talking about this problem. We drew some stuff on the whiteboard. Did some handwaving. And soon we had a new idea on how to approach this problem.

Now the task at hand was to explain this to the third guy, who is in another city. We opened Google Meet. We opened a “JamBoard” in that. I tried to replicate the whiteboard drawing, but he couldn’t see my handwaving (you realise that in video calls, video and screen share are two disjoint things!). It took a whole lot of effort to get the idea across.

This is not an isolated incident. In terms of collaborative work, I’ve found on multiple occasions that simply sitting together for a short duration of time can achieve so much more than what you can do in online meetings.

Another thing is that I’ve found myself to get exhausted faster in online meetings. Maybe I speak louder. Maybe having to look in one particular direction for the duration of the meeting is stressful. Offline meetings I can keep going and going and going (especially when on methylphenidate). Online, 2-3 meetings and I’m exhausted.

And then you have new colleagues and onboarding. Employees at an early stage require an extremely high degree of collaborative work. You need to “show stuff” to your new colleagues. Sometimes you might just take over their laptop. There are times when they need interventions that in the off-line world take 2 minutes, but online you need to schedule a meeting for.

Notice that none of the stuff I’ve mentioned so far is “informal”. Maybe it’s the nature of the work – involving deep thinking and complicated ideas. Remote work is absolutely brilliant in terms of the ability to shut yourself off without distractions and do deep work. The moment you need to collaborate, though, you need to be in the same physical space as your collaborators.

It’s unlikely I’ll ever want to go back to office full time (as I said, working from home is brilliant for deep work). However, I do look forward to a permanent hybrid model, meeting in office at least once a week. Hopefully the pandemic will allow us to get to this sooner rather than later.

Oh, and informal interactions are only a bonus.

The future of work, and cities

Ok this is the sort of speculative predictive post that I don’t usually indulge in. However, I think my blog is at the right level of obscurity that makes it conducive for making speculative predictions. It is not popular enough that enough people will remember this prediction in case this doesn’t come through. And it’s not that obscure as well – in case it does come through, I can claim credit.

So my claim is that companies whose work doesn’t involve physically making stuff haven’t explored the possibilities of remote work enough before the current (covid-19) crisis hit. With the gatherings of large people, especially in air-conditioned spaces being strongly discouraged, companies that hadn’t given remote working enough thought are being forced to consider the opportunity now.

My prediction is that once the crisis over and things go back to “normal”, there will be converts. Organisations and teams and individuals who had never before thought that working from home would have taken enough of a liking to the concept to give it a better try. Companies will become more open to remote working, having seen the benefits (or lack of costs) of it in the period of the crisis. People will commute less. They will travel less (at least for work purposes). This is going to have a major impact on the economy, and on cities.

I’m still not done with cities.

For most of history, there has always been a sort of natural upper limit to urbanisation, in the form of disease. Before germ theory became a thing, and vaccinations and cures came about for a lot of common illnesses, it was routine for epidemics to rage through cities from time to time, thus decimating their population. As a consequence, people didn’t live in cities if they could help it.

Over the last hundred years or so (after the “Spanish” flu of 1918), medicine has made sufficient progress that we haven’t seen such disease or epidemics (maybe until now). And so the network effect of cities has far outweighed the problem of living in close proximity to lots of other people.

Especially in the last 30 years or so, as “knowledge work” has formed a larger part of the economies, a disproportionate part of the economic growth (and population growth) has been in large cities. Across the world – Mumbai, Bangalore, London, the Bay Area – a large part of the growth has come in large urban agglomerations.

One impact of this has been a rapid rise in property prices in such cities – it is in the same period that these cities have become virtually unaffordable for the young to buy houses in. The existing large size and rapid growth contribute to this.

Now that we have a scary epidemic around us, which is likely to spread far more in dense urban agglomerations, I imagine people at the margin to reconsider their decisions to live in large cities. If they can help it, they might try to move to smaller towns or suburbs. And the rise of remote work will aid this – if you hardly go to office and it doesn’t really matter where you live, do you want to live in a crowded city with a high chance of being hit by a stray virus?

This won’t be a drastic movement, but I see a marginal redistribution of population in the next decade away from the largest cities, and in favour of smaller towns and cities.It won’t be large, but significant enough to have an impact on property prices. The bull run we’ve seen in property prices, especially in large and fast-growing cities, is likely to see some corrections. Property holders in smaller cities that aren’t too unpleasant to live in can expect some appreciation.

Oh, and speaking of remote work, I have an article in today’s Times Of India about the joys of working from home. It’s not yet available online, so I’ve attached a clipping.