Remote working is liberating us from the shackles of outdated, 20th Century habits, goes the prevailing narrative.
We are freed from the purgatory of the daily commute and are spared office gossip, time-wasting meetings or pointless rituals. Major corporations seem to have embraced this ethos too. Google has said that most employees can be home-based until 2021.
Many, including my own company Eigen Technologies, have adapted extremely well to the remote working model and have remained productive throughout the pandemic. In fact, we are on track to have our best quarter ever.
But productivity, in the narrowest and short-term sense, is not the sum total of what a company does.
Although technology driven businesses like ours are functioning well so far despite the pandemic, much of the social and cultural ferment which start-ups create and on which they depend could run aground in a distributed work environment and fundamentally reduce productivity in the medium to long term
The serendipity and randomness of office encounters is the lifeblood of start-up culture and without them, the culture of the organisation is poorer for everyone.
It is no accident that Steve Jobs, former Apple CEO and founder of Pixar, commissioned the Pixar Animation Studios complex in Emeryville, California, to maximise unplanned interactions. It also makes it all the more surprising that so many in tech have chosen remote working over the importance of being together as a team.
Distributed working is at risk of leaving workers – particularly the more junior ones – more exposed and vulnerable. It can serve to entrench corporate hierarchies and erases much of what’s life-enhancing about work culture.
With little face-to-face contact, there is precious little opportunity for the social bonds of an organisation to salve the paranoia that home working can engender. This year’s update of an annual study of 2,500 remote workers by Buffer found that the top two biggest struggles for respondents were ‘collaboration and communication’ and ‘loneliness’, accounting for 40 per cent of respondents.
Judging the quality of work in a remote environment focuses purely on output and much of the process involved in this output can often go unseen. Activities which benefit the whole company like supporting teamwork or soft mentorship are not visible in a remote work culture and can go unrecognised and unrewarded.
Start-ups have always thrived on diversity, another area let down by remote working. Many of the people who have found lockdown particularly challenging (such as working parents without childcare) are exactly those who a diverse workforce should be seeking to bring along, and there are implications for the long-term diversity of business if these people drop out of the workforce.
When London’s deep lockdown ended, I went for a suitably distanced pint with colleagues. I learned more about what was going on in our organisation in two hours standing outside than in the hours of video calls and formal reports – about the concerns and ambitions of new employees, the struggles of getting a sales call set up, the lack of context for junior employees as to why or how we are doing something.
I recently had a client meeting over lunch and enquired about their greatest professional concerns, before really connecting about being parents and spouses, and the stresses we experienced during this period. Every employee, client, supplier, and investor is a human being.
So, while we will of course always support the flexibility our people need, over the longer term we will refuse and resist a move to remote working as the sole standard. The apparent convenience may be seductive, but it comes at too high a creeping cost: the loss to our people of intra office communication, serendipitous cross-functional collaboration, unstructured mentoring and development of soft skills, as well as a vital face to face element to support networks, and the loss to our economy and society of our engagement with local businesses.
Start-ups and tech companies need to be incredibly wary in handling this transition. The benefits of remote working need to be balanced with the culture and energy that comes from a social office and that start-ups need in order to continue challenging the status quo.
Dr Lewis Z. Liu is co-founder and CEO of Eigen Technologies