Early in my career, when I began working for a leading high-tech company in California, I was asked to manage international marketing, and one experience has stuck with me as a key observation about remote working. A colleague was asked to move to our European HQ and to work directly with me in California. This was pre-Internet. We had phones and telex messages on long rolls of paper. My colleague and I discussed our impending new situation, and we agreed that our remote working relationship across nine time zones would be enhanced if we got to know each other better before he left for Europe. Fortunately, we discovered that we were both avid skiers, so weekend ski adventures became the vehicle for building and maintaining our working relationship. When my colleague began working from our Brussels HQ, we began talking every day, sometimes at all hours of the day and night, making our working relationship particularly effective. But as time wore on, it became difficult to sustain that high level of team collaboration. His life was “over there,” and mine was “over here.” It was necessary to refresh our effectiveness with regular personal working trips “over there” and “over here.” Over time we realized that our relationship was subject to a cycle of ups and downs, periods of greater and lesser effectiveness.
This story explains why I personally believe that the future of work will not be a binary choice between office or “work from home” (WFH). As in my situation, future remote office collaboration situations will also need to refresh the relationships to maintain effectiveness. Looking back, some companies have been better than others at realizing this truth, by providing ample travel opportunities in both directions for refreshing face-to-face relationships. It is the cost of doing business, but more challenging now with the probable increased cost of travel, inconvenience, and potential health risks.
I do not underestimate the importance of the Internet in this equation. Video conferencing has been around for decades but has only recently gone viral. Microsoft Teams usage jumped 400% to 4.1 billion users on one day last April. I am an avid user of Microsoft 365 Business environment and have previously also used Google’s G-Suite. My business is still primarily international, interacting with clients and partners in many different time zones. Microsoft Teams, and video streaming apps are a critical component of my office environment. I can honestly say that the online streaming video experience can mitigate some of the deterioration in collaboration effectiveness, but not completely. There are even suggestions about the use of virtual reality applications to augment remote effectiveness. I think that is probably wishful thinking and too far ahead of the market.
Reading the numerous articles in business journals on this topic, you can find the full spectrum of opinions on how this will eventually play out. The Wall Street Journal is predictably conservative, quoting HR executives pointing out important face-to-face needs which are admittedly valid. The Financial Times comes out about where I am, in the belief that a hybrid environment is most likely. Some of the tech journals are somewhere out there near Westworld.
In my previous blog post, I explained my views on remote business communication, both one-on-one and webinar-style learning and collaboration events. It is clear to me that these online streaming events vary widely in their effectiveness. However, they can be structured to be far more effective, by using the Oxford tutorial model wherever appropriate, and obvious basic rules of configuration and presentation.
Last, but not least, the need for flexible work for women is a big consideration and a priority. This came to the fore well before the pandemic and was underscored by the debate about Marissa Meyer’s “office-only” edict at Yahoo, while she built a nursery next to her office. Ironically, the WSJ article does not include consideration of women’s needs. Now the issue has become glaring, and an even greater priority as mothers must deal with much more than just day care.
Personally, I have worked from home for years as a private consultant, for much of that time in a home office overlooking the ocean. This is not the WFH reality of most people. Regardless, the need for flexibility and a hybrid work environment is universal, comprised of remote work, office work, and travel. It is optimal for maximum work effectiveness as we deal with the long-term consequences of this public-health crisis.
The author, David Mayes, holds a degree in Speech-Communication, is a Silicon Valley alumnus, and is the founder of Mayo615 Technology Partners.