LONDON: Silicon Valley has been entranced by the idea of “remote working” for decades.
For all the billions that Apple, Google, Facebook and their start-up imitators have spent on elaborate headquarters, many software engineers would be happy to swap their starchitect-designed offices for a decent pair of noise-cancelling headphones and work from anywhere.
So while few would be quite so crass as to admit it, China’s coronavirus-enforced lockdowns make for a fascinating case study of remote working on a massive scale.
Millions have had to work from home for weeks, prompting a spike in second-hand laptop and tablet sales in China and driving Alibaba’s collaboration app DingTalk to the top of the Chinese App Store charts.
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WE HAVE THE TOOLS BUT DONN’T KNOW HOW TO USE
The good news: Much of the tech that underpins remote working, such as the video-conferencing service Zoom and the chat app Slack, is finally mature and reliable.
The bad news: Not much of it comes with a proper user’s manual.
That has left millions to figure out for themselves how to make sure their Slack joke isn’t taken seriously (emoji are your friend) or whether it is acceptable to have laundry visible in the background of a video call with colleagues (it’s not).
Speaking to seasoned remote workers in both big companies and start-ups, working successfully in a “distributed team” seems to come down as much to etiquette as tech.
Step one is to remember where people are. Patrick McKenzie, a Tokyo-based software developer and marketer, has worked for San Francisco-based Stripe for more than three years.
Yet some colleagues back at the payment company’s headquarters still invite him to meetings at 4am in Tokyo. “One of the most important things about making remote work well is establishing communication norms for it,” says McKenzie.
HOW TO MAINTAIN HIGH LEVELS OF MOTIVATION
Maintaining motivation is another quandary for managers of remote teams. Ryan Hoover, founder of Product Hunt, a fully remote company of 20 employees around the world, gets everyone together for a Monday “all hands” Zoom video call.
“Probably the biggest benefit is seeing each other’s faces,” he says, adding:
Even though it’s only for half an hour or so, it makes people realise they are working with a team and adds some personality to everyone. Every now and then I’ll see someone’s cat walk past the screen.
Expressing that personality only works if your colleagues can see you. Long-time remote workers insist that everyone in a virtual meeting turns on their camera.
At Stripe, many have invested in desktop lighting rigs. “Your level of happiness on a video chat is quite sensitive to how your co-workers perceive you,” says McKenzie. “Lighting matters a lot.”
Video dial-ins to a physical meeting can be a minefield. Delays on the line are one thing; Getting people in the room to remember that there is someone on the other end of the camera is another.
‘ALL OR NOTHING AT ALL’ EFFORT
Issues like this make some practitioners believe that remote working is an “all or nothing” endeavour — not just when it comes to meetings.
If a company has some employees in a central office but others scattered around the world, the remote workers miss out on water-cooler chat and desk-side decision-making — or at least worry that they might.
To address this, some start-ups are forcing all their employees to communicate important messages online, via Slack or shared documents, even if they work in the same physical office.
For Chris Herd, founder of FirstbaseHQ, a start-up that supplies equipment for remote workers, this “asynchronous” working style is more relevant than questions of “office first” or “remote first”.
Herd ardently believes asynchronous workplaces — where employees rarely get together but make decisions via centralised communications systems — are more productive, allowing for deep, uninterrupted focus: “Working in the office can mostly be about that instantaneous gratification of availability. It’s just disruption.”
A lot of managers in China will be worrying about whether productivity takes a hit while their staff stay at home.
But for Silicon Valley’s evangelists, remote working is more than just a stopgap in a crisis — it is an improvement on office life.
If the coronavirus continues to spread, many more of us may have the chance to find out for ourselves which it really is.