I think definitely one of the tech industry's worst mistakes in a long time was that everybody could go full remote forever, and startups didn't need to be together in person and, you know, there was going to be no loss of creativity, I would say that the experiment on that is over, and the technology is not yet good enough that people can be full remote forever, particularly on startups.—Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI
It's hard to tell without context what, exactly, Sam Altman means by "full remote forever". I'm going by news reports and assuming he means everyone working from home with no office or with an office used by only a few people in the company. Let me sketch what I think is the best version of this argument:
- For virtually all of human history, people worked shoulder to shoulder with other people.
- We pick up subtle cues from non-verbal communication that are not present when people aren't physically co-located.
- Innovations happen when people interact with each other. Communication barriers from remote work short-circuit that process.
- Technology (video meetings, chat, etc.) has not yet overcome the disadvantages from working remote.
I find these points persuasive! Especially for certain organizations and certain people, working in the same physical space is more productive than over a video call. It's got to be frustrating to go into the office and find many of your co-workers are still at home.
Speaking of which, how many of us are setting up an office in our living room, like I am right now?1 Behind me our twins are watching a YouTube video about LEGO. When I'm on a video call the lighting makes me look like I'm in a witness protection program. Don't tell my boss, but sometimes I play games during work hours.
My first job was an internship near Dulles Airport that was between 30 minutes to an hour from my home in Fairfax. When I started my first full time job at JPL, it took 40 minutes to over an hour to commute from UCLA.2 So my commute increased the time dedicated to work from 8 hours to 10. I listened to a lot of sports talk radio before I discovered the library has an extensive audio book collection.
I worked with a guy who lived in South Bay and got up early to avoid an hour and a half commute. My strategy was to go in later in the morning. So we had roughly 4 hours of overlap during the day. Even though we worked closely together, I estimate we spent an average of 20 minutes of that time in the same room. Most of that would be during our weekly team meetings.
When we did talk, it might be about work. But it was more often about sports, hobbies and, sigh, our commutes. I remember a long discussion about how every application would be a website in the future—a future that was only a few years away. We solved some technical problems together. But going into the office mostly meant sitting in our respective offices and doing work on our own computers.
Since we worked on multi-user Unix systems, our computers frequently functioned as terminals. We got permission to use SSH so that we could log in from home in case of emergency. Once we had that, there was little need to come into work physically other than meetings. Later I worked on a project that had a daily conference call with people across the country. I'd get up early, check the processing from the previous night, call in and only go to work later in the day if I had a meeting.
I won't say going into the office had no value. I learned SQL from a co-worker during intense pair programming sessions. Another co-worker introduced me to active listening while chatting over the wall that separated our cubicles. What I will say that as the technology for working remote improved, the cost of commuting became much higher relative to just working from home. The trend has only continued since.
Starting remote work opened up the world to me. That's not a figure of speech. In the last decade I've worked with people from:
- The Philippines
- Northern Ireland
If I'd worked out of an office, there's no chance I could've met all of these people, much less collaborate with them. We talk a lot about diversity and inclusion in narrow terms: mostly race and gender. There's a sense to that if you're focused on America's history of sexism and racism. Remote work gives us a global understanding of diversity by including people who live outside of the commuting radius.
The pandemic forced a lot of people to get used to the tools of remote communication:
- video calls
- shared documents
Each of these tools leaves artifacts as a natural part of using them. When I've joined companies that suddenly found themselves remote-only, it's as if they didn't exist before that moment.3 History begins when people commit to writing things down.
Hybrid companies (some people are remote and others go to the office) struggle until they discover the one remote => all remote principle. People who call in generally have a harder time communicating than people who meet physically. Meanwhile, when you can just drop by someone's cubicle to resolve an issue, you don't have the same incentive to document decisions. Not only does carefully recording outcomes of meetings help people who can't physically be there, it also helps participants remember what happened long after the meeting has been forgotten.
It's not that in-office companies can't produce good records. Rather it's not natural the way it is for fully-remote companies. With some ingenuity, office workspaces could function like their remote counterparts. Meanwhile fully-remote companies can compensate for what's missing from not meeting in an office by:
- Requiring weekly 1-on-1 meetings between employees and their supervisor.
- Offering regular company-wide meetups.
- Facilitating team-building activities.
- Organizing cross-team connections.
Having tried both, I don't ever want to go back to a daily commute. The few things I'm missing are easily balanced by the many, many ways online work environments produce better outcomes for more people.
Now this isn't true for all types of labor. A few weeks ago a city inspector came to examine our ongoing construction project. As we walked around the mostly-completed framing, I had an odd feeling that are stairs were too narrow. Since our architect was there, I asked him and he responded that, at 3 feet wide, they complied with the building code—barely. But, he said, the time to change plans was now; once the concrete is poured, it gets at lot more difficult to change.
Since the architect, structural engineer and project manager were all on-site, we were able to physically consider the ripple effects of making the stairs wider. Half an hour later we had a change in plans. Could we have done this over email or Zoom? Maybe. Being in the same location, however, made the whole process smooth and natural.
So, yeah. If your business depends on something physical (a place or an object) get your employees in the same space so they can work together on that thing. But if your business is online . . . do I really need to finish the sentence?
Companies that can go fully remote don't need offices. Offices are a distraction what with the commuting, shared kitchens, badges, hour and a half lunch breaks, personality conflicts and stolen office supplies. There's a chance that spending time together physically will spark creativity, but there's no guarantee. And I don't see the evidence that spending time together using the tools of a remote office reduces the odds of creative inspiration.
Later I moved to Pasadena which cut my communte to only a few minutes if I drove. Living so close, I did take a bus or bike sometimes. ↩
To be fair, most of that history is probably buried in email and files that aren't easily discovered over the internet. ↩