The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

The hidden cost of remote work

In an interview he gave in May of this year Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO, wondered about the hidden cost or remote work.

The fact that the raw productivity stats (whatever this means) had gone up in the beginning of the pandemic didn’t seem to him a reason to overcelebrate. His take was that there is a need to look beyond and think about what could have been lost.

We’ve become used to socialize via zoom. But we haven’t yet learned to see all the hidden benefits people experience when working in the same building or office. It takes an effort to see what has always been there. The sense of relationship, ease, and belonging they create is easily overlooked.

And in a situation like the pandemic, the focus has been on the present need to keep going. Still, solutions have been found to allow for some small talk or to enable different types of conversation. All to reproduce the small chats in between, at the watercooler or the coffee machine.

But it’s not clear if we’ve seen it all.

Working remotely invites everyone to develop their routines without the ability to appreciate the routine others have. At the office, these routines become visible as people see each other. The colleague who is walking the dog at noon, or the one who goes out for lunch and comes back after two hours. They all do the work they need to do, but they organize their working day as it is best for them.

Working remotely, people need to ask others how they organize themselves to be able to capture everyone’s routines. Without these interactions, people can only see the time of the day used to send messages or emails. It doesn’t make the amount of work done visible, but it invites the fantasies that others work more than one does. Easily leading to people working longer than usual. The lack of easy interactions will also add to the effort required to get the information needed to do their work. As a result, more often than they might realize it, they’ll go with the information they already have. Similarly, the interactions people have with their boss and vice versa help both to know that the work being done meets the needs. For people used to these interactions, lacking them creates a sense of unease. One making it difficult to meet expectations or to know that expectations are being met.

While it is possible to build up trust with others one only knows remotely, it often isn’t as complete as the one we can build from meeting in presence. That may be since only in presence meetings will allow us to meet the whole person. Video meetings usually only allow meeting the upper body of a person. Working together might have been built much more on trust than we are aware of. If it can be built as before, it brings up the question as to what will be used instead or how reliable the relationship will be.

The list of interactions we are used to and the way they help us align with one another is actually quite long. Having them builds social capital, a sense of ease, and knowing as to how relationships, ease, and belonging is best established.

We’ve succeeded to remain efficient remote work. Will it also be more effective?


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