To work remotely or not to work remotely?

As we prepare for our TEDxZurich event in November, we are asking questions and having conversations around this year’s theme ‘connection’. Today we are bringing you a story on connection and communication in the modern workplace.

 

So there’s this guy I work with, David. He’s a freelancer. He only needs his computer and a decent internet connection to do his job. I’ve never met David. His status reads either ‘working from home’ or ‘working remotely’ – next to the palm tree emoji. And for a while, I thought how amazing that would be. Working remotely. Sitting under a palm tree with my laptop, sipping coconut water, with a tiny pink cocktail umbrella gloriously perched on my drink – could life be any sweeter?

How amazing that we have these devices and tools that let us have remote team members and even entire remote teams. How liberating! What a great work-life balance we could all achieve! In all seriousness, the possibilities of the 21st centuries regularly get me excited, despite my natural disposition usually ranging from pessimistic to cynical.

Then I met Melissa. She freelances and needs only her computer and a decent internet connection to do her job. Melissa works from home a lot, because she is often nowhere near close to where her work is. Where her work is, rents are skyrocketing and Melissa’s job doesn’t pay all that much, even when her hours regularly exceed those of a full-time job. Even for long-term projects, she usually remains a remote team member. She uses tools like Skype or Zoom to join meetings but most of her communication is written and asynchronous.

Recently, Melissa moved to be closer to more employment opportunities and for the first time has started working in an office again. As it turns out, it was incredibly difficult. The constant being around people. The small talk, in the morning, at lunch, in between, whenever people have a funny thought they needed to share. The meetings. The communication styles. The body language.

Melissa is not a weirdo. She’s a great friend, listener, conversation partner. So her experience got us talking. About communication and connections. About the difference between using tools to do so or being there in real life. She found she was so used to written and asynchronous communication which gave her the time to phrase and polish her responses, crafting the sentences and looking for the right words and tone that the imminence of face to face conversations overwhelmed her. Where she was relying solely on words to get her message across, suddenly, body language and tone were coming back into play. And Melissa found herself struggling to participate. Mute. As if she weren’t there, even though now, finally, she was there.

Melissa had to go in search of her voice again. I’ll put you out of your misery, there’s a happy ending. But for me, that’s not where the story ends. I talked to my colleague David and others in similar situations and found that many of them who spent a significant time working from home or remotely also found that their communication styles led to one skill set blooming, while another withered away, like used or unused muscles.

We all know it – the species that have survived so far are those that are good at adapting to ever-changing surroundings and contexts. And so we adapt also to communication styles that come with the tools we use. But the logical conclusion is also that those devices and tools change us and the way we connect with each other, and permanently so if we let them.

I’m not damning that and saying we should go back to live a Neanderthal life. But let’s consider the possible extremes and decide if that’s what we want. Would it matter if some people lost the ability to participate in real-life, loud, noisy, synchronous and instant conversations? And if yes, how do we protect them? Do we set boundaries on how long someone can work remotely or from home? Or do we build better devices, more powerful tools that can mimic real-life connections and offices in remote locations?

But then, sitting under my palm tree, sipping on my coconut with my cocktail umbrella, surrounded by office noise and chatter – it’s not quite as romantic. Maybe it’s time I took off these rose-coloured glasses when I think about remote work and put the idea in that overflowing drawer labeled ‘things that seemed better in my head’.