By Clive Thompson, originally for The New York Times Magazine
Josh Harcus sells robots for a living. Robotic vacuum cleaners, to be specific — a model called the Whiz, which his employer, SoftBank Robotics America, released here last fall. The company, part of a group owned by the Japanese conglomerate, has deployed more than 6,000 of the robots around the world, including at Facebook headquarters. They look like something out of “Wall-E”: a rolling gray cylinder about thigh-high that trundles back and forth over carpets, sucking up dirt. Many of Harcus’s customers are major airports and hotel chains or the huge cleaning companies hired by them. SoftBank Robotics rents the units to clients, at an annual cost of $6,000 per machine. It’s an expensive lease, so all last fall and through the winter Harcus was traveling around, showing off the Whiz, pressing the flesh to convince customers of its value.
“Probably a good 80 percent of my time was on the road,” he says. He would pack up a robot, fly it into town, turn up at the hotel and then have it go to work in front of the staff. “It feels kind of like vacuum sales back in the day, like Hoover sales: You show up, throw dirt on the ground, scoop up the dirt — ‘How many do ya want?’” He had mastered a sales pitch filled with patter about industrial filth. (“Not to bore you with stats, but a foot of carpet can hold up to a pound of dirt,” he told me. “Honestly? Those are the nastiest hallways in the world.”)
When Covid-19 hit, Harcus’s company, like most firms across the country, sent its office staff home. Overnight, it essentially became a remote workplace. There was still a lot of demand for the robots, Harcus knew; he kept in touch online with cleaning firms, which told him that hotels were desperate to clean their premises even more intensely now, to convince guests that they could safely visit. But Harcus was stuck sitting on the gray couch in his small San Francisco apartment, trying to figure out a new challenge: How do you sell a robot to people who can’t touch it?
After discovering that executives were easy to reach — “They’re bored,” he says, “because they’re used to being in the field, cleaning” — Harcus began making five or six sales calls a day over Zoom, the videoconferencing app. Because he couldn’t show the Whiz to his prospective customers in person, his colleagues created a looping image of the robot zipping around a hotel, which he ran in Zoom’s “virtual background,” while his face and torso floated in front of it, as if he were a YouTube streamer talking over a video. Harcus, who is 31, with dark hair, dark-framed glasses and a wide smile he flashes readily, studied webcam technique to get his lighting right. (“We call it the ‘witness-protection-program look’ that you’re trying to avoid, where you look superdark,” he says.) And he came up with new patter. Talk about the weather was out, while commiserating over at-home child care was in: “I have a lot of screenshots running of babies crawling on people I’ve met.”
It worked; clients kept signing contracts. The day before we spoke in early May, Harcus said, he closed deals with six hotels. He shared with me a recording of a call with Michael Asnani, the operations manager at Ganir & Company, a firm that cleans hotel chains like Marriott and Sheraton. Asnani said he liked the idea of robots taking over the hallway vacuuming, because it would free his staff to do extra, trickier cleaning and linen-folding. Harcus pointed out that robots record data on the carpet area they’ve covered, helping prove to skittish hotels that surfaces had been scoured. “Nice, nice,” Asnani said. “That’s awesome.”
The success of Harcus’s remote sales surprised everyone at SoftBank Robotics. Kass Dawson, a marketing and communications executive there, had been worried that employees would slack off if they weren’t in the office. Instead, they all began working so nervously, even neurotically, that productivity rose, Dawson told me. The hours that employees previously spent commuting were now poured into sales or into training customers online.
Today Harcus can’t quite believe how time-intensive sales used to be. “We spent all this time, we flew robots out — we flew out,” he says. Yet usually the face-to-face demo was astonishingly brief. “Hours! Hours and days of prep! Just for a 10-minute discussion.” The customer would look at the robot, “and they were like: Wow, you’re right. It picks up dirt, and it keeps doing it. I don’t have any questions.” He laughs. “We traveled all for this. Like, that’s it?”
This has caused him and his colleagues to wonder what’s crazier: being forced to work from home, peering into a webcam all day? Or the way they used to work?
That question and others like it have been caroming around white-collar, office-work America for months now. In a May working paper, Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor in management science at M.I.T., and a group of academics reported survey results indicating that half of those who were employed before the pandemic were now working remotely. That’s a significant increase — pre-Covid-19, the paper estimates, the figure was about 15 percent. (In 2018, a U.S. Census Bureau survey found that just 5.3 percent of Americans worked from home full time.) It’s a situation deeply skewed toward the privileged: Many employees who work in health care, public transportation or the service sector, for instance, have never been given the option to work remotely, during the crisis or before. At companies where remote work is possible, though, many now expect it to continue for quite some time. As Kass told me, the remote experience at SoftBank Robotics is “absolutely going to change the way we think about as a company who needs to be in the office and not.”
The coronavirus crisis is forcing white-collar America to reconsider nearly every aspect of office life. Some practices now seem to be wastes of time, happily discarded; others seem to be unexpectedly crucial, and impossible to replicate online. For workers wondering right now if they’re ever going back to the office, the most honest answer is this: Even if they do, the office might never be the same.
The consulting firm Accenture has more than 500,000 employees worldwide. Before the pandemic, no more than 10 percent of them worked remotely on any given day. By the middle of March, though, nearly all of them had been sent home. Their use of Microsoft Teams — software that enables co-workers to talk, videoconference, whiteboard and chat by text with one another — erupted. The volume of video calls went up sixfold; the audio calls tripled, to 900 million minutes. “Just to put that in context, that’s 1,700 years of continuous audio,” Paul Daugherty, the firm’s chief technology officer, told me from his home office, where a huge ship’s wheel could be seen hanging over his bookcase (“I’m a nerdy sailor,” he joked).
Employees adapted quickly, he says: “They were using ironing boards as a stand-up desk.” But what astonished him was that even though they had lost the easy rapport of face-to-face office contact, productivity didn’t sink. It went up, when measured by several metrics — developer productivity, for example. “If you, six months ago, had said, ‘We’re going to give you a few weeks’ notice, and then you’re going to have your whole work force working from home,’ I would have said: ‘You’re insane. There’s no way it’s possible.’”
It’s difficult, in a pandemic, to judge how sustainable this surge in remote work is. Home life in a lockdown is much harder than usual. Many workers who live alone are experiencing enforced isolation as an emotional grind. Among those with young children, many are finding it exhausting to juggle child care, home schooling and their jobs. A senior communications specialist at TD Ameritrade, Ruby Gu, told me that she and her husband, a quality-assurance engineer, were taking turns hunkered down in their basement while the other looked after their 21-month-old and 4-year-old in the living room above (“two small children running around over my head right now”). A marketing director and parent of two toddlers told me her new hours were “9 to 4,” by which she meant 9 p.m. to 4 a.m., the only quiet hours she could find to work.
Illustration by Max Guther
It’s a messy moment, further blurring a line between home and office that has already been heavily eroded by phones and computers. Nearly every parent I spoke to had their fingers crossed that schools and day care would reopen in the fall — at which point remote work might become an option they could choose, as opposed to one they were forced to endure.
Assuming that such a day does arrive, it’s possible that quite a few may elect to continue working outside the office. Research conducted before the pandemic found that remote work offers significant positive effects for both employee and employer.
One is productivity. What Accenture discovered is not, it seems, a fluke: Output often rises when people work remotely. In 2012, the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, headquartered in Northern Virginia, began a program allowing patent examiners to live anywhere. For those who chose to work remotely, productivity rose by 4.4 percent, according to a study last fall by Prithwiraj Choudhury, a professor at Harvard Business School, and two colleagues. A 2015 case study by Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University, and others found that when one Chinese travel agency assigned a random group of employees to work remotely for nine months, their productivity went up by 13 percent, generating an increase of roughly $2,000 in annual profits per employee. (It later rose even higher, to 20 percent.) The company’s chief executive had actually expected productivity to decrease; he figured the shift would yield savings that made up for the lost output.
“But it was win-win,” Bloom says. As far as could be determined, the boost in productivity derived from employees’ being able to work more efficiently, without interruptions from their colleagues. (One employee reported that working from home was a welcome respite from her former cubicle-mate, who had a habit of loudly clipping her toenails.) People also worked more hours: There was no commute to make them late for their shifts, and even their tea breaks were briefer.
Working at home can also improve how employees feel about their jobs. Historically, “research has shown a powerful correlation between telecommuting and job satisfaction,” says Timothy Golden, a professor of management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who has studied telework for two decades. People tend to prize the greater flexibility in setting their work hours, the additional time with family members, the reduced distractions. Even with the onslaught of online messages confronting teleworkers, “no one’s stopping by your cubicle standing over you saying, ‘Hey, I need this,’ or ‘I need your help right now,’” Golden told me recently.
Another attraction for employers: shrinking real estate costs. With fewer employees in-house, firms can shed space; for the U.S. Patent Office, “real estate savings were immense” — fully $38 million, according to Choudhury. What’s more, companies can hire talented employees who can’t afford or don’t want to relocate to exorbitantly expensive coastal cities. And in the pandemic, they may need to accommodate employees who — even after health authorities “reopen” their state — don’t want to come back. Many will hesitate at the idea of riding a crowded, unventilated elevator to an open office where people are crowded together.
Remote jobs can come with unsettling side effects for employees, though. Research finds that work hours encroach on leisure time. And surveillance is a potential hazard, as privacy advocates note: During the pandemic, there has been an uptick in companies using software to track what their employees are doing at their laptops — “which is a little bit scary,” says Enid Zhou, a lawyer with the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center.
In the last month, several executives have announced sweeping plans to permanently increase the number of employees operating outside the office. At Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg has said he expects 50 percent of his work force to be doing their jobs remotely in as little as five years. Twitter’s leadership announced that anyone who wants to telecommute can now do so, forever. Nationwide Insurance sent nearly its entire staff home in mid-March and found the move so productive that it is closing six offices; 32 percent of its personnel will work remotely. That’s about four times more than before, Gale King, Nationwide’s executive vice president and chief administrative officer, told me. (She herself has become so adroit online that, she says, “I’m like a new millennial.”)
At Accenture, Daugherty says, many employees will certainly return to the office eventually — but according to a global survey of its customers, 49 percent of those who had never before worked from home said they “plan to do it more often,” even after the pandemic eases. He says companies are figuring out how to “virtualize” every part of work — every meeting, every employee check-in — so that it could potentially be done remotely. “It has accelerated three years of digital cultural adaptation to three months,” he says.
Stewart Butterfield, the chief executive of Slack, got a glimpse of how the pandemic had changed his firm two weeks into the crisis, when his company’s “all hands” meeting — traditionally a slick, elaborate production — was abruptly transformed.
Slack makes communication software, which many companies (including The Times) use to keep live conversations going among staff members. The company is headquartered in San Francisco, with offices in nine other countries. Butterfield throws monthly meetings that every employee is strongly encouraged to attend, held at the headquarters’ biggest meeting areas, where senior executives update employees on the state and direction of the firm.
“Normally,” Butterfield told me, “our all-hands are an hour long.” They’re grandly staged events, with the executives preparing drafts of slides, then getting feedback and tweaking them, and diligently rehearsing their presentations. “There’s multiple cameras and live editing, and it’s broadcast out to all the different offices.” He estimates that “probably hundreds of hours of preparation” go into the efforts.
You might expect there to be a lot of remote workers at a place like Slack — after all, the whole point of its product is to help people collaborate while scattered to the winds. But fully 95 percent of Slack’s 2,000-plus employees work in one of the company’s offices. After the pandemic hit, they were sent home, which is where they were when the latest all-hands meeting rolled around.
Butterfield gave up on the complex production values this time. Instead, employees merely watched a Zoom broadcast, and presentations were short and spartan.
“There were seven execs,” Butterfield recalls, “and everyone spoke between 30 and 90 seconds.” Each executive expressed gratitude to staff, then briefly explained his or her most important priorities — “and that was it.” The entire thing was over in 21 minutes. It had moments of Zoom levity: “There was one moment where Julie Liegl, our chief marketing officer, was giving her update, and she had one daughter suddenly jump into her lap and another daughter come behind her chair and start dancing, and she didn’t miss a beat, just kept going. And that got huge rave reviews from across the company, because she’s modeling the behavior — your kids are going to creep into the video, and that’s OK.”
Staff members rated this all-hands event higher than any previous one. Now Butterfield, too, is wondering: Did he ever really need such elaborate all-hands meetings? Did that corporate pageantry serve enough of a purpose to make the expenditure of time worthwhile?
“There’s all kinds of habits and practices that develop that aren’t effective,” Butterfield told me. “You think you can’t do something — and then you have to do it. And so it turns out you can.”
Meetings, of course, have long been a lightning rod in corporate life. Many are crucial for coordination; others seem pointless. But as executives know, it can be hard to tell the difference. Because communication is generally essential to every company’s mission, most meetings that are proposed take place, and then are scheduled again and again until they build up on employee calendars like plaque. Most evidence suggests that employees pine for fewer meetings. Recently Constance Noonan Hadley, a lecturer in management at Boston University, and a team of academics surveyed 182 senior managers; 71 percent found too many of their meetings “unproductive and inefficient”, and nearly two-thirds thought they came “at the expense of deep thinking.”
The sudden shift to online meetings has prompted executives and employees everywhere to rethink how many are truly necessary. In the early days of the pandemic, most of the workers I spoke to told me, they frantically began setting up video meetings to replicate every get-together they would normally hold face to face. But they quickly discovered video meetings didn’t flow nearly as well. The easy give-and-take of conversation had dissolved. Because the video signal is often delayed, people in an online meeting wind up accidentally talking over one another, so they overcorrect by talking less often, pausing for a long time before jumping in — or developing complex turn-taking systems, making the tempo of conversation sludgy and awkward.
“It’s almost like ‘Robert’s Rules of Order’ have come back in, like Parliament,” K.C. Estenson says. Estenson, the chief executive of GoNoodle, a seven-year-old company in Nashville that produces “movement and mindfulness” videos for elementary-school children, sent home his staff of several dozen on March 15. Only the week before, the firm had completed a million-dollar renovation on its downtown office.
“I mean, literally, the last day I was in the office, the guys were inside, fine-tuning the tile in the kitchen.” He laughs darkly. “Now, frankly, it seems like the worst business decision I ever made.” Estenson and his staff had gone through the honeymoon period with Google Meet and Zoom — they dove in, held a lot of crowded sessions, then hit the wall and pulled back a bit. Meetings became smaller and less frequent. Estenson was running himself ragged doing dozens of “one on one” check-ins.
“It forces people to be more thoughtful about who is in meetings,” Chaye Eichenberger, GoNoodle’s head of sales strategy and account management at the time, told me. I met her online at a couple of Zoom “happy hours” she held with numerous other employees, each of whom had dialed in from home, swirling glasses of wine and hoisting cocktails.
Like Estenson, they had, over weeks of experimentation, begun to recognize and adjust to the strengths and weaknesses of their various communications tools. Zoom meetings carried a whiff of formality, since they were preplanned — with a link to join sent around — so it felt like filing into a conference room: useful for talking business, but a bit stiff for batting around ideas between two people. So, for quick, one-to-one talks, they gravitated to a feature in Slack that enables video calls between two users. Someone who saw a colleague logged into Slack — signaled by a green dot beside the name — could instantly request a video chat. It was more like popping your head over a cubicle wall unannounced, to engage a colleague in an impromptu two-minute confab. Tracy Coats, the company’s director of partnerships, said she had become an ardent fan of this practice.
“I want to see my co-workers’ faces!” she yelled cheerfully, looming forward into her webcam, a mass of long hair and aviator glasses. “I want to see Kristie’s face, Shawna’s face, Julie’s face!”
“That green dot is pretty powerful,” Eichenberger said. “Because, you know, I’m an early-morning girl. So at 6 a.m., I’m like: Who’s up? Do I have anything I need to cover with them? Because I can do it now as opposed to later.”
Julie Crabill, the company’s new chief marketing officer, laughed. “I’m the same, but late at night,” she said. “I’m still online! I’m coming for you!”
They were, everyone agreed, just as productive as ever, maybe more so. They had reduced the frequency of their formal meetings, yet the communication felt nonstop — a flurry of Slack messages and emails too. This is, indeed, what nearly every scholar who has studied the history of remote work will tell you: “You have to communicate way more than you ever thought was necessary — it feels weird at first, but then it becomes more normal,” Barbara Larson, an executive professor of management at Northeastern University, told me. Even if they can cut down on meetings, remote colleagues still need to somehow replace the value of small talk, those seemingly casual interchanges that keep information flowing. Without that easy rapport, feelings of isolation quickly set in.
Indeed, isolation typically has been a chief complaint that arises in all research on remote work. Most of the GoNoodle executives attested to it. Remote work can thus present a paradox: You can feel removed from colleagues even while drowning in digital messages from them.
“My days have been a million times busier since all of this happened,” Eichenberger said. “So, going pee is like the highlight of my day. Like, Oh, my god, I actually have a two-minute break and I can pee.”
“Life has just sped up so fast,” Coats agreed. “All the partners that I talk to, they feel the same way. They’re like, Yeah, this is just feeling more like intense for some reason now. Mach 5, like, all the time.” Shawna Streeter, then the company’s vice president for finance, nodded. She added that she looked forward to the day when the lockdown was over and she could have a waiter place a meal in front of her and then take the dirty dishes away. “I feel like I’m cooking 250 meals a day.”
Illustration by Max Guther
Beyond the feverish pace of online work, employees are experiencing some problems specific to video — what has popularly come to be called “Zoom fatigue.” In late March I spoke via Zoom to Jessica Lindl, a vice president at Unity, a company that makes software for creating and operating interactive 3-D environments. Before the pandemic, Unity’s 3,700-person staff conducted about 10,000 Zoom calls a month. They were now doing five times as many. She was impressed by how productive Unity’s employees had been — they launched a new, 25,000-student online training class in the middle of the pandemic.
But doing back-to-back Zoom calls was, they found, unexpectedly draining. “I just got off a call with my C.E.O., and he’s like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m Zoomed out,’” Lindl told me, sitting at a desk on the top floor of her house. She, too, would find that after a day of nonstop Zoom meetings, she was spent. “I come to Friday night, when all my friends wanted to do virtual happy hours, and I’m: ‘I can’t do it! I am exhausted.’”
Many people I spoke to described the same phenomenon, triggered by any form of video interaction. Scientists of human perception say this is rooted in how today’s video violates our normal use of eye-gaze, including how long we look at each other, and how often we do. When we’re hanging out together, we’re constantly exchanging glances — but only brief ones. Long stares, research shows, seem quite threatening. In one study by Isabelle Mareschal, who runs a visual-perception lab at Queen Mary University of London, and her colleagues, experimental subjects were asked to look at a video of a face that turned to stare directly at them. People found the gaze enjoyable, but only for about three seconds. After that, it became unsettling.
In this context, videoconferencing is characterized by remarkably poor design, because we’re expected to face the camera and stare. We could look away, but as most users intuit, that seems rude. After all, if we turn away from our laptops, a video-chat partner can’t tell what we’re looking at; maybe we’re ignoring them. So we stare and stare. The polite thing also winds up being the creepy thing.
“It really does come to the fact you feel that your attention has to be completely directed to the person on the screen,” Mareschal says.
Video chat also makes it harder to achieve “synchrony,” a sort of unconscious, balletic call-and-response that emerges when two people are in the same room. In this situation, we often mimic someone’s body posture without realizing it and scrutinize tiny bits of facial timing — noticing, say, when the other person is about to smile. “People start to synchronize their laughter and their facial expressions over time,” says Paula Niedenthal, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an expert in the science of emotion. “And that’s really useful, because it helps us predict what’s coming next.” Constantly making micropredictions of our partner’s state — and having these turn out to be correct — is, it turns out, crucial to feeling connected.
But these predictions are harder to validate when you can’t see a person’s body. They’re hampered further by those stuttering lags in video chat. So we start making “prediction errors,” subconsciously misunderstanding our partner’s signals, which in turn makes us feel awkward, alienated from the person at hand.
The more you ponder videoconferencing design, the sketchier it seems. For example, most apps by default show you an image of yourself. “So you’re trying to try to get out of the habit of staring at yourself,” says Andrew S. Franklin, a psychologist at Norfolk State University. Your eyes keep darting to that image of your own face, breaking whatever attention you were paying to your conversational partner’s signals. “What you would normally say in face-to-face interaction smoothly comes out jumbled,” Franklin says. Worse, when you’re in a “Brady Bunch” meeting with a dozen people arrayed in a grid, they’re all staring straight at you. No halfway normal meeting of humans behaves like that.
It’s possible that we’re still in an awkward adolescent phase with video calling, that protocols for how to behave correctly haven’t yet emerged. (In the telephone’s early days, some users debated whether saying “Hello” at the outset of a call sounded friendly or barbaric.) Already, people are inventing clever adaptations to make video calls less strained. One neighbor of mine, a psychiatrist, began seeing all his patients remotely. He devised a clever setup with one of them: They each face sideways, so neither is staring at the other. It captures some of the style of their previous, in-person sessions, when my friend sat in a chair and his patient reclined on a couch. But if they want to look directly at each other, they can. “It works surprisingly well,” my friend says.
Other strategies may emerge. One scientist, David Nguyen, says he has found evidence that standing back from your camera can reduce creepiness. Nguyen is currently director of Accenture Labs in Shenzen — part of the research wing of the consulting firm — and in his Ph.D. studies he investigated how well people bonded over video chat. In one experiment, he and a colleague had groups of subjects talk in pairs. Some spoke using video that focused on their partner’s face; others talked using a camera that showed their upper bodies; some spoke face to face. Nguyen then had the subjects fill out a questionnaire individually and brought them together afterward to stage a secret test of how well they had bonded. One would sit in a room, awaiting the other; upon arrival, the partner feigned a little accident, dropping some pens on the floor. Nguyen wanted to see if the other partner would help pick the pens up.
Twice as many people who’d seen their partners’ upper bodies in video chat helped to scoop up the pens, compared with those who had only seen their partner’s face. In essence, having a bigger view helped them achieve synchrony and bond with their opposite number. These days, when Nguyen video-chats, he sits a few feet away from his keyboard, so his upper body is visible. He also speaks more emotively. “Ramp up the words that you’re saying,” he notes, “and then exaggerate the way you say it.”
His research suggests another intriguing idea, which is that maybe the aspect ratio of videoconferencing needs to change. On a laptop, many corporate video tools display you in landscape mode, the way Hollywood movies are shot and the easiest orientation on their horizontal screens. But that framing cuts off the rest of your body. In contrast, the newer generation of video-focused social networks, like TikTok, were built for the mobile phone, which usually takes a vertical shot, neatly showcasing the entire body. The explosive growth of TikTok — and its riot of joyful, full-body dance moves — may owe something to our deeply baked perceptual psychology.
Doreen Bucher is the vice president for global marketing at Symrise, where she works with major brands to create new scents for high-end perfumes — “what we in our industry parlance call ‘the juice,’” she told me dryly. Marketing an expensive new fragrance requires a lot of visual creativity. Advertising cannot convey the actual scent, of course, so it has to paint a picture of an idea, the fragrance’s essence. (“We always say that people kind of smell with their eyes.”)
In her routine, prepandemic office life, Bucher used to sit with her graphic designer, and they would pore over visual ideas on paper, pointing to different parts of the page as they batted concepts about. “We’d have this incredible dialogue,” since both could look at the same thing together. Doing it remotely has been painfully difficult. “I’m like: OK, go to Page 5. OK, now go back to Page 4. You see the box on Page 4? I want that box on Page 5,” she says. “It’s so crazy to try to figure that out.”
Many of Bucher’s best ideas were, she feels, rooted in off-the-cuff trendspotting conversations she’d have with her two millennial teammates who sat nearby. “I’m famous for just standing up and being like: ‘Have you guys thought about the color purple and what that even means? Like, why is that a trend?’” she says, laughing. She once demanded of her co-workers, “Do millennials love clowns?” Bucher interrupted her colleagues a lot, she admits. (“I miss you” she recently told one. “I’m not sure if you miss me.”) But those seemingly trivial flights of fancy would occasionally spark genuinely useful new ideas for the business. When remote, they’re less frequent.
That’s because office work is more than just straightforward productivity — briskly ticking off to-do items. It also consists of the chemistry and workplace culture that comes from employees’ interacting all day, in ways that are unexpected and often inefficient, like the stray conversations that take place while people are procrastinating or bumping into one another on the way to lunch. During the pandemic, though, many employees worry that this culture is eroding.
Ben Waber, the president and co-founder of Humanyze, has spent his career tracking patterns among how employees communicate and how these correlate to companies’ health; Humanyze creates software that lets an organization map how communication flows internally. Waber suspects that in the long run, a company’s culture and creativity risk declining in a remote setup, because that alters the way an organization talks to itself. Specifically, the “weak ties” inside a company might fray.
“Strong ties” are people in your life you talk to frequently, even daily. “Weak ties” are the people with whom you rarely communicate, perhaps 15 minutes a week or less. When the pandemic hit, Waber analyzed the data from his clients’ companies and saw two things. One was that strong ties were becoming stronger. Ordinarily, 45 percent of the time someone spent communicating with colleagues — online or face to face — was with their five strongest ties. In the first weeks of lockdown, that figure exceeded 60 percent. That makes sense: “You’re stressed about work, and these are the people you know really well, so you’ll probably talk to them more,” Waber told me. That’s partly why productivity has stayed so high.
But the weak ties had deteriorated. Employees’ contact with more-distant colleagues had “fallen off a cliff,” dropping by 30 percent. Which again makes sense: If you only have so much time to communicate, you’re going to have to drop someone.
But Waber contends that it’s those weak ties that create new ideas. Corporations have historically seen some of the biggest new ideas emerge, he says, when two employees who usually didn’t talk suddenly, by chance, connected. That is less likely to happen when everyone is remote.
You might imagine that technology could connect people in those silos, enabling anyone talk to anyone. But in practice, it doesn’t. “There’s the idea that, like, Can’t you Slack with anybody in the company? Sure you can. But you don’t: You’re not just going to cold-message somebody. Whereas you would have occasionally bumped into those people if you were in an office,” like in the cafeteria, at an after-work event or while lining up for coffee in the morning.
Waber predicts that companies will continue to hit their marks and be productive while remaining partly — or heavily — remote. The real damage will sneak up a year or two later, as the quality of new ideas becomes less bold, less electrifying. He also suspects that the overall cohesion of employees, how well they know one another, might suffer. “I think we’re going to see just this general degradation of the health of organizations,” he says.
Research suggests that people find it harder to build cohesion and trust online. David Nguyen says his academic research found that “in a videoconferencing situation, trust is actually quite fragile.” Work by him and others in the field shows that people more readily form cooperative bonds when they are face to face, whereas in video “trust is diminished overall,” he says. “Trust grows a little slower than in face-to-face conditions.”
There are ways to establish trust in remote collaborators, though, by injecting a bit of face-to-face interaction into the virtual interaction. In a 1998 experiment by Elena Rocco, then at the University of Michigan, participants were told to play a “prisoner’s dilemma”-like game, where they could either collaborate — and win more — or betray one another, winning at the expense of others. Groups that connected solely online (the experiment used email rather than video) did not collaborate very well. But when they were allowed to meet for brief periods face to face, their rates of cooperation rose dramatically.
This suggests, as Nguyen notes, a middle path in remote collaboration in which trust is critical: Corporations shouldn’t make it total. If employees are able to meet in person some of the time, it can help build the bonds that make remote collaboration richer.
This is precisely the tack taken by many companies that, long before the pandemic, operated fully remotely. GitLab Inc., for example, makes software that allows groups of people to share and work on computer code jointly. It has more than 1,200 employees worldwide but no office, so at least once a year it flies all employees to a weeklong gathering, where they conduct training sessions, hang out and absorb the company culture. Other organizations have created staggered office hours: Employees generally work remotely, but individual teams or groups of colleagues show up a day or two each week to work together.
This partway-remote approach may, in fact, be a sort of happy medium, a state in which companies get the benefits of productivity without losing their cohesion or creativity. When Timothy Golden, the scholar of remote work, was part of a team that studied job satisfaction, it found that workers’ happiness grew in correlation with the number of hours they worked remotely — up to 15 hours a week, at which point, he told me, “it plateaued.” If that holds up, he says, then spending two days a week remotely could let a worker gain all the benefits before a “sense of isolation,” or perhaps “some increased difficulty communicating,” begins to eat into the gains.
The truth is that as newfangled as remote work may seem, it relies on a set of tools that are by now quite old: video calls, discussion boards, chat, shared online documents. They’ve hardly changed in years. And that’s precisely the space where a new set of inventors see potential: to fix the drawbacks of remote work by revamping the tools through which we conduct it.
One afternoon this spring, I made a video call to Doug Safreno, an entrepreneur and co-founder of Pragli, who is trying to reinvent the online office so that it feels like a social network, except one based on audio. He showed me the screen of his new company’s app. He was using it while we spoke; on his screen were cartoon icons showing his work colleagues, spread out all over the Bay Area, in their homes. Clicking on any of their icons would ring them up; in another mode, a user can just click and start talking.
“It’s like a walkie-talkie,” Safreno said. “It’s kind of like shouting into their rooms. And then they can talk back to you.” Users can set their status to show whether they’re available for an unsolicited chat (“door open,” “door closed”). If Safreno starts speaking to a colleague, that person can either keep their conversation private or make it publicly visible, so anyone else in the office can click on their icons and join in. The goal, he added, was to emulate the free-floating banter in an office, where people overhear and jump into one another’s discussions.
Safreno pointed to the various icons of his workmates: Some status alerts showed they were listening to music; others were in do-not-disturb mode. “Vivek here is available,” he said. He pointed to another person, the company’s lead investor. “He’s online, but he’s in a meeting, so I don’t want to bug him. If one of them wanted to, they could jump in and start chatting with us.” Users can also make video calls on Pragli, or chat in text; but the audio, Safreno argues, is the most pleasant mode for casual back and forth. Indeed, many people who’d complained of “Zoom fatigue” to me had gravitated toward old-school phone calls to rest their eyes and, thus, their brains.
There may also be innovations that let us use video but avoid the fatigue of decoding one another’s faces. One example is Loom.ai, a new chat app that lets you use a regular videoconferencing app — Zoom, Microsoft Teams — except you appear as an avatar. Stylistically, the avatars have the approachable, cartoony style of Apple’s “memoji,” except here they have a torso and arms. Users can customize their onscreen cartoon to resemble themselves if they want.
Recently I took part in a video call with Loom.ai’s co-founders, Mahesh Ramasubramanian and Kiran Bhat. Ramasubramanian logged on as an avatar with a thick mop of dark hair swooping over his left brow, a rough approximation of his everyday appearance. Bhat’s avatar sported his dark horn-rimmed glasses and a red shirt under a sweater vest. While the two founders spoke, I could hear their real-life voices, as their onscreen avatars lip-synced closely with their speech. The sound of your voice, Bhat explained, controls the avatar; it matches the lip movement as closely as possible to your words. Hanging out with the avatars was a curious sensation — somewhat like when I interact with other players inside an online video game like Animal Crossing.
The goal of the app, Bhat explained, is to let users feel as if they’re visually present with other people, without needing to actually be on camera. Indeed, his webcam wasn’t even turned on. That also meant he could stand up or wander from his desk; so long as his laptop’s microphone still picked up his voice, I would see his avatar chatting away and gesticulating.
“I could be present at this meeting, but I don’t have to stare at the screen the whole time. It’s very liberating,” Bhat told me. This way, a group of people could meet, talk and look at their screenful of avatars — if they wanted to “see” the others — but not feel compelled to do so. And “that whole pressure of having to be dressed up or have the camera set up correctly, or the lighting needs to be set up or the background needs to be set up — all of that is gone.”
Ramasubramanian and Bhat came from the world of 3-D animation, having worked at DreamWorks Animation and Lucasfilm. But their work was inspired by having met Jeremy Bailenson, a professor of communication at Stanford who studies virtual reality and who has become an adviser to Loom.ai. Bailenson told me that chatting with cartoon-style avatars seems to be easier on our brains; it’s easier to build synchrony with them. Viewing an avatar’s cartoony features doesn’t require as much mental processing as watching live video of a human face.
Bailenson suspects that the real future of videoconferencing will be a blend of cartoons and our real, physical environment. We’ll use “augmented reality” glasses that paint holograms afloat in the world around us. He has already used prototypes of such glasses that let him speak to a remote participant, teleported into the room, appearing as a 3-D cartoony avatar — a sort of midway point between Loom.ai’s technique and actual reality.
“It was all just mind-blowingly good,” he says. Such glasses cost thousands of dollars now, and are relatively heavy to wear; Microsoft has a “HoloLens” that is $3,500 and grips your head like a visor. Bailenson figures it’ll be five or so years before the glasses are as light and affordable as regular eyeglasses you wear today. “It’ll solve a lot of these problems that we’re talking about today, because it’ll make a meeting feel so much like a real meeting. It’s because it’s going to feel like there’s somebody in your room.”
In contemplating a remote-work future, not everyone is ready to give up on the look and feel of real-world offices. Paul Daugherty, Accenture’s chief technology officer, says its internal research-and-development groups have been setting up experimental meeting rooms in virtual reality, using the Oculus headset created by Facebook. They’ve created replicas of some of their offices; recently he took visitors on a tour of the Accenture office in Sophia Antipolis, in France.
“I was there with a person from Geneva, a person from Paris,” he says. “It was strikingly good.”
The truth, as I heard from many of the newly remote workers I interviewed, is that as much as our offices can be inefficient, productivity-killing spreaders of infectious disease, a lot of people are desperate to get back to them. At the Zoom “happy hour” at GoNoodle, when the employees talked about their newly renovated office, they sounded wistful. They yearned for the tricked-out kitchen, the plants and big dark couches, ideal for lounging. “We had this killer sound system,” Tracy Coats said, with a sigh. She’s an extrovert, she said, who longs to hang out with her “peeps.” “You know — we’re drinking coffee, or maybe, Hey, want to take a walk? I miss that.”