When remote work transcends the meat-space

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I re-read the Agile Manifesto today, and it got me thinking. One of the core principles stated in the manifesto is:

"The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation."

In the drive of top-down organizations & managers to re-assert control over employees, many would have you believe this is as true in 2022 as it was in 2001. There are frequent assertions that "in-person is simply more effective for communication", rarely backed by much more than the assertions themselves.

I'm not going to make a categorical assertion that remote, in-person or hybrid is better. Because I believe the answer is both highly contextual AND individual. In an office-first culture, remote workers will almost always be second class citizens and disadvantaged. In a remote-first culture, everyone is equal.

Maker, manager, new communication skills

There is also the aspect that remote work requires a different set of communication skills than office work. It requires more intentional communication, rather than interruptive communication.

It's easy to see why makers, such as programmers, those who require long stretches of uninterrupted focus time to do their work would prefer remote to office.

The opposite holds true for managers, who have their time sliced into micro-pieces and dictated by calendars, will likely find it easier to do their job in an in-office culture. It is easier to interrupt their reports when they have the time, than being intentional about their communication in the short moments they have to spare. Paul Graham wrote at length about this in his classic essay, "Maker's schedule, Managers schedule", so I'm not going to rehash all of it here.

Tools that make the virtual transcend the physical

Having new tools that transcend the physical world are not a new phenomenon. The telegraph and later the phone allowed us to communicate instantly over vast distances that previously took days, weeks, or even months to traverse. In a sense, the telegraph and the phone ushered in the modern information society.

We've had successive waves of these tools since. Lately, e-mail did away with the need of most physical post, making written communication instant, instead of requiring 24-48 hours.

But now we have a new generation of tools that are leapfrogging the office, making the office less relevant for work, and in some cases, worse than their digital alternative.

Take video conferencing. A simple thing like Zooms or Google Meets "raise a hand"-feature can allow a virtual meeting to pass in a more civilized way than a physical one: everyone who has something to say, can be heard, rather than having a few vocal individuals dominate proceedings. Features such as audio-to-text-capture allows people with hearing disabilities to effectively participate in meetings.

How about programming? Tools like VS Code Liveshare, and Intellij IDEA's Code With Me are arguably better tools for Pair Programming than sitting at the same desk, even with two mice and two keyboards.

Brain-storming, white-boarding, planning, collaborating? No one on this Earth can convince me that any white board or other physical tool found in an office is better than Miro when it comes to organizing, facilitating and conducting any sort of brain-storming or planning activity. It moves beyond white-boards in such a way the mere thought of using a physical white-board makes me shudder in discomfort.

I think you get the point – these are but a few examples, and we are only at the dawn of tools that make physical collaboration spaces increasingly obsolete.

So what is better, remote, or in-person?

In the words of the late, great Bruce Lee: "Maybe, sometimes, it depends".

It depends on the organizational culture, the people involved, and other parts that make up the context. There is however no doubt that for some people remote is already better, whereas for others, it is not.

But, what I find an interesting trend, is that the tools that we use to collaborate are most definitely moving beyond the physical collaboration space. They are most definitely virtual first, and many take that virtual collaboration quality beyond what is possible with their physical equivalent (if such a thing exists).

We likely have enough tools today, to make remote the equal of in-office. But what happens when the virtual tools we use reach a critical mass of multitude and usefulness, where they transcend the "meat-space"? What happens when those who insist on working outside these tools become the ones clearly disadvantaged in the workplace, in every instance?

I don't think we are far away from this inflection point, and I believe interesting, unexpected things will happen, not only to how and where we work, but also to how our organizations organize and operate.

What are your thoughts?

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