Online collaboration

Remote work

June 1, 2020 — February 3, 2021

computers are awful together
Figure 1: Working together in the cloud, the pitch

1 why do we even have offices

George, PSA Beware of temporary remote work:

Offices, in my subjective empirical experience, have four well-defined roles:

  1. To put people in a work-priming environment.

An environment where they know that whatever they do for 8 hours, they must focus on works. They have eyes on them and they have colleagues around them talking about work, their brain diverges towards work, as opposed to, e.g. browsing facebook, playing a game, or reading a book, or writing a mediocre blog-article just to fulfill a self-imposed creativity quota.

  1. To provide lonely people the company of colleagues.

    The lonely people are usually highly motivated workers that end up being part of management or essential to the company. So providing them a social environment is critical, otherwise they might move to find one. I know at least 2 smart guys working for much less than what they could have asked for wage wise, which seemed to be sticking for the social element, and finally left during the pandemic.

  2. To work around accountability.

It’s very easy to tell what someone is working on when you can see all the PRs they made a given month (both literally and figuratively speaking, depending on the case). This is uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. It forces acknowledging that some people are doing nothing and are being kept around just because ”we like them”.

It leads to management having to work more to keep themselves and their teams accountable. In an office, accountability can be proxied onto things like “Well, he comes into work every day and spends 6 hours typing at his desk, he must be doing something”.

  1. Social-power hungry leaders.

Some people that lead and/or manage do so because they like having some sort of imagined ”social prestige”, even if subconsciously. This is rewarding in an office setting, but not when working remotely, being a remote leader/manager probably does not lead to the same social-power highs that fulfilling that role in-person does.

Amanda Mull, The Pandemic Is Resetting Casual Friendships:

Some of the most obvious consequences of our extended social pause could indeed play out in the professional realm. I started hearing these concerns months ago, while writing a story on how working from home affects people’s careers. According to the experts I spoke with, losing the incidental, repeated social interactions that physical workplaces foster can make it especially difficult for young people and new hires to establish themselves within the complex social hierarchy of a workplace. Losing them can make it harder to progress in work as a whole, access development opportunities, and be recognized for your contributions. (After all, no one can see you or what you’re doing.) These kinds of setbacks early in professional life can be especially devastating, because the losses tend to compound—fall behind right out of the gate, and you’re more likely to stay there.

The loss of these interactions can make the day-to-day realities of work more frustrating, too, and can fray previously pleasant relationships. In a recent study, Andrew Guydish, a doctoral candidate in psychology at UC Santa Cruz, looked at the effects of what he calls conversational reciprocity—how much each participant in a conversation talks while one is directing the other to complete a task. He found that in these situations—which often crop up between managers and employees at work—pairs of people tended to use unstructured time, if it were available, to balance the interaction. When that happened, both people reported feeling happier and more satisfied afterward.

Now Guydish worries that reciprocity has been largely lost. ”Zoom calls usually have a very defined goal, and with that goal comes defined expectations in terms of who’s going to talk,” he told me. “Other people sit by, and they don’t get their opportunity to give their two cents. That kind of just leaves everybody with this overwhelming sense of almost isolation, in a way.”

Figure 2: Working together in the cloud, the actuality

2 Coworking hacks

3 Communicative norms

Understanding people by text is hard, and we systemically fool ourselves that it is not. Beware of this.

The silence is deafening

Good articulation off a point that we seem to find challenging to remember:

Imagine you’re at a dinner party, and you’re getting into a heated argument. As you start yelling, the other people quickly hush their voices and start glaring at you. None of the onlookers have to take further action—it’s clear from their facial expressions that you’re being a jerk. In digital conversations, giving feedback requires more conscious effort. Silence is the default. Participants only get feedback from people who join the fray. They receive no signal about how the silent onlookers perceive their dialogue. In fact, they don’t receive much signal that onlookers observed the conversation at all.

4 online whiteboards

See online whiteboards.

5 Incoming

6 References

Akbarpour, and Jackson. 2018. Diffusion in Networks and the Virtue of Burstiness.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Atkin, Chen, and Popov. 2022. “The Returns to Face-to-Face Interactions: Knowledge Spillovers in Silicon Valley.”
Jaffe, Trajtenberg, and Henderson. 1993. Geographic Localization of Knowledge Spillovers as Evidenced by Patent Citations.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics.
Yang, Holtz, Jaffe, et al. 2021. The Effects of Remote Work on Collaboration Among Information Workers.” Nature Human Behaviour.
Zhao, and Sayed. 2014. Asynchronous Adaptation and Learning over Networks — Part I: Modeling and Stability Analysis.” arXiv:1312.5434 [Cs, Math].