The Hard Path to Communicating While Remote

When presented with a new constraint on how we perform habitual tasks, we often have a choice: force our way of working into the new reality or learn from the new reality and adapt. The distinction between these two options can sometimes get blurry. However, our current situation is unusually clear. Our new constraint is that all thought workers are now working remotely. How we cope with this constraint can help us not only during this pandemic but also afterwards. Additionally, it will have an impact on how our physical work spaces are organized and subdivided.

Video conferencing has displaced in-person gatherings of all kinds, business and social, formal and informal. Unfortunately, video conferencing is nothing more than our best approximation of the in-person meeting. If we were learning from the new reality and adapting, our solution would look less like an approximation of the status quo and more like something truly novel.

When our working routines depend on in-person meetings, then video conferencing can be a life-saver. On the contrary, I doubt many people would claim to enjoy in-person meetings purely for their own sake. Indeed, it has become a painful cliché in office settings that meetings are a waste of time. This leads me to the conclusion that we’re forcing our way of working into the new reality. Zoom’s explosion in daily users, from 10 million to 200 million, tells us a convincing story that we don’t know what to do with this new constraint.

Instead of settling for a bandwidth-choked imperceptibly-laggy audio-visual approximation of an in-person meeting, we should think about the ways in which remote work pushes us into different habits. We can learn from the constraint and actually stand to benefit from it. Co-located work leads us to favor spoken conversation as our decision-making technique because it is just so easy to tap someone on the shoulder. Remote work ought to lead us to written discussion as our favored decision-making technique because our environment is more conducive to deep, uninterrupted thought. The imposition of asking someone spontaneously for a few minutes of their time when they are presumably heads-down in their own work is much more awkward in a remote setting than a co-located setting. I dive deeper into the stark contrast between written and spoken communication in my RailsConf talk from 2019.

A Fork in the Road

If we listen to our gut reaction, we’d hear that video calls are awkward and less fun than being in a meeting. We don’t even need to rely on our gut, as this New York Times article explains why Zoom calls make us feel “vaguely disturbed, uneasy and tired.” The constraint, that all thought workers are now working remotely, will still allow us to keep mimicking our in-person meetings with video conferencing, the easy path. But this pivotal moment might also give us an opportunity to explore an alternative, the hard path.

The easy path is to have more video conference calls, as a replacement default way to communicate. We can load up our schedules with these calls and pretend we live in a pre-Coronavirus world. This might be workable except we’ll depend even more on the whims of internet connectivity to keep our video and audio at good enough quality, while we are forced to compensate for the drawbacks. Additionally, we’d lose the ability to have side conversations and certain nuances of speech and movement would be blunted.

The hard path is to embrace thoughtful written content with actionable outcomes as our new default way to communicate. The unfortunate reality is that many of us are less comfortable with writing our thoughts than with speaking them. This is a discomfort that is worth overcoming and will improve not only how others perceive your message but it will improve the thinking behind your message, too.

In the technology world there is a nauseatingly computational word for this: asynchronous communication. All it means is that you don’t burden your interlocutor with the expectation that they will respond in the moment. This will be a great relief to them and will also let you get a more thought-out reply from them.

And yes, it is hard. It means that the initial investment of effort is greater to experiment with this way, but that the benefits of success are potentially outsized as well. If we all spend more of our time deeply reflecting and giving each other well-crafted prose rather than off-the-cuff reactions, we can make decisions once and for all, we can decrease our anxiety, and we can increase our confidence in the decisions. This will remain true after Coronavirus is no longer a dire threat and we’ve mostly returned to a new normal. It is in this way that remote work can teach us lessons to work better, even and especially if we’re co-located again.

For When We Don’t Want to Work From Home

What does this mean to our physical environment? The open office, our controversial norm in 21st century office spaces, assumes that there is a benefit to breaking down the cubicle walls that used to divide us. Tear the walls down and people will speak more freely and collaboration will spontaneously ensue, or so the thinking goes. What if our new model for communication, one that grants primacy to writing rather than speaking, demands a different floor plan? Perhaps the walls of private study rooms in university libraries should be our model.

These walls allow us to optionally submerge ourselves into our thought work for periods of time. If we dispose of the “one desk per employee” rule that is so commonly applied, we might find more square footage in which to have private rooms on the one hand, but larger and more comfortable common areas too.

There are also health reasons for spreading out and putting walls (perhaps transparent ones) between employees, as explained in this New York Times article. Again, the constraint can guide us: we’re incentivized to try a healthier option for our physical space and this option may gracefully elide with a different mode of working, one based on reflective writing as a default rather than reflexive conversation.