One of the more annoying tropes of the remote debate is that there are two choices - entirely remote, or entirely returning to the office. In my mind, many of the people arguing for a partial return to the office (or hybrid work in general) seem to be doing so not to make hybrid work a standard, but as a means of conning workers into returning - similar to how there are set hours to the workday, but there are always people who work past 6 and make snide comments when you leave.
I’ve written about why I don’t think hybrid offices work before, and it mostly simmers down to it being the worst of both worlds - a half-assed office presence with a half-assed remote presence, never truly committing to one or the other and almost certainly punishing someone based on their choice.
That being said, after writing tens of thousands of words on this subject and reading far too many comments, I want to be clear: I do not believe remote work means the end of face-to-face interaction, and I believe that those who are arguing against remote work are framing the argument as if that is the case.
This definitely makes it sound like I’m making up a guy to be angry at, but I believe those working against remote are subtly making this point through the conversation around “culture” and “team building.” All things they believe can’t happen because of remote work are fully possible within settings that don’t involve an office - and, let’s be honest, are not necessities but are nice things to have.
Most of it comes down to relationship-building. You can absolutely build meaningful relationships online, but there is something to meeting someone in person and spending time hanging out that is not the same as talking to them over Zoom or text. Jason Lemkin of SaaStr wrote a great post about powerful physically going and visiting a customer - “when your prospects and your customers actually meet you, they’re buying you, not your product as it exists today”:
If you get on a plane, I can’t guarantee you’ll win the deal. But I can guarantee two things. First, your odds of closing it go up if you show up and your competitor doesn’t. And maybe even more importantly, given how critical second-order revenue is in SaaS … if you go there, and you present your vision, passion, and commitment … and you maintain that connection over time … I don’t think you’ll ever lose that customer.
The crucial point here is that none of this involves your office, or being in the office 2 or 3 or 5 or 0 days a week. It involves getting on a plane and meeting someone and likely sitting down for coffee, dinner, or drinks - otherwise known as relationship development. This is not going away because everybody’s going remote, and indeed may actually become more important as people drift away from physical offices and into remote settings.
Dare I say it…in-person meetings will actually seem valuable. My core problems with the physical office are how pointless most of the in-person interaction is - seeing someone physically for every single meeting, or even a few meetings, or hearing them on the phone, or seeing them at their desk really doesn’t matter, especially with people you meet every day. You can grow those relationships through regular digital meetings, and that’s fine - hell, it’s good! When you meet in person, it’ll mean that there’s either a big meaningful reason, or you’re there to develop the interpersonal relationship.
The irony of the anti-remote sect is that they argue that losing the office will take away the deep relationship-building of in-person contact, but I’d argue that it does the opposite. The office cheapens physical presence - if you work on the computer, whatever you’re doing in the office can more than likely be done at home. Thus, being there physically becomes this throwaway element that only exists so you can see and be seen. By converting physical presence into something entirely to show off to other people, in-person communication is deliberately seen as inefficient. In-person contact is generally more biased and the entire idea of offices is geared toward white men - but meeting for defined reasons, even if it’s to “shoot the shit and have a good time,” has so much more weight.
I am a hermit, I love being at home and on the computer, but I also love seeing my friends and colleagues and clients. I can do a lot of that over Zoom, but when we see each other it’s special, we don’t necessarily do more, but we have a little fun - it’s novel! It’s enjoyable! We feel closer and have an experience that is far less “work” driven, but we get to know each other and put faces to names.
All of the pro-office ghouls that argue that we need “to build culture” should first of all admit that office culture doesn’t exist, and then think about what exactly they want out of the office. If the answer is “I like seeing everybody working in one place, it makes me feel good,” then you suck and nobody will fix your brain. If, however, your concern is around team cohesion…perhaps actually think about what brings a team together? It isn’t about physical presence - it’s about meaningful moments (many of which can be made digitally), which can be done through - geography willing - monthly or quarterly physical meetings that are entirely about having fun together.
Guess what makes people cohesive? Working together toward a common goal, being compensated for their work, and being treated well by those compensating them. None of that is reliant on physically being next to each other, nor is it reliant upon being in the office an arbitrary two or three days a week. And for those who can’t physically make it, you find a way to get them involved - and if that’s not possible, you make sure that they at least feel part of the team, which may mean organizing remote-friendly things, or at least making a concerted effort not to have tons of things that exclude them.
I admit it’s a difficult dance, especially for those with conditions that mean that travel or leaving the house is difficult or impossible - but guess what? The previous world of mandatory office work likely excluded people with disabilities and other conditions - remote allows you to do things like - as chintzy as they may seem - remote happy hours or other things that include them.
The point is that I do not believe most people arguing against remote work actually give a shit about team cohesion or culture. I do not believe their concern is that their team works well together, but they can see their teamwork and lord over them. I also think many pro-office people are desperately trying to protect a middle management class that serves no real function, and established yet inefficient hierarchies that are harder to justify when you’re not physically seeing the person’s furrowed brow meaty, dramatic stomps around the office.
To them, losing the office isn’t even about losing physical presence - it’s about losing the ability to manipulate and control people physically. If it was truly about not losing the value of physical relationships, the evaluation would not be about whether or not we go back to the office, but what purpose a physical meeting may have and what the best medium is for said purpose.
But…they won’t.Because it’s only about control.