One of the classic anti-remote defenses is that remote work doesn’t allow you to make deep and meaningful relationships online. The Wall Street Journal article I wrote about yesterday spoke of “forging deeper relationships” in person, a Tribune article talked of the “sense of belonging” that in-person work gives, and the BBC quotes experts speaking of “deeper, more collaborative relationships with colleagues” that come from in-person communication, all of which is mostly just accepted without criticism or consideration.
It all boils down to one major point: that digital communication cannot build meaningful, lasting, in-depth relationships with those you know, and I would like to offer a counter-argument: yes, it can.
It is the year of our lord 2021, and people are still talking about the internet like it’s this new tool, and treating online communication as a second-class citizen to being able to sit across from someone and watch their gums flap. There are tons of clickbaity headlines that claim that in-person is more effective than digital, like this one from Entrepreneur and this one from FastCompany, and basically all of them use some sort of vague study that, through the very specific lens, people like talking in person better. These studies rarely if ever seem to consider what “better” actually means, or what collaboration is, or really anything that would be illustrative of the supposed improvement of seeing people in person.
As I’ve said before, I’ve run my business remote for nearly a decade, and I would say the vast majority of the people that have paid me have never met me, or met me once or twice. The reporters I pitch predominantly have never met me, and the majority of them have not heard my voice or seen my face. This doesn’t mean that I don’t have relationships with these people that I’ve grown over the years, just that they haven’t had to occupy the same physical space with me. The entire thesis of my business has been that most of this could be done without meeting or speaking to a person, and I have been mostly correct, with the understanding that there’re times when it’s nice to put a face to a name.
Personally, my best friend is someone I met online, some of my closest friends are people I met online, and I speak to them…online. I text them, talk to them on Twitter DM, call them (occasionally) when it’s necessary to, and from what I understand, they’re mostly the same. People act as if it’s totally impossible to build and maintain long-lasting relationships without physically seeing people, as if we don’t have the ability to send video and voice and photos as well as speak in text, which is a perfectly good way of communicating. I am not saying that one should never see another human being again, but the argument that “we can’t have remote work because we can’t build strong teams digitally” is false. It mostly betrays a refusal to try - when my wife’s grandparents lived with us, for example, they would regularly video chat with friends across the country they’d literally not seen in decades, because the internet is able to do that now.
The entire remote debate is continually framed as justifying that remote work is “good enough,” when digital communication is currently at a point where we’re able to make these deep connections with people without ever meeting them. I keep trying to write a sentence where I say “it’s nice to be with people physically,” but I keep stopping because at least in the professional realm I cannot think of a thing that makes it better. The entire “body language allows me to tell stuff” is also possible to do over Zoom and, as I previously have written, people vastly overestimate their ability to read body language, and make hasty, ill-informed judgments in milliseconds on meeting someone. You can also very easily read the same things you’d read in person on a person’s face on Zoom! Open your god damn eyes! It’s not that hard!
The constant drumbeat of “sending people back to the office, because of collaboration” is so offensive to me because online collaboration is usually easier and better than it is in-person. You can keep people on task with Notion, email reminders, calendar invites, or Google Docs. People can hop on Zoom or Slack Huddles or just fucking call someone on the telephone, it’s fine, it works just as well. The proliferation of collaboration software means that the primary point of the office - getting everyone in one place - isn’t really a problem.
The quality of the relationships we make digitally is on par with, if not a little bit deeper than those we make with people in person. They may be more distributed and disorganized, but they’re also more focused and have a continuum and record. They transcend geography and, in some cases, time - conversations can be picked up and put down again, lacking the rigidity and structure of an in-person meeting that often carries with it a built-in set of judgments around how we look and how we respond.
This is rant-esque because I am so frustrated with a debate that commonly misunderstands the very fabric of the conversation. Digital communication is framed as inferior, and the benefits of in-person communication are described as good but not good enough to justify a return to the office, but I think that we are vastly underestimating the quality of the relationships we build online, and the benefits of doing so.