Oliver Roick

Remote work doesn’t need new tools

Remote work doesn’t equal having a relaxing day at home, wearing no pants, and occasionally typing away on our keyboards — most people know that now. We’ve sat through awkward conference calls where either everyone is talking simultaneously or no one is saying anything at all. Every conversation has to be planned and scheduled; our calendars barely leave time for a lunch break. Fear of missing out on significant discussions and decisions is real, and we experienced a lack of connection to colleagues, isolation, and loneliness.

For every problem today, there’s a technical solution, software that supposedly makes things better. When email, video calls, and instant messaging don’t cut it for online collaboration, a new breed of communication and collaboration platforms is on the rise: Gather, Totem, or Wonder. The platforms promise to make online working and collaboration more natural, like the face-to-face interactions we know from working in offices.

And the platforms unintentionally deliver, as Rebecca Seat writes about The Virtulab in a piece for the Guardian:

Although subscribers can build any office they want, the immersive version I visited, via my laptop screen, created for two clients, an events company and a petrochemical company, looked exactly like a normal, grey office building. It’s as if they got their best designers to perfectly recreate a business park in Reading.

When we humans notice that a form of interaction mediated by technology isn’t working, we blame that technology and look for alternatives. Teams, that struggle to manage and deliver projects efficiently and on time, look for a different project-management solution instead of reviewing how they break down and prioritise work. When email, instant messaging, and video calls result in messy conversations and tired workers, we look for more real-life-like platforms. But changing from Trello to Jira to Asana won’t fix how you deliver projects; just as a different online collaboration tool won’t make you collaborate better. These new platforms take the worst aspects of remote working remote and make them a little better, a little closer to real-life face-to-face interactions. However sophisticated the platforms may be, we still stare at a screen, awkwardly trying to forge relationships with coworkers. Only now you’re trying to make friends with a cute avatar.

Office and remote work environments are fundamentally different. Ways of working that are appropriate for the office cannot simply be transferred into a remote context. A different approach to work and communication is needed, not additional software. A work style that prefers asynchronous interactions instead and bringing the team together in video calls. A culture where people outline ideas in writing, share documents and ask for comments instead of meetings or rocking up at someone’s desk.

Remote work feels so difficult because the interactions don’t feel natural. When done right, however, asynchronous working allows people to arrange their work around their lives and not the other way around. When I worked in distributed teams before, people quit their jobs for many reasons but never for the lack of social interactions and connectedness. If there’s no commute in the morning, you can meet a friend for a coffee. You can decide to work longer in the evening and see family over a long lunch break. Remote workers do connect, just a lot more outside of work. Remote work isn’t isolation but focus, not loneliness but solitude.

Instead of disrupting work by throwing new software at teams, disrupt how you approach work.