“Last year we had a major milestone. Our annual revenue run rate had just crossed $1 million. Success like this has to be celebrated, so I put on “The Winner Takes It All” by ABBA and fetched a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. Raising my golden glass of bubbly to all those people who worked so hard for many months to bring us here, I was filled with gratitude and pride. This is my team! And this is just the beginning. Then, suddenly everything stopped. The smiling faces froze. Some of them disappeared into the black. Five words popped up on my laptop screen: Your internet connection is unstable. And then I realized I’m sitting alone in my room with a glass of champagne, staring at the Zoom window.”
A founder of a cybersecurity startup from the east coast of the U.S. recently told me this story. In less than two years, they grew from two to 35 employees, and like many other companies in the tech sector, they chose a remote-first workplace model.
Long before the Covid-19 pandemic made working from home commonplace, many startups had decided they didn’t need a physical headquarters. Enabled by high-speed internet and the tools for asynchronous communication, like Slack or Zoom, this model has been championed by such success stories as Zapier, GitLab and 37 Signals — the creators of Basecamp and Ruby on Rails.
A lot has been written about the advantages of remote work. The company benefits from access to the much larger talent pool and considerable savings on rent and other costs associated with having a brick-and-mortar office. At the same time, employees save hundreds of hours of commuting time, enjoy flexible schedules and eat every lunch with their families.
Yet, like most things in our lives, this flexibility and efficiency come at a price. As part of my work at YouTeam, I surveyed leaders of over a hundred remote teams in the last 12 months. One of the questions I asked was, “What is the biggest pain point in having a remote team?” The answer that most frequently appeared was not time zones or international payroll, as one may expect. It was “the lack of human connection between employees.” Nine out of 10 managers I spoke to named this issue among the top pain points for their business.
You see, people expect much more from their work than just a paycheck. Work takes such a huge chunk of our time that we naturally want it to provide many other things that give life its colors: social connections, new relationships, friendships, personal growth and fun. This all comes naturally, spontaneously — when everyone is in the same room. When your only connection to your colleagues is through a laptop screen, there is little space for spontaneity. The inconvenient truth about remote work is that an employee’s role in the company is essentially reduced to their professional function. There is no watercooler, no pizza nights, no swinging at each others’ desks, no poking shoulders, no Friday drinks, no luncheons, no ping pong breaks, no off-site. From the management perspective, this manifests in weaker company culture, faster employee burnout and shakier loyalty. According to one survey, remote employees are usually less engaged and less likely to effectively communicate with their peers.
The most efficient way to build a human connection is no secret — just put everyone in the same room. That is why most of the remote-first companies run regular get-togethers, usually in exotic locations like Bali or Tulum. The main problem with these corporate events is that you only can do one or two of them each year. This still leaves the overwhelming majority of employee’s time to be spent alone. However, one thing get-togethers show is that the key to building human connection is through shared experiences. You need things in common with another person for this subtle human bond to emerge. Jokes, games, failures, moments of excitement, even anxiety — anything you could remember together later is what creates this warm communion with other human beings we’re all craving.
These aspects of remote work present a surprising opportunity to develop innovative technology that solves these pain points. One such potential solution is virtual reality. At the recent Facebook Connect conference, Mark Zuckerberg devoted a big portion of his keynote presentation to how VR can bring remote co-workers into one space. Many of the functions of the much-hyped Oculus 2 were built for remote collaboration with Infinite Office, coming to the live beta this winter, being the most notable. Lack of human connection isn’t the only downturn of the no-office approach. Even though many cash-scrappy startups are going remote-first, many business leaders still share the opinion of Reed Hastings of Netflix, who sees the forced WFH policy as a “pure negative.”
The truth is, there are many issues still waiting to be solved in order for remote work to become commonplace. And you know what? I believe that is actually a really good thing.