Remote Work, Zoom, and the COVID Era

What a year it has been! The events of 2020 have been teaching us all about our challenges, resiliency, mortality, and priorities. COVID has spooked us, injecting fear, uncertainty, doubt, and separating us as social creatures. With the help of misinformation and hysteria from all sides, it sometimes feels like there are few things in the world that can be trusted anymore.

It also raises some interesting scenarios about remote work.  I certainly noticed a massive difference in work style almost overnight.

Context Switching: All Day, Every Day

The majority of my team in 2020 was already remote, but the leaders were largely co-located. When our entire business started to work remotely, there was a large jump in the number of short virtual calls happening.  It makes logical sense – since we could no longer stop by a colleague’s office to talk, to dig into topics together – Zoom became the only “visual” person-to-person collaboration mechanism we had.

Within a couple months of the pandemic’s escalation, it was common for my calendar to have four, six, even eight half-hour zoom calls in a row.  To a non-technical person, this might seem like a non-issue.  However, software developers know that it takes about 15 minutes to get into a mental “flow” of concentration on a specific task.  This is why you often see knowledge workers designating extended time periods in which they are not to be interrupted.

When the topics are deep or complex, you need time to engage in them.  This is why frequent and rapid context-switching is not necessarily ideal for in-depth discussions. Think about it: a 30-minute video conference call means 15 minutes of time lost simply to change your “mental flow” to the call, from whatever you were working on before. Add a bunch more 30-minute calls, and it means we are losing 50% of our mental productive time.  In short: multi-tasking and context switching makes us dumb.  Anecdotal evidence is easy to find: for example, here and here.

Anyway, after many months of working like this, I started to feel mentally exhausted at the end of a work day. It was probably compounded by my own sense of isolation, since I work from home – alone – no kids, no spouse, no pets. I found myself myself cognitively drifting, unable to focus.

Several months ago, I started to block my own calendar. This gave me time to take a walk, listen to a podcast, write this amazing literature you see before you, or do some manual labor – anything to focus my brain on something for longer than 15 to 30 minutes.

I also consciously included “human time”: setting aside time to simply be human with my team. Talking about their challenges, what is going on in their lives, or their kid’s lives. I started taking more enjoyment in helping others on a personal level. I started to leave the cell phone in another room so I was not reaching for updates every few minutes.

These measures were very helpful in relieving my feeling of mental exhaustion. What will this feel like in another year?

Is This Real?

As an aside, it occurs to me that in a world powered by virtual calls, one might never meet one’s coworkers at all. If you have only ever interacted with someone over a Zoom call, how do you even know they exist? What if they weren’t real people?  Do you think this is far fetched? Not really, if you remember the Turing Test and have watched movies like Ex Machina. If the person on the other end is a machine or a software-generated image, indistinguishable from another person….what is real anymore?

I wonder when we will see a wave of cost-cutting with the introduction of AI-powered virtual people-management layers, in which individual contributors never even realize they have a non-existent digital boss, clad in a nice company polo shirt on a realistic Zoom background.  Can you imagine talking with your work colleagues about an altercation with your AI manager?

  • “How did your boss take it?”
  • “She was fine. She is an Empathetic version 2 boss zoombot with a diversity plugin.”
  • “Oh wow. How can I transfer to that group? I’m reporting to a Total narcissist zoombot 4. I hate it. I’ve sent in correction requests, but the HR lambdas are unresponsive.”
  • “Yeah, get out of that situation while you can. Maybe we can discuss it over a synthesized beer smell-o-tron at our virtual happy hour.”

Makes you crave reality right?  Or does it?

Remote Work Effectiveness

My hypothesis has always been that co-located teams are more engaged than remote teams.  This non-scientific observation stems from my early days doing software architecture, design and development work at big companies under tight timelines, where a core nexus of the team would have to huddle together – literally – in order to minimize gaps in communication and maximize design cohesion.

That said – after being 100% remote myself, and working with a large remote team for most of 2020, I have re-evaluated my own hypothesis. There is far more depth and complexity to the effectiveness of remote work. I think it is possible for remote teams to be as effective or moreso than co-located teams, but there are many variables involved:

  • the unit integrity of the team – the level of trust and cohesion between members of the remote teams, their structure, and  their communication skills
  • the vision laid out by the leaders of the organization – a specific, actionable vision that connects the dots between high-level corporate goals and the teams doing the work is highly valuable
  • tooling that supports sharing amongst the teams, their technology, and their styles e.g, collaboration tools such as Slack; API test tools like Postman; drawing tools like LucidChart
  • an organizational culture and structure that is aligned between the value that the company delivers to its customers

Many of these variables are captured better than I could ever do it, in Kyle Evans’ well-written article here.

I now consider myself much better educated on the pros and cons of remote work.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I could make a bunch of product improvement suggestions around video conferencing and collaboration tools – better whiteboard tools, more advanced intuitive controls, integrated virtual reality, and so forth – but at the end of the day, is the human element truly replaceable with remote work over an extended time period, for an entire culture? While I have some deep reservations about the effects of social isolation on our society (time will tell) – I hope this new virtual work world can be managed under the right conditions.