Let’s push remote work into the bronze age

I’ve been using the saying we are in the stone age phase of remote working” a lot lately.

Screenshot of a Video call. The camera looks at a desk, where a sticky note reads "Gone to make a tea, back soon"Screenshot of a Video call. The camera looks at a desk, where a sticky note reads "Gone to make a tea, back soon"

We have a studio space now. It’s a bit of a luxury, but a luxury worth having. I’m looking forward to engaging in a set of habits and routines that fit with a post covid, post remote reality.

Work flexibility is an issue of égalité (freedom, equality, togetherness, as the French motto almost says - the french vibe is cool). We no longer have the scenario of absolute chaos between 7am-9am where stressed parents rush from pillar to post. Or that horrible moment when you squeeze yourself out of the room or conversation at 4:05 as you know you need to be at school pick up by 5pm. Race condition, no room for error, fucking leaves on the track! Emergency! Text text text text text text the parents Whatsapp for help!

But. In return for losing that, what else did we lose? Happenstance, the bubble of presence. The ad hoc hallway chat that lets everyone cancel a meeting. The norms of being able to separate your life and your work. Not having to clear your kitchen 15 times daily. Not being reminded of how much washing there is as you try and decipher a profit margin. I think there are a set of healthy habits that were dropped without thinking.

Zoom, Teams, and Google Meet are the stone age of remote working. I no longer refer to being on a Zoom call”. I now say, I spoke to a computer that had postage-sized faces on it and latency, which means nonverbal communication was hard to decipher,” which is demonstrably what happens.

There is also the physiological reality of who I am and my body. When I don’t move around every 90 minutes, I feel awful. Having a watch that pings keep moving!” is frankly dystopian. When I talk to a machine all day, I feel awful. When I don’t have a 40 minute disconnection routine, I feel awful.

Sure, I could do it at home. But as the household machinery of power starts turning between 4-8pm, and children get hungry and ratty, and pots start clanking and kettles start boiling… are you really going to say just popping out for my post work decompression walk”?

When I reflect on working in studios there are norms I now miss. I would have a pair of over ear headphones. Two ears meant leave me alone, one ear over meant open to chat, no headphones meant let’s talk. You can see those norms out of the corner of your eye, it doesn’t need an invite.

We’ve been doing meat space communication for 1,000 years - you can tell feelings by looking at people. The silent sound of the room after an end of project call is the most depressing way to end an adventure. Missing someone writing brb” in a Discord chat means total context collapse as there is no shared experience.

How will the archaeologists of the future identify the moment when bronze age remote working started? What should we look out for? What can we make happen? 

We use Discord and have video and audio rooms just to be present. It doesn’t quite work yet. Social norms mean people feel obliged to talk. What’s the equivalent of a gentle, polite nod and then carrying on with your work?

How you work is inextricably linked to the work you produce. Less team health and psychological safety” and more make a brilliant environment to make brilliant things” kind of way. Those two are connected, but we embody openness and compassion, so I want some oomph back.

Norms and tools interplay with each other, it was always true, and it’s still true. I think we need the equivalent of the red record button—you’re live. I’d have that in a workspace, but not in my home. We need tooling that can record, stream, and delete. What’s the livestream equivalent of deleting your old tweets? Some words and phrases are just for the moment and were never meant to scale.

So, onto the Bronze Age. I have a Spotify playlist called Shared Experiences Are Great. I can’t wait for a moment in the studio where two people smile at the same bit of the same song at the same time. Imagine that!

I don’t want back to office” edicts, that’s illogical and irrational. Life can be too logistically tricky and houses cost too much in certain cities for that kind of nonsense. But I want to be intentional and aware of the things that were lost, and the things that I miss. And maybe, actively design alternatives that feel like a future I want to live in.

Eliot Fineberg, edited by Rod McLaren

May 13, 2024