Why is this interesting? - The Remote Working Edition

On offices, Slack, and how we deal with new media

I originally posted this over on the Variance blog and thought it would be good to include a slightly edited version here. The original also includes some more specific explanations of how we use Slack as a remote team. - Noah (NRB)

Noah here. Last May, after the initial shock of the pandemic had subsided and it was clear we were going to be living this way for a while, I had conversations with a number of friends who were miserable at work. The problem wasn’t working from home exactly, but rather the way that work was happening. Despite the fact they were no longer occupying the same physical space as their coworkers, the long shadow of the office still loomed over every interaction. Calendars were just as full of useless meetings as they were before, only now they were entirely held over Zoom. Slack wasn’t a vibrant public forum, but rather a backchannel full of DMs asking for finished work. Not everyone was miserable, but those most fed up with work from home were in organizations that went remote while changing as little as possible about how they actually work.

There’s plenty of evidence those early feelings are still with many ten months later. Citi recently announced “Zoom-Free Fridays,” a case of treating the symptom not the problem if I ever heard one. And a recent Microsoft survey of 30,000 workers found 41% were considering leaving their jobs. What’s more, despite meetings already being the scourge of many workplaces, Microsoft also reported, “Time spent in Teams meetings has more than doubled and keeps rising, meetings are 10 minutes longer on average.” Is it any wonder people are unhappy? Instead of adapting to this new world of remote work, we’ve taken the worst of the office and amplified it.

Why is this interesting?

When I see this pattern I can’t help but turn to media studies and Marshall McLuhan. In his classic book Understanding Media, McLuhan explained that a “new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace. It never ceases to oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them.” The classic story is that when a new medium like television comes along, the first thing we do is recreate its predecessor in the new channel. That’s why the first shows on TV were essentially radio broadcasts in front of a camera. Eventually the new medium is recognized as its own unique thing and we create specifically for the channel. 

Remote (and the technology that exists around it like Zoom and Slack) are a new medium. Those companies who recognize this are finding ways to more drastically adapt their work approach, and those who don’t are left doing the equivalent of radio broadcasts on television.

So what’s a company to do?

Well, on one side, Slack and Zoom are working hard to find better solutions for the problem. Slack, for instance, is trying to find more ways to allow for asynchronous work: recognizing the old rules of meetings no longer apply. But more generally I’ve found it takes a real commitment to being remote and the new ways work gets done in that environment. Some part is also finally fixing the broken meeting culture that is so pervasive at so many companies—moving from a synchronous to an asynchronous mindset. And some of this is as simple as putting time and effort into making Slack work more effectively by organizing channels and setting guidelines around when to be public vs private (the best bet is almost always defaulting to public when possible). If this sounds a bit like the work that goes into community management, that’s because it is. When companies move remote they start to resemble online communities and need the same kind of care and feeding that those communities take to thrive. (NRB)

Slack Feature of the Day:

The remind feature (it’s in the More Actions menu on every message) is probably the least well-known, highly useful Slack feature that exists. (NRB)

Quick Links:

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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