Environment affects modes of work. And that’s why the recent shift to remote work is so consequential.
Until the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in 2020, nearly all the conversations about office design centered around collaboration.
This was especially true in the tech industry. Companies (ranging from scrappy startups to industry giants like Apple, Google, and Facebook) innovated with casual meeting spaces, extensive break areas, and open office plans.
Collaboration was king. And then COVID-19 happened.
All that effort to foster and encourage water cooler moments — spontaneous meetings that could spark creativity, collaboration, and new ideas — was swept away by the pandemic, the necessity for remote work, and the subsequent resistance by employees to return to offices.
It’s a disaster, according to some managers and executives.
But I disagree. I think the remote work revolution will save them from their own faulty thinking.
Deep thoughts about deep work
In 2016, Cal Newport wrote a ground-breaking book called “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.”
His central thesis is that our attention is increasingly fragmented over time because of the evolution of culture in general — and technology in particular. The more distracted the workforce, the “shallower” its work becomes.
“Shallow,” distracted work becomes the norm.
And “deep work” — concentrated, distraction-free work performed in a flow state of mind — becomes rarer and, therefore, more valuable.
In-office work is a little better for collaboration. But remote work is a lot better for deep work.
According to the Cal Newport model, the drive to design workplaces around collaboration means prioritizing shallow work over deep but solitary work — and, therefore, prioritizing low-value success over high-value achievement.
Of course, the most favorable work mode depends on exactly what’s being done and on the personalities and inclinations of the humans doing the work.
To me, it seems a more significant percentage of the workforce would benefit from deep work over collaboration.
Most employees aren’t inventing advanced technologies or developing marketing creative. They’re not doing something that requires extensive cooperation.
But nearly all work benefits from concentration.
It’s likely that two irrational biases drive residual preference for office work and collaboration-forward office design:
1. Managers tend to prefer the personal experience of seeing employees working, to interrupt them and converse with them on an ad-hoc basis — they used it call it “management by wandering around.”
2. Employees acclimated to working in offices have come to need the camaraderie, social interaction, and ability to “read” the emotional state of co-workers and bosses to validate how they’re doing and to feel connected to what’s happening.
Both of these impulses are somewhat habitual and delusional. They emerged as a result of offices, not the other way around.
In a more perfect world, managers would have better ways to evaluate and interact with employees than interrupting them and getting a “gut feel” about how they’re doing.
And employees would have better ways to gauge their own performance and place on the team — and they’d fulfill their innately human need for social interaction from their social lives, not by the corporation they work for.
The old office paradigm — collaborative spaces, open-office plans, management by walking around, and all the rest — sacrifices the activity that produces the best-quality work (the practice of deep work) on the altar of collaboration (truly valuable only to a minority) and irrational delusions about the need for interaction.
Anyone who subscribes to Cal Newport’s deep work idea — and I’m one of them — would understand the supremacy of remote work over office work.
Also: collaboration is something that software and cloud-based services will continuously improve.
But deep work is facilitated by elimination — removing distractions, interruptions, and requirements to work when the mind isn’t primed for deep work.
Technology doesn’t help us directly with deep work — only indirectly by facilitating remote work.
In other words, with improved technology, we’ll get better remote collaboration. And remote work will facilitate deep work. So we’ll get more of both in the future of work.
This is something to be celebrated, not resisted.
A final deep thought about the ‘flexodus.’
Wait, “flexodus”? Do we really need another future-of-work buzzword?
Yes. Yes, we do.
The Great Resignation is being driven in part by the desire for employees to have flexible work time — to work according to their own schedules instead of the old 9-to-5.
It turns out that flex work is also better for deep work because everybody has their own individual peak mental and physical times of the day.
Some people work better late at night. Others (like myself, who gets up at 4 a.m.) work better in the morning. Some work better in creative bursts. Others perform better by working in several disparate chunks each day.
It’s time for leaders of all kinds to get their heads around three facts about the future of work:
1) deep work is more valuable than collaborative work;
2) technology will evolve to improve remote collaboration, and
3) employees want to succeed, and if you let them work remotely and flexibly, they will find their way to peak performance.