Remote-First Companies Are Another Covid-19 Calamity


But now the message seems to be: Stay home. That’s the way to draw talent.

There’s another related trend: the end of business travel. Unable or unwilling to hop on a flying virus incubator, people are managing to get by with remote meetings. I was at a dinner recently that paired a few journalists with five CEOs—we did it by Zoom of course—and Jennifer Tejada, the head of PagerDuty, was marveling at how she was no longer losing two days to visit a single customer, but accomplishing her mission remotely. In general, all the CEOs were gushing about how good the results were from working—and staying—at home.

These results threaten to overturn the conventional wisdom that work goes better if we gather to do it. If the tech companies can release great products without stationing developers at worktables, sales people can close deals remotely, and journalists can write compelling stories from their attics, why bother to leave the house, Covid or no Covid? Lurking in the background of all this is a troubling question: Is actual human interaction overrated?

It seems a ridiculous question. Yet here we are, with the data seeming to prove that business works best when we’re not in the office, not traveling, and seeing each other only through the glass of our displays.

Reader, I’m not buying it. My view is that you may be able to get by for a very long time without physical interaction. But eventually, it will catch up with you. In my observation and experience, the strong business relationships we develop through face-to-face interactions are hard to measure, but frequently help us close deals, improve our work, and get promoted. (They could also lead to new jobs, which might explain, in part, why companies are eager to keep us housebound.)

Plus, it’s more fun. That’s not a high bar, considering how bleak WFH can get.

It turns out that Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella agrees with me. In an interview with The New York Times, he said it would be a mistake to “overcelebrate” the increased productivity from homebound employees. “One of the things I feel is, hey, maybe we are burning some of the social capital we built up in this phase where we are all working remote,” he said. “What’s the measure for that?”

Just because we can’t measure the value of real-life interaction doesn’t mean that our work won’t eventually suffer from the lack of it. Or, as Joni Mitchell says, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Joni, meet Satya.

Time Travel

In my book about Google, In the Plex, I described at length how perks became baked into the company’s workplace. Part of my account described a blog post about the onboarding of a software engineer named Tim Bray. (He was recently in the news for publicly announcing his departure from Amazon, motivated by moral factors):

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