You are probably an office worker. And perhaps you are at home now. “Stay the * at home,” wise people said. Let me guess… you are still working but now from home, right? What do you think of your new workplace? Do you like it? How is it going overall?
I’ll tell you a personal story. I was an office worker for about a decade, and it was a perfect time. I was lucky to be a part of cool teams involved in awesome projects. We were doing great during working hours, had a lot of trendy discussions on coffee breaks, and the after-work was a nasty time to have some fun with colleagues! We were doing like millions of people around the world and probably you as well. At that time, I could hardly imagine anything else besides the office lifestyle we were used to.
Five years ago, everything had changed: the situation pushed me into remote working. It was not a freelance job as most people think when they hear ‘remote’. It was a full-time job with no central office location. The staff was spread among many cities, working from different places. All the communications were held online using voice software. We had no video involved, so for about a year, I had not even seen my team members! What I had to do almost all day was speaking with the damn glowing glass in front of me. No funny office jokes, no coffee breaks with a pretty colleague, no go-to-bar-after. Life had changed, at least it seemed so.
And it was just the peak of the iceberg! The bells started ringing three months later. I realized that I’m a prisoner in my own house, just sitting all day near the laptop. I had no need to go outside, and no need to communicate with real people. Every aspect of my new life was isolated inside my home. I could get online with just a few clicks everything I needed — from food to entertaining time-killing. No one but me forced the imprisonment! In six months, I have diagnosed myself as a nerd in the worst sense of this word, and I was ready to come back to the office.
But one thing had held me back. I found that something had changed in my understanding of responsibility during the remote work period. It was a very subtle difference, but very important. In the office, the responsibility was usually spread among people. Of course, any single worker is responsible for his part of the job, everyone has his duty, everyone does his best. At the same time, you can always easily share your responsibility with someone else. The office is an ecosystem, giving its members a wonderful feeling, that any task is solvable even if you can’t solve it yourself. Sounds great, right? If you can’t solve the task, someone will definitely solve it, why not?
Coronavirus frenzy has shown the downside to many people over the globe: what if you can’t share responsibility anymore? In a simple case, you can’t share it as much, as you could previously, in extreme cases, you can’t share it at all. That is why many people say remote working is tough. You get much more responsibility than before. And the only thing you can do is to become more responsible and skilled. No workarounds! In my case, I had a feeling that remote work uses a hidden muscle of my mental body. The muscle, which was almost atrophied in the office lifestyle. I hated that feeling at first. It was similar to when you go to the gym after a break, and you have your muscles hurt for a while.
Finally, I got the insight that my temporary discomfort shapes me and makes me better overall. I had improved in many areas, which I had been lazy to dig into while in office. I had gained a need to see the whole picture, not the small part I was responsible for. It gave my solutions completeness and accuracy, greatly reducing the number of undos and comebacks. My performance had grown drastically by more than twice in terms of speed and quality when measured with the same methodologies as I had used before. Looking ahead, I could say that changing remote workplaces didn’t change that situation, so I’m sure it was not a property of a particular job, but the remote way of working itself.
I loved my new shape, and I didn’t want to come back to the office anymore. I understood that if I will, my newly obtained state will vanish. But I still had a problem: while pumping up my responsibility muscle, I became an awful nerd with almost no real life. The more I thought about this, the more I understood, it was not something inside me leading to that miserable situation, but rather a mighty outer power, which simply got over me because I was unprepared. That power was Freedom.
The new way
Freedom is like magic — either you know how to handle it, or it goes out of control. Remote offers you the freedom to work from anywhere, usually, anytime you like. When I got that freedom, I used it in the worst possible way, which is unfortunately very common. I left the office, but I used the new possibilities to reproduce the office essence. I bound myself to my house and reduced social interactions to the area between my sofa and the front door. That is exactly the pattern the office is providing us with, and reproduction is the only option we have if we don’t understand the situation. To deal with it, some effort is needed, but it will pay off soon.
My way of breaking the office curse was to start traveling to see the world and the people. These trips were not the usual vacations for a week or two, which are, by all means, superficial. I came to new places to live and be involved in local life for much longer periods. It gave me the possibility to see their uniqueness and to understand what matters to people living there. It could sound trivial, but the world is different, and there is no better feeling when you discover it yourself. I have visited dozens of small villages and big cities in many countries, have met hundreds of people, and have seen the things I hardly imagined exist.
What about the job you could ask? If I started to spend more time on travel, then probably I would have less time to work? Nope. The time spent on work remained the same, but the time spent on ‘related’ activities, including meaningless time-killing and procrastination, greatly reduced.
When I was a child and picked a leaf from a tree, my parents always asked: “What if everyone on Earth would pick a leaf from this tree?”
I’ve told you about my personal experience of remote working, which is, by all means, the best part of my life. But what if everyone on Earth will work remotely? Is it good or bad? Should we seek it or avoid it as a society? My answer is: we definitely should go for it. There are many pros for remote working, and at least one I mentioned above. Now I will show you one more, which matters and which is closely connected to our future. I will have to make a small introduction, please don’t lose touch.
Cities have been an essential part of human society for thousands of years, and we believe they are forever, especially the big ones like New York, London, Paris, or Moscow. Let’s consider the reasons why people built cities and migrated into. Fundamentally there are three of them: safety, opportunity, and comfort.
Safety is the oldest one. People wanted to protect their lives, and for a long time, the best way to do it was to gather in one place, build a wall around, and hope attackers would not bring a catapult. For now, this reason is almost obsolete for developed countries. In the case of war, cities do not give protection guarantees better than villages anymore because of weapons of mass destruction. At the same time crime in more overcrowded areas is usually much more mature and dangerous.
Big cities were the drivers of opportunity for many people who have moved into. They concentrated resources, labor force, and people’s needs in one place, providing a vast amount of work. Everyone could get a job in a big city, and career ladders were higher. Until recently, this model was OK because jobs were bound to physical places, and people produced physical objects. Not anymore. Today we produce things mostly in digital form. Physical localization lost the significant part of its relevance, and the focus of opportunity switched from where the particular person lives to which skills and talents he has.
We also think that big cities bring us comfort. We associate them with entertainment, leisure, and an abundance of services. They give us all of these for sure! But they also provide higher chances for pandemics, overcrowding, traffic jams, pollution, crime, higher housing rates, higher chances for mental disorders, etc. Urban areas are a source of big numbers in statistics, doesn’t matter if those statistics are good or bad. In this sense, they are extreme living places, giving us too much of everything good and bad together. But real comfort is not to have too much, but rather to have as much as we need, and it is quite a big difference. In the past, cities were the only places that gave people an unreachable level of comfort, but today, with the rise of modern technologies and globalization, we could have all the things we need almost anywhere in the world without getting hit by bad big numbers.
The problem with big cities is that they accumulate too many resources (natural, financial, power, skill) in one place, leaving other areas exhausted and sometimes disfigured. Such inequality and skewness in resource distribution between different geographical points increased productivity and pushed the progress forward in the past. But today, when we are not necessarily bound to a particular physical place, the negative effects of resource centralization have to be considered first. Our mission as human beings is to develop our planet as a whole, and not to over concentrate our achievements in small isolated parts of it. I believe the future of our civilization is associated with the uniform geographical distribution of resources, which would make our world a better place to live.
As we have shown before, today there are no more reasons for striving for the big cities, and it gives us a great possibility to develop our planet as a whole. But the way to the future could be very long. The city phenomenon, which was the driver of civilization for thousands of years, generates great inertia in human understanding of reality. It will probably last for decades or even centuries and will be a significant obstacle humanity has to deal with.
Here remote working comes to the fore. What if more and more people start working remotely? The more people will work remotely, the more people will move out of cities, bringing resources to yet less developed places. I hope this process becomes a trend and makes our way to the future a bit shorter.
What could we do?
If you agree with me and have the same deep feeling about the future and the role of remote working, then do not simply return back to the office when all this pandemic hell ends. Demand remote. This is not about optimization or comfort anymore. Now, it’s a prerequisite to building a better world to live.