It’s Memorial Day weekend, as in, Surely by Memorial Day this thing will be over. That’s what we were saying a couple of months ago. We’re still saying it, only now we’re talking about Memorial Day 2021. The good news is that next year the holiday falls on the last possible date, May 31. So we have more time for a vaccine!
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The Plain View
Like a lot of you, I’ve been working from home for two months now. I have no idea when my office will be open, or whether I’ll feel comfortable getting in the elevator to ride up to my tiny workspace when it does. It all depends on the virus. But in the past couple of weeks, there’s been increasing talk about how this may be moot, because offices may never be much of a thing again—even when the Covid-19 crisis passes. Are joint workspaces over?
As with many things, the tech industry is leading the way. Facebook and Google told employees earlier this month that they won’t be required to show up until at least 2021: Zuckerberg later added that he expects that by 2030, half his workforce will be WFH. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey dropped the other shoe, promising his employees that they’ll never have to cross the threshold of the company’s louche headquarters building again if they don’t care to. He later extended the offer to his workers at Square. The term “permanent WFH” began to trend. Then Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong proclaimed that after quarantine, his company would be a “remote-first” operation. “After a period of WFH, we think remote work (or part in-office and part remote) are options that many people, including the top talent we’re focused on hiring, will come to expect from employers. It also means we can capture top talent from all over the world.” Piling on was Shopify’s CEO Tobi Lutke, who tweeted that his company is “digital by default,” and proclaimed that “office centricity is over.”
There’s an irony here. For years, Google and its imitators have been known for the lavish benefits supplied to their employees. Sign on with one of the Silicon Valley giants and you get three squares a day, dry cleaning, haircuts, medical services, and even massages. It’s like The Good Place, only with meetings and OKRs. There are two general rationales for this pampering: One is that an attractive workplace will lure and retain the best employees; the second is that all those amenities make sure those employees spend as many waking hours at the office as possible. (Also included: comfy couches if you want to spend a few nonwaking hours on campus.)
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.
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):
In April 2010, a software engineer named Tim Bray blogged his experiences as a Noogler on a single day at Mountain View. He woke up at a Google Apartment, a temporary arrangement while visiting from his home base in Seattle. He caught a Google Bus to campus, doing a bit of work using the Google Wi-Fi supplied to the passengers, arriving in time for free breakfast at one of the Google cafés. For lunch, a companion took him to the Jia café across a few parking lots, known for its excellent sushi. (Thursday was Hot Pot day.) Later in the afternoon he wanted to buy a new camera, so he borrowed one of the free electric-powered Toyota Priuses available to employees and drove to a Best Buy to make his purchase. At 6:30 pm someone said, “Dinner?” and he accompanied coworkers to another Google café, eating al fresco at picnic tables as the sun set over the lap pool, beach volleyball court, and the full-size replica of a T. rex fossil named “Stan.”
Ask Me One Thing
Rodrigo writes, “In a time when people are squirreling away mountains of toilet paper, it’s easy to have missed the death of a product that received very little fanfare when it debuted and even less when Scott decided to kill it: tubeless toilet paper. It was amazing. Fast forward to early this year when I went to reorder my TP from Amazon. Out of stock. That’s when I started getting worried. I started Googling ‘Scott Tubeless Toilet Paper discontinued?’ Sure enough, I found a Facebook page that had a huge list of people imploring Scott to bring back our TP. Repeated calls by fans for Scott to bring back our TP have been met the limpest of responses. Since then, I’ve tried getting in touch with local news, the BBC, national news, basically anyone who will listen, but to no avail.”
Since I put no limits on what can be asked in this space, Rodrigo, I won’t complain about your raising this weird obsession. But I did feel a bit duped when I looked into this and discovered that The New York Times, no less, wrote a huge article diving deep into Scott’s discontinuation of tubeless toilet paper. It’s like Woodward and Bernstein! Someone listened! Look, I’m happy to be asked about anything—and I strongly urge readers to ask away, because you’ll notice that if I’m taking queries about toilet paper, the barrel bottom is being scraped. But if you’re going to stray from “What was Steve Jobs like?” or “Will the Facebook Oversight Board work?” at least give me something that my competitors haven’t written the equivalent of a graduate thesis on.
You can submit questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.
End Times Chronicle
Netflix announced it will cancel the accounts of users who haven’t streamed anything in a year, unless they say they want to keep the membership. A company forgoing a steady revenue stream just because a customer isn’t using their services? We have reached the end of the world!
Last but Not Least
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Is the success of this Zoom wedding—meticulously chronicled by Nicole Pajer—a counterargument to my argument in favor of actual human interaction? Let’s ask the happy couple in a few years, as they turn the pages of their screen-shot scrapbook.
Then there’s Brendan Koerner’s poignant account of his 12-year-old’s valiant Google Map itinerary of a minor-league-ballpark trip that will never happen. I hope one day they will see the Portland Sea Dogs play at their home stadium in Maine. Maybe in 2022?
Real composer. Real musicians. But an AI conductor—maybe using your biometrics—remixes in real time to provide a personal soundtrack to your life. Here’s my story on LifeScore, cofounded by one of the inventors of Siri.
WIRED’s Megan Molteni takes the online course that qualifies you as a contact tracer. You can do it while WFH!
That’s it for this week. Enjoy the break. Just don’t ask too hard what it’s a break from.
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