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WFH: Summer 2020 fling or forever?

Surely you’ve seen the headlines… remote work is in:

A 2-Year Stanford Study Shows the Astonishing Productivity Boost of Working From Home

9 Research-Based Facts That Prove Remote Teams are the Future of Work” 

New Survey Shows 47% Increase In Productivity

Wow! What about interns? 

Take my experience: nine weeks, 20-some interns (mostly undergrads, those poor rising seniors), and lots of Webex. My hopes for virtual anything were burning a little thin by the end of our Zoom semester, but it was, all things considered, a great summer. I applaud the organization and so many others for rising to the occasion and trying to keep some semblance of our internship experience. They were prepared to make the most of our virtual time. A few parting memories stand out:

  • Onboarding remotely is… interesting? Remote HQ “tours” had to get pretty creative, but it was actually quite entertaining listening to the company’s best color commentator narrate a series of office photos. The virtual orchestration of dozens of simultaneous laptop setups was both impressive and a punishing way to spend four hours. Definitely one of those events that really missed the in-person lunch spread.
  • Pro tip – for the first couple of weeks, rotate Webex locations throughout your apartment so your team won’t notice when you suddenly start taking calls from a beach house in Maryland.
  • Sliding into Slack DMs makes for pleasantly painless networking. The reliance on virtual communication made it feel pretty casual to follow up on various presentations and speakers. Maybe that video chat wasn’t quite as good as a live cup of coffee, but it somehow felt like the barrier to reach out was lower.
  • Webex bonding isn’t the easiest way to make those lifelong connections everyone keeps talking about, but we made… something work? It’s all about familiarity – even virtually – seeing the same faces every day goes a long way by the end of the summer. The social aspect was always going to be an uphill battle; kudos to the team for giving it a committed effort. 
  • And what about those productivity headlines? There were noticeably more free hours in the day when working from home. Without the commute, without the chatty lunch break, the aimless laps around the office – there were moments that felt remarkably focused on core work.   

Not surprisingly, then, a familiar refrain gained momentum: “This is amazing – this year’s virtual class got more done than we could ever have expected,” followed by a chorus of remarks pushing toward “Hmm… maybe there really is a way to do more remote work.” Remote productivity has a lot of hype these days. Companies have made splashes predicting dramatic shifts in their workforces. But doesn’t it all feel a little… premature?

Of course, we got a lot done. If you take out all the happy hours, the lunch events, the summer Olympics – what do you get? More time. That time is great for finally getting on a Citi Bike! It’s also great for getting things done when you want to. Productivity, especially while remote, is intuitively tied to motivation. And who is more driven than an intern trying to secure full-time work? (Answer: millions of Americans under threat of unemployment.)

Office die-hards cling to the notion that ideas spread and flourish organically through casual conversation – in the office. They suggest that, therefore, that it’s actually more productive in the long-term to be in-person. I too am an office believer, but this “water cooler” argument for co-location feels a bit flimsy. Who are all these people finding inspiration while slacking off? How many people are hunting down colleagues at their desks for a spontaneous brainstorm? And where are all of these water coolers

Constantly framing the discussion around productivity and output is too narrow and misses all sorts of unintended lifestyle consequences. Personally, the more compelling argument for going back to work is trivial. Maybe we don’t want to be that productive all the time. Maybe we’re going to feel better when we goof off and gossip about our managers in totally non-productive ways. Isn’t “happier” worth something? 

Lots of people want to continue remote work. It makes sense – there are a lot of really great perks. But we don’t know enough about how mass numbers of people will respond to working from home indefinitely. My guess is that Year 5 of remote work feels a little different than Month 5. I’m not sold on any sweeping claims about the future of work. The buzz will keep changing.First, let’s stop being surprised that people can get things done remote. It’s 2020 – of course we can! (We have MS Teams!!) Especially when we’re motivated for full-time offers and stuck at home. In response, let’s not pretend like the sole reason for going back to work is “idea sharing.” It can be simpler than that: it’s just not as fun being productive all the time. It’s fun hitting happy hour near the office. It’s less fun cracking a lonely beer at your home desk. But most of all, let’s give this all a little time. However painful it may sound, we’re only a few months into our new normal. Many people, myself included, have been fortunate to enjoy satisfying remote work experiences. But let’s try it for another year before we condemn Midtown and move to Montana.

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