Remote Possibilities

How remote work impacts productivity and alignment

Productivity Versus Alignment Redux

Last week, I wrote about one tradeoff inherent in any scaling organization: The more you focus on aligning a team, the less productive the team will be. Conversely, the more productive a team, the less aligned the team will be.

I used this graph to illustrate the point:

After publishing the article, I received some great and thoughtful replies (thank you if you sent me one 🙏). And in particular, a few folks commented on how this analysis might have changed as a result of the COVID pandemic and the transition for many to remote work.

The Shifting Graph

A simple and naive way to visualize the impact of the pandemic on the tradeoff is to pull the graph inward:

The tradeoff of alignment and productivity continues to exist. Yet the overall potential to achieve either option is reduced.

For distributed teams, communication channels are just as common as they were before, with the number of relationships growing quadratically as the organization scales. This is the “too many cooks in the kitchen” problem. But it’s now exacerbated by the fact that the cooks are, in many cases, no longer physically co-located. We have a “too many cooks in different kitchens” problem. So, alignment is harder. The inability to communicate face-to-face raises the cost of disseminating information, to address issues as they arise, to identify discrepancies, etc.

And as anyone who stopped heading into an office four years ago can attest, productivity (typically) falls in remote environments. There are more distractions. There is less of a separation between home life and work life. We aren’t surrounded by others working, which is arguably one of the primary motivators for productive work hours. And so on.

The Tradeoffs

I was once an evangelist for having teams work together, in the office, every day, with few exceptions. I’ve written before about some methods I’d used to help strengthen in-person team relationships.

But, the shift to remote work was a game changer. I spent nearly four years managing teams across the globe, all from the comfort of my home office. I’d eat breakfast and dinner with my family. I no longer had a 1h20m door-to-door commute. It’s hard to imagine now how I did build those in-person teams before 2020, when “going to work” was so much harder.

And yet, despite the lifestyle benefits that I’m now hard-pressed to give up, I challenge anyone who has built and managed teams to look at the “alignment versus productivity” graph and disagree with my assessment that remote working shifts the line inward:

Pros aside, remote working is less productive. Pros aside, distributed teams are less aligned. That isn’t to say that one cannot achieve the same levels of execution in a remote environment; but it does mean one has to work harder to achieve them.

Searching online for hot takes on this phenomenon turns up little beyond #leadership posts advising managers to “continue instilling company culture” in remote set-ups and to “facilitate productivity in virtual environments.” What wonderfully unhelpful advice, which does little but euphemize a truth rarely acknowledged by companies eager to attract talent and by talent eager to join companies: Remote work offers substantial lifestyle benefits, and this happens at the expense of productivity and alignment.

Takeaway: The tradeoff between productivity and alignment I described last week continues to exist in a remote world. But it is now exasperated by the additional tradeoff of lifestyle against both productivity and alignment. What multidimensional visualization would be necessary to make sense of that dilemma… I won’t try to draw it. (I had trouble enough a few weeks back figuring out how to visualize an astronaut floating inside of a hollow planet.)

Chance Encounters

Of course, there are the intangibles arising from chance encounters or spontaneous gatherings that ultimately change your life. There was the man in the elevator who condescendingly asked me why I thought my job mattered, whose question I’d later turned into a motto. There were the spontaneous musical jam sessions with Mike Mignano that led to us becoming startup cofounders. There were the many fortuitous twists of fate that led me to teach myself software engineering.

So I don’t know that a clever visualization or mathematical formula could ever capture those unforeseen moments. They are, after all, unforeseen.

Perhaps that is the biggest benefit of in-person work that most analyses fail to capture: The impromptu crossing of paths that would never happen but for two people finding themselves in the same place at the same time.

And so circling back to Steve Jobs—whose approach to maximizing “serendipitous personal encounters” I critiqued in my last article—I now wonder if Steve had it right all along.