The Remote Era
We are entering a new age of knowledge work: the Remote Era. In a McLuhan sense, the medium of office work has changed.
Up until now, everybody thought that their workplaces were shaped by software. Email, Powerpoint, Slack and innumerable line-of-business apps are of course ubiquitous. But software had only ever eaten half of the office. Every job to be done in a typical office was supported by in-person contact. Some of this was explicit: meetings, org-charts, interviews, tea breaks and water coolers. But much of it was implicit: a business district address, an unstated dress code, open plan seats allowing employees to read the hierarchy and ways of working through mimicry. Offices are a technology, and their design embodies centuries of accumulated knowledge.
This hybrid model worked well enough. Likely, it would have continued to work. Perhaps there would have been a gradual disruption by startups with more software-driven and less in-person process. But the pandemic was a singularity. The effect of moving everyone online simultaneously is that there can be no going back. Office workers won’t go back to commutes, and management won’t go back to leasing expensive office buildings.
This isn’t an argument in favour of remote work, just an acknowledgement that the default has changed. It may be there is a creative advantage from co-location. Startups may find an edge by offering young people an in-person office experience. But how can a company with an established business model justify the cost?
When COVID began and the offices were closed, we found to our surprise that the tools were good enough. And they’ve improved since, thanks to companies like Miro, Figma and Replit. But as the Remote Era enters its third year, we’re seeing fault lines like ‘the Great Resignation’ appear.
How do you impart culture and engage employees through software? Creating an answer may require an explicit encoding of previously implicit knowledge. In my previous post I pointed to Games as a software tradition that already attempts something like this. In any case, we should expect the answer to look like a new kind of software experience.