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No evidence that chance meetings in office boosts innovation (nytimes.com)
330 points by remt on June 24, 2021 | hide | past | favorite | 238 comments

That really depends on the company culture. When "innovation" only flows top-down (execs->PMs->BAs->devs) with no way up then yeah. But as a PhD student I can have many more ideas, and of higher quality, during a half-hour lunch break with colleagues compared to a whole day thinking by myself - and I have the freedom to pursue any of those ideas on my own terms.

Lunchtime with colleagues is always the best for making silly ideas workable. If anything, the open office plan discourages conversation because shhhh some people are actually trying to get work done.

I’ve said this in other threads on this topic, but shared lunches are so important. There’s something about eating together that taps into our primitive brains and creates an entirely different dynamic. It’s like we subconsciously see the people we eat with as part of our tribe.

Lunch is, IMHO, the biggest loss when going full remote. It’s also somewhat of a magic bullet for fixing individual communication breakdowns. As a manager, when you see two people failing to coordinate, especially across teams, just have them eat a few lunches together. Offering to have the company pay is usually enough to make it happen. For a few tens of dollars, you establish a relationship with very low communication friction. It’s ridiculously good value for the company.

Exactly this. Open floor plans always punished me for gathering folks around my whiteboard and talking through things and bantering like we would at the water cooler and companies want things to be as quiet as a library

My team is remote but we (used to) get together once a quarter and work in the same space for several days. The most productive part of the day was the walk to/from the office. The office was close to the hotel and had several coffee shops between them. My teammates and I would walk to work, stop to get some coffee, and chat about all kinds of stuff. Some of it was work, but most of it was family, tech news, cars, etc.

Ultimately, it was a great team building experience and I feel much closer to my team because of it. We're much freer in our conversations and thoughts even now than we are with some of the newer members of the team that haven't had this experience (ie. COVID-19).

Hopefully, we'll get back to quarterly on-sites soon so I can bond with my team again. And since we downsized the physical office location, I'm petitioning to meet somewhere cool - like at the beach, or a ski trip. Might as well have some fun too.

How much money are you making vs cost, on implementing your innovations?

In a big company, you increase the bottom line by millions by profiling a 10 yo application for a few days, the exact opposite of innovation (studying someone else's old crap).

So dream and pursue, but when you want to build, expect to grind a bit.

Yes but what is your profiler is a piece of crap, and the innovation is to modify it to suit your needs better? And, you take that engineer out to lunch who knows the most about it and pick their brains and come up with ideas.

Companies do so many other things to bury innovation that worrying about the lack of spontaneous hallway meetings should be item #237.

So many innovations don’t get done for lack of authority to spend $20 on some Lambda functions or the unwillingness of departments to own small things or a need to manage future expectations (I.e we can’t improve this too much as we can’t match that later). Encountered all three.

> a need to manage future expectations (I.e we can’t improve this too much as we can’t match that later)

Can you elaborate on this (to the extent you can publicly say)? I'm curious in what circumstances are companies opting to forgo innovations.

The team didn’t want to improve too much as they saw no way to repeat the improvement so they didn’t want to raise the bar and be unable to clear it next cycle.

A more concrete example of this was where a friend of mine built a system to automate a report and did something in record time.

He didn’t share it and sat on the report for a few days as he wasn’t that proficient with SQL at the time so didn’t want to give the impression that things could be done that quickly and make that the expected norm.

So the company itself would have liked the innovation. The employees were concerned about the new problematic expectations it might create.

So true.

> In a survey by Future Forum, a research group at Slack, Black office workers were more likely than white workers to say they preferred remote work, because it reduced the need for code-switching (changing behavior in different contexts) and increased their sense of belonging at work.

On the flip side, people used to talk about how people without spacious houses were disadvantaged by zoom because they didn't have dedicated home office space. These comments were typically paired with observations that minorities were disproportionally affected in this way.

> “The idea you can only be collaborative face-to-face is a bias,” he said. “And I’d ask, how much creativity and innovation have been driven out of the office because you weren’t in the insider group, you weren’t listened to, you didn’t go to the same places as the people in positions of power were gathering?”

This is exactly it; this whole near-mystical thinking about "hallway conversations" isn't encouraging serendipitous innovation, it's encouraging the political gamesmanship that businesses have been accustomed to.

I think that we will look back at the billions/trillions spent on office space in the world's most expensive cities as one of the biggest misallocations of capital in history.

> “And I’d ask, how much creativity and innovation have been driven out of the office because you weren’t in the insider group, you weren’t listened to, you didn’t go to the same places as the people in positions of power were gathering?”

How does remote work avoid insider groups, or people not being listened to, or meetings you aren't invited to?

It can work both ways: people playing games can potentially divide and conquer audiences more easily in video calls.

I’ve noticed this too. It’s a lot easier to talk about someone behind their back if you’re behind a locked, sound-proof door (which is what Zoom meetings are).

It feels a lot to me like the “Old Boys’ Clubs” are stronger remote, not weaker, because of this. They don’t have to hide biases when remote, it’s hidden by default.

100% true. I think we're still collectively in a honeymoon phase with remote work. Yes, we know it has its benefits, but also has numerous insidious downsides, including further insulating and reinforcing existing groups within a company. One way to combat this specifically though is if everyone is remote.

Depends on the company, but I’ve observed that information now flows a lot freely because of public Slack channels and documents.

Before there was a lot of tribal knowledge, and side conversations but now the level of transparency has increased dramatically.

Their respective permissions models mean Confluence and Slack made information more available, while Teams and SharePoint make it less available.

>think that we will look back at the billions/trillions spent on office space in the world's most expensive cities as one of the biggest misallocations of capital in history

What was the alternative?

Invent multiway video calling 150 years ago, of course.

We've had it for 20 years and were still doing it.

It only got useable in the last 5 years, though, and mostly for people who live in conurbations that have the scale for affordable good internet.

> I think that we will look back at the billions/trillions spent on office space in the world's most expensive cities as one of the biggest misallocations of capital in history.

Status symbols _are_ an efficient allocation of capital, for a select few.

> This is exactly it; this whole near-mystical thinking about "hallway conversations" isn't encouraging serendipitous innovation, it's encouraging the political gamesmanship that businesses have been accustomed to.

I would have to push back in that, in my experience, those just turn into private off-the-record chat groups among the in-group - and that this is something of an innate part of the human tribalism that cannot and will not be suppressed.

I wonder how this scales to a level of a city. Large cities tend to have larger innovation, which is partially attributed to the ease at which ideas can move between companies through job changes, serendipitious encounters, and a build-up of local business infrastructure.

Would these sorts of agglomerative effects still occur in cities, if remote work is the norm and people don't have to be so concentrated? Or might these effects be amplified at the national level, because people can communicate more freely? I'm interested to see how this plays out over the next years.

This article is heavy on quotes but very light on actual data. This is a trend that I see in media (mainstream and otherwise), where they take something that is by nature very difficult to study, find some researchers or limited studies that fit their narrative, and then report it as gospel. It's really not that hard as a reporter to essentially start with the conclusion you want to end with and then to back into that with cherry picking supporting research.

And I really take issue with the racial angle that feels like it is basically part of every single NYT article these days. A lot of the issues reported here feel valid, but just zooming back out (maybe pun intended?) for a second, this reporter seems to be arguing that actual face-to-face interactions are so fraught with racism that minorities need to be "protected" by remote work to be on equal footing. If that is the case then we should address the root cause, not put everyone in their home office "safe space".

And to clarify, I'm not even commenting on the pros/cons of in-person interactions. I'm just commenting on yet another media piece that cherry picks some research and quotes to make their own opinion sound like it has more backing than it actually does.

There is only one agenda in this article, which is that return to work is an oppressive measure imposed by CEOs on employees. The NYT writes exactly what will sell. You and I are simply not its audience. The racism etc is just being co opted.

They want all their middle income job readers to feel comforted by the arguments made and studies cited. It's a shitty transition to go back to an office. I'm sure a lot of workplaces are going to abuse that notion and provide very bad workspaces. But you generalize on scale for such topics only when you know your audience is absolutely not discerning.

> The NYT writes exactly what will sell. You and I are simply not its audience.

The amount of articles about living in tiny apartments (not to say pods), eating bugs and renting as opposed to owning is just disturbing. The way they all happen at the same time and seem to answer issues raised by other articles by other publications is just scary.

Assuming there is so much coverage of those issues (how much? I don't remember those articles and read the NYT daily, but I wouldn't have read them) why is it disturbing and scary to address issues in society?

> why is it disturbing and scary to address issues in society?

I guess it isn't, which is why I didn't say that.

As a racially ambiguous guy with a white name and who sounds "white"; I've definitely seen how remote interactions are better. People react in subtly different ways.

It might be the narrative but it's not incorrect. It's just another front in the continual war between labor and management

“Labor vs. management?” Tech workers get paid salaries that literally put them in the 1% income bracket. Like give me a break people. We do work. Work isn’t all roses and sunshine.

I always suspected tech people live in an extremely privileged bubble but holy cow did this last year really open my eyes to how detached they are.

The highest paid tech worker is still closer in class to the janitor than they are to the VCs paying their salary, even if they think themselves better than both.

It's true that the salary of a tech worker making $400k/yr is closer to that of a janitor making $40k/yr than it is to a VC making $4m/yr.

However, the lifestyle of the $400k/yr worker is probably closer in most important aspects to that of the VC than the janitor. Both drive expensive cars, live in expensive houses, and can set up their kids for success. They don't worry about the cost of food (even organic/local/etc.) or worry much about health care.

Put another way, there are probably some $40k/yr janitors who would give their left arms to be making $400k/yr. But I doubt there are any $400k/yr tech workers who would give their left arm to be making $4m/yr.

The majority of tech workers are not making $400k/year.

For sure. GP made a claim about the highest-paid tech workers, and I responded to that claim.

I meant to imply a range that peaks at the highest. Maybe that construction isn't as common and implicit as I thought.

Yeah I figured you didn't mean the actual highest paid individual, and from past HN discussions I've seen that there are some folks making over $500k/yr at FAANG. I picked $400k because it's not uncommon for that to be the total comp for mid-career FAANG tech worker. But I could be wrong — I'm a bootstrapped founder who used to be a Silicon Valley lawyer, so my information comes from friends or HN discussions.

I think the concept you're looking for is "discretionary income", which I do believe the VC may have 20x more discretionary than the tech worker, who may have 50x more discretionary income than the janitor.

> But I doubt there are any tech workers who would give their left arm to be making $4m/yr

I'm a software dev, I don't make 6 figures. I'd probably give my left arm to make $4m/year, I could afford a robot arm with that I'm sure.

$4m/year means I could retire before I'm 40 and live the rest of my life with the lifestyle I have now with comfort. Even missing an arm that sounds way better than toiling in software for another 25-30 years.

> $4m/year means I could retire before I'm 40 and live the rest of my life with the lifestyle I have now with comfort.

I would be able to retire after 1 year, $4M is enough to just stick in an index fund and live the rest of your life on 4% a year, unless you live in a very high COL area.

What a grossly unnuanced view of tech workers. We're not all in the 1%. Tech salaries cover a very wide range. Some of us have to do 80+ hours weeks during months long crunches. Do not put down people's efforts to improve their working conditions just because you're fine with yours.

> Tech salaries cover a very wide range. Some of us have to do 80+ hours weeks during months long crunches.

Sounds like it's time to switch company or location!

Seconding the other comment, its time to find a new job. There is no reason you should be putting up with that in the current job market

> Tech workers get paid salaries that literally put them in the 1% income bracket.

Don't be silly. Well earning tech workers in SV make it into the top 15% (at the lower end its difficult to purchase a home where they work). Top 1% would be >$500k/a for a household, which is exceptionally rare for a techie. Not everyone is a rock-star developer working for Uber.

You are completely right, considering only the USA, to be Top 1% you should earn $308,558 a year according to https://graphics.wsj.com/what-percent/

Now, for the world, you´ve got to make $58,000 USD yearly to be in the 1%


> at the lower end its difficult to purchase a home where they work

If the upper crust high income tech dudes are priced out of housing in their own city... imagine what it must be like to not be a SV tech worker living in those cities?

Which is why the upper crust tech workers and the non tech workers have more in common than they think.

Hell. It's horrible.

> Top 1% would be >$500k/a for a household, which is exceptionally rare for a techie

You're comparing individuals to households. You're right that not many tech workers make $500k/yr, but you're comparing that individual salary against the top 1% of household incomes.

Plenty of tech workers make $250k/yr and are married to people who make similar wages in tech/law/medicine/etc. That's not to say that most tech workers live super comfortable lives, especially in costly areas like SF/SV. But it's not appropriate to look at the salary of single workers and compare it to household income statistics.

> Plenty of tech workers

Would like to see the actual numbers of that. It certainly feels right, that high earners would self-select for high earning partners, but wondering what the reality is. It also feels like there are more single tech workers than married couples.

I don’t think most tech workers are “literally in the 1%” if you look at it by average income in the area where they work, and if you don’t assume Google L6 as typical of a software engineer. There are plenty of product managers, lawyers, business people, HR, etc that are making salaries similar to software engineers, often the same or more, and often being able to go home at 5 on a regular basis.

Most tech work is not close to the 1% income bracket which for California its $659,503. Its probably around $100K.

There isn't a tech labor salary on the planet that would make me suddenly be comfortable with at-will labor -- no matter how much they're paying me, when they can pull the plug at any time and I have no process to seek recourse, that's not right.

If I'm giving up my one non-fungible resource, my time, it had better come with protections beyond the smile of the manager who insists they've got my back when they're really looking for the right place to stick the knife; if you haven't been burned by that one, that too is a kind of, as you put it, extreme privilege.

And Google made 300,000 in profit per employee in 2019. So despite getting paid oodles of money, engineers are still failing to capture the full value of their labor.

Maybe top 10% for the vast majority. There are also alot who are paid less.

So if I want to go back to working in an office, does that automatically make me a manager? I should ask for a raise.

While there might be a "war" between people that want to continue WFH and people wanting to return for an office, portraying it as "management vs labor" is unfair to many, many people who are part of the conversation.

The topic is not management vs. labor, but how it's explored is certainly that way. You're pro-office, say your management wants to get rid of the lease and make it completely remote. Do you get a chance to weigh in against that? Either way, the mechanics of this topic, like so many others, is disproportionately weighed in favor of management.

This is what happens when you do not translate what you have read into the right context. There is always a stratification in the society and injustices arise due to it. Such a broad statement however, is not useful for actually understanding society. Labour constitution in 2021 is vaaaaaaaastly different from that of 1921 (I cannot add enough a's to emphasize how vast).

Further, there is no point delving into that entire argument when you have just made up this strawman and inserted it into a conversation about workplace attendance requirements. You assume that broader context applies directly to this problem. It does not. The person who wants you back in office, in many cases, is your immediate manager. Is he also "management" when he has is only one degree closer to the CEO on a (generally) 6-7 step ladder? Or did you just transpose workplace hierarchy from the days of factory work and just make a go with it because you cannot be bothered to tax your brain to see how it is entirely different? I'd wager it's the latter.

The conditions might be different than 20th century factory work, but the dynamic between wage labor and capital isn't much different.

Do you have anything to support that? One could say your comment is "exactly what will sell".

Wholeheartedly agree. I can't help but feel with each new article like this that many journalists are watching _their own WFH opportunities_ slip from their fingers.

(FWIW, I'm a fan of fully remote companies; this article just doesn't pass as anything but opinion.)

Work is work, my dudes. And in a tech company that means teamwork and collaboration.

I don’t care what anybody says, zoom and slack are not even remotely close to face to face interactions. Sure it may not always seem that way to a developer who just wants to write code and not care about anything else, but there are lots of important roles besides developer in any tech company worth its weight. Not many of those roles are very amenable to working from home full time. Even developers working on a team, I’d argue, can't contribute 100% working purely from home. Good developers do way more than just write code. They mentor, help shape the product with UX and business people, etc. All that requires face time.

If devs want to work remote, I highly recommend becoming a contractor / consultant. Remote and contract work go together like peas and carrots. You get fed largely spec’d work, don’t really need to care about office politics, etc… There are plenty of cons… you also become your own collection agency cause dudes can take months paying you. But if remote is what you want, contracting is the best.

Anyway, this became kind of a ramble.

I cannot agree with your thesis. There are fully remote companies (using Zoom and Slack primarily) with hundreds of people generating well over $100M in ARR worth billions of dollars. You are free to your opinion, but the data doesn’t support your conclusion. Teamwork and collaboration can and does work fully remote, whether you’re in engineering, bizops, product, or customer experience. Entire legacy enterprises went remote virtually overnight due to COVID and continued to hum along for well over 15 months.

Remote skills are the new “computer skills.” If your org sucks, yeah, remote isn’t going to work. That’s not an issue with a remote operating model, it’s because your org sucks to begin with (whether that’s due to ineffective line managers, failure of executive leadership to cultivate the appropriate culture, what have you). If your org sucks, I recommend voting with your feet.

I'd also say that this past year was a bad example of remote. Of course remote isn't going to work for an org that is used to everyone in office up until March 2020. You break everyone out of so many habits - no more commute time, no more prepared food, no more professionally cleaned workspace, no "built-in" work/home separation. Those factors alone are going to bottom out productivity while people figure things out.

Remote really requires a specific type of person, and a curated environment. Having a "place' separated just for work is a huge boon, and many people used to going into an office just don't have that. I think that is ultimately why orgs built around remote work perfectly fine - the people working there are already in the habit of creating their work/home separation, used to making their own meals, used to keeping their own desk clean (Without outside social pressure to do so.)

Yes there are some remote only companies and it works for them. Like most of life it is hard to determine if they are outliers or something meaningful. I mean I could point to Yahoo, who yanked back all their remote work because people were slacking off.

Not all companies are gonna be remote only. If you want fully remote, go find a place that is fully remote. They have existed for quite some time.

Personally I think we are gonna rapidly revert right back to the mean, which is what life was like back in 2019. The idea that this last year is somehow gonna usher in a new age of remote work is… wishful thinking. Tech companies invest a ton onto their office experience. There is a reason for that.

Yahoo didn’t pull back workers because they were slacking, it was because Marissa Mayer didn’t know how to manage, which is clear from how she managed Yahoo right into the ground.


> Which brings us to the ban on remote working. Mayer took over as CEO at Yahoo! in July 2012, so calling everyone into the office in February wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction. The memo, authored by Jackie Reses, says, ‘Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.’ In other words, this is the old water cooler myth rearing it’s ugly head again.

> It wasn’t just regular remote workers who got asked to stay in the office. The email also targeted those who stayed at home when needed, ‘for the rest of us who occasionally have to stay home for the cable guy, please use your best judgment in the spirit of collaboration.’ For whatever reason, Mayer had decided that she wanted her staff in the offices at all times.

With regards to reverting back to the mean, I wish you the best if you’re trying to attract talent. They have options now.

> Mayer had decided that she wanted her staff in the offices at all times.

And when she had a baby, she had Yahoo build a nursery for herself in the office, to give an extra Fuck You to all her employees. Mayer was a Machiavellian corporate climber from her first job out of college as Larry Page's Girlfriend at Google and getting installed as a senior exec before doing any substantial work of any kind.

I don’t disagree with your analysis, but iirc (its been awhile) this was pretext for (essentially) a stealth layoff

It seems extra hostile and punitive because they didn’t necessarily want people to actually “come back”

Hallway conversations are exclusionary by their very nature. It's biased towards extroverts who have access to the physical levers of having their ideas heard (location, same office space). It encourages the loudest, most gregarious, most "in" people in the room to spread their ideas above others.

No, large meetings are where the loudest voices dominate. Hallway conversations are where you can approach someone 1-on-1 without being interrupted or spoken over, and often express a contrarian view without fear of being shouted down.

I don't fully agree, as a more quiet person I don't feel excluded... Sometimes listening in to a conversation is enough, and in my experience people tend to group together such that everyone ends up chiming in their opinion...

>access to the physical levers of having their ideas heard (location, same office space)

Well, yeah. If you can't bothered to be in the same place as the people you want to communicate to, you're signaling that having their time and attention isn't important to you.

As Aaron Burr in "Hamilton" so put it, you have to be in the room where it happens.

> If you can't bothered to be in the same place as the people you want to communicate to, you're signaling that having their time and attention isn't important to you.

As an introvert, I flip that around. If I have to engage in social games to improve things, I am instead just not going to bother and will confine my ideas to my conversations with co-workers laughing at inefficiencies and failures.

Telling people about your idea is not a social game.

Getting people to listen to your idea if they're not seeking it out is 100% a social game. Getting in the room is a social game. If you value the opinions of your introverts, ask them.

>If you value the opinions of your introverts, ask them.

This may be an uncharitable reading of what you said, but you're implying that introverts are special fragile people who can't be bothered to share their brilliant ideas.

If someone comes up with an idea, and they think it's a good idea, it's their responsibility to advocate for it. They're already that idea's #1 fan. They're uniquely motivated to get it out in the world. How can they get others to take them seriously when they can't even take the initiative to share it themselves?

Sure, maybe some people are true solitary geniuses. But that's a waste of genius if they can't effectively communicate their thoughts with other humans.

Speaking as an introvert, that's certainly not my intent. But if the only way to share ideas is to do things that make me miserable, and the people who need to listen my ideas made it that way, they're clearly not interested. In most cases I have better things to do than fight uphill or shout into a void. It's probably a lot of stress for no benefit.

Ed: incidentally, suggestion boxes (mentioned nearby in the thread) are also probably not helpful. Absent strong evidence to the contrary, I assume those are ignored and don't bother.

This reminds me that most of the things people call "introversion" on the internet are actually signs of high neuroticism.

There's a whole range of soliciting information that goes from "Beat the information out of them" to "Ask a person individually" to "Ask people as group" to "Allow information to be given" to "Discourage people from telling you things" to "Yell at people who talk to you without you asking them first".

Depending on your approach, you'll get differing amounts of information from different people. A more charitable reading of the post you replied to might be: You shouldn't be content getting information only from those who like to talk and volunteer information.

Some people, it seems, mistake "introversion" for "lack of social skills". The former is a personality trait (I'm more of an introvert myself). The latter can be trained.

So in a world full of introverts no ideas would ever be shared?

This has not been my experience. Introverts or Extroverts has nothing to do with whether someone will champion an idea. That’s a doer / talker distinction.

You have to be effective in managing people. Maybe some people like to socialize an idea in their in group before they find someone to champion it. Maybe others like to write up their thoughts and share the doc on chat. Maybe others like to whiteboard it out after talking to someone at the bar.

But all of them actively push change.

Right, at least for some people. Still, a lot of environments don't really support all those options for pushing change. If you're running an organization, you're hamstringing yourself if the ways to push ideas that introverts find natural are dead ends in practice.

That's like dismissing programming as "computer game". It's not a "game" if it's how the real work gets done.

Programming is one component of how the “real work” gets done, yes. There is plenty of very real work that happens before and after the developer writes code.

That being said, developers are in a very unique position because they are the ones who actually build the product. If you can’t sell your devs on an idea, it ain’t getting built.

The actual saying what your idea is? No.

The process of getting to saying what your idea is? Frequently, especially if it is very informal or reliant on social cred to get into the room.

Which makes you an armchair analyst.

If someone’s attention in the hallway is required for business success, it means the process and culture of the company are both broken. Ad hoc conversation are not how you run a scalable business.

given that most, if not all, large companies have dysfunctional culture, your conclusion does not hold water.

Well that's one of the consequences of not having a water cooler ;-)

So what is the alternative? Reams of halfway updated internal wiki pages and heavyweight google docs?

I mean the agile manifesto is all about human interaction. People over process. Face to face conversation over piles of stale documents.

Are we done with agile? Is it time to embrace the waterfall?


We are absolutely done with Agile. It’s always been a failure.

Alternatives to hallway conversations in increasing depth:

* slack message

* email



* Business plan

Plus there’s always zoom or the phone if you really want to shoot the shit.

You can’t shoot the shit over zoom. Ever tried? It is super awkward.

Slack is good for easy questions where you already know how to convert your thoughts into words. If you don’t because your thoughts are currently encoded visually… slack (or any online medium) doesn’t work. In the real world I would almost always abandon the slack conversation and go visit the person / people.

Email is crap for communication, at least for my working style.

The rest are okay when you’ve got a lot of clarity already but not so hot when you are very early in the ideation phases.

All of your substitutes are significantly lower bandwidth, much more latent mediums.

You can’t replace face time with online. You just can’t.

I’d take zoom over a hallway conversation any day. I’m at home and comfortable with Zoom. I’ve had to dress up and commute to have that hallway conversation. In an office you’ll also be pressured for your reserved room or you’re literally in a hallway next to the bathrooms while you’re talking. Not good environments for communication.

All the arguments I hear for remote work revolve around the comfort of the individual developer. That’s great but companies are more than just individual developers. They are teams working together to build things that individuals couldn’t build alone.

I’ve long held that the secret to FAANG company success wasn’t their technical prowess or even their products. Is that they have superior software development processes. Their secret sauce is their process. Companies with shitty offices, crappy untrusting management, and heavyweight processes get beat by those with processes similar to FB or Google.

You’ll note that all the companies in FAANG invest a shit ton into their office experiences… well except Amazon.

Give it a year and life will look much as it did back in 2019.

Companies need individual developers because without them no one would write the code. We’ve seen a million articles about the developer shortage. It’s not about what the company wants, it’s about what the developer wants.

For instance, I would never work in an office again and because there is a developer shortage, that requirement hasn’t impacted my market rate, which is on par for the valley.

Having worked at one of the FAANGs I would definitely not say they have a superior development process. Waaaaay too much middle management baggage and drag. They are successful due to first mover advantages, network effects, regulatory capture and in some cases a literal monopoly.

> They are successful due to first mover advantages

Zero of the FAANG companies had a first mover advantage.

* Facebook replaced MySpace within the course of like a year. Today TikTok and other things threaten them.

* Apple... well... it was for a long time a huge underdog.

* Amazon... born in the dot com era. At the time lots of people thought the company was gonna implode any day. It took like a decade before they even remotely generated something other than a loss.

* Netflix... was DVD's, competed against brick & mortor and companies like Kozmo. Today it competes with media companies offering their own streaming service.

* Google... plenty of search engines came before google.

Not sure how any of these companies became successful because of regulatory capture, network effects or even literal monopolies. None of these companies could be successful in the long haul if their products sucked. Building non-sucky products involves a hell of a lot more than just developers sitting at home writing code 24/7. Success involves building successful processes that encourage innovation.

Netflix and Amazon clearly have first mover advantage. As does Apple with the iPhone, Google with Maps…

Network effects are all over the place, mainly FB and Google.

> Success involves building successful processes that encourage innovation.

For the most part, large companies “innovate” via acquisition.

> Netflix and Amazon clearly have first mover advantage. As does Apple with the iPhone, Google with Maps…

The Hiptop/Sidekick and Palm Pilots were already popular long before the iPhone came out. They just weren't nearly as good and the companies couldn't overcome the carriers' poor business plans.

Apple were first movers with capacitive touch screens.

Sounds like you are not capable of distilling or synthesising your ideas.

If you can’t take a step back and make a paragraph, and instead attempt to just bombard others with your thought-stream and let them sort it out, then maybe YOU are the problem - face-to-face or not.

You admitted previously that there's companies with remote cultures that are tremendously successful. By definition of their very existence, they have replaced "face time with online" - which you claim can't happen.

> If you can't bothered to be in the same place as the people you want to communicate to, you're signaling that having their time and attention isn't important to you.

Untrue. My DMs are open.

Ironically this place doesn't have DMs.

...then what do you want?

If introverts aren't voicing their ideas, what are we supposed to do, read minds?

What I believe parent is saying is that introverts would prefer a different venue for idea sharing than one where "whoever shouts loudest and fastest is heard." Which is very different from not speaking at all.

For example, something where folks ask "please post your papers and ideas to this shared document repository where they can each then be read by the team at whatever pace is required."

A collection of folks read the documents, write about which ideas they like, then make a decision based on the contents raised in said papers, all over text mediums.

Something like that is an alternative to a world where whoever speaks loudly fastest, and to the right people, has their idea taken seriously.

Whence this assumption that when people are allowed meet in person, written communication is banned? You can do all these things and still allow people to have efficient live in person conversations.

Loudly conversing in the hallway is a terrible medium for exchanging information. Written documents are not only clearer, they scale in distribution and can be referenced later.

Hallway conversations are temporal noise, at best.

It's annoying that these "hallway conversations" became the thing to highlight as the main advantage of in-office work. It's not my experience that the random encounters next to the watercooler or the bathroom are often that useful.

But, say you have some half-baked idea and want to talk it out with a coworker next to you. You both roll over to the whiteboard in your pod and start scribbling, both of you exchanging high-bandwidth information via utterances, gestures, and facial expressions with millisecond roundtrips. Third teammate overhears and rolls over, contributing further. This scenario IME used to happen a lot, created a lot of value, and is hard to replicate with a scheduled meeting or documents because the communication roundtrips and bandwidths are atrocious.

I like whiteboarding too. I’ve worked fully remote a lot and have found the other benefits far out weigh the cost of losing it as a tool (temporarily while tech catches up?).

Half the time I don’t need to ask for help because in the comfort and focus of my home office I can figure out much more difficult problems then I could when a sales dude was closing a deal next to my desk, or having half the devs at my table coughing and sick.

Speaking of tech catching up, please try this out: https://sharetheboard.com -- closest thing to remote white boarding I've seen, especially after the digital annotations come online

I've got to disagree with that. If you have the vague beginnings of an idea, it's a heavy burden to type them up into a document that can be distributed widely. Many ideas just won't get a chance to develop into anything if that's the only path for it. It's much smoother to float a few thoughts that might or might not lead to something to one or two people you have some trust for and know are knowledgeable about that domain. That's a quick and low-effort way to determine if a thought has any merit and deserves being developed further, or is a non-starter. I think it's friendlier as well to people who are more reluctant to spread an idea that might not be very good to a large group.

I disagree that written documents are clearer than conversation. I've always experienced that the vast majority of engineers, including introverts, gain a clearer understanding of key concepts from an interactive conversation than from a document. In my experience almost all complex documents I've read and written required a follow-up meeting to explain and discuss.

Documents are useful when the volume of details is too much to remember in a conversation, and to communicate with wider audiences, but for communicating key points in a small group, conversation is vastly more efficient.

We’re talking about hallway conversations as a source for innovation. Not all real-time communication in general. Yes, you can always hop on a zoom and chat through a problem.

Face to face conversation has a much higher signal strength than written documents, to be frank. For example, think about how many unhelpful screeds get posted on forums that in conversation would get cut short because of immediate feedback in the form of verbal or non-verbal conversation. Have you ever noticed that some one had more they wanted to say and encouraged them to speak their mind? I don't think that sort of back and forth happens as naturally in pure text environments. Plus if you are just not grokking something it is much easier to keep asking questions in person until the two of you figure out what the stumbling block was, you know?

Completely agreed. I've been bootstrapping a new project with a colleague I've known for years. We worked together in the same office for a long time, know how each other work exceptionally well. We started this project up during the quarantine, while living a few time zones apart. It was going quite slowly, until we could finally meet up (vaccines!). We worked through issues we had been going back and forth over for weeks in less than two hours, and had time to head to a bar for an early happy hour.

In person can truly make a difference. You're all subject to the same distractions, can keep each other on task, and pound through collective decisions in a way even a video chat can never facilitate well.

Face to face conversation doesn’t scale. It’s also still possible with zoom…

A hallway conversation is a random happenstance between a couple of people. Any decisions made are going to have to be communicated more broadly as a next step anyway, which will require written communication.

Here is another way to think about it; if we were having this conversation in face to face, how long do you think it would take? I suspect after maybe fifteen minutes we would probably have felt out where the actual differences in our opinions lay and why and if for some reason we needed to codify this understanding I trust that either of us would be able to put it in written form and have it capture the nuance of that conversation. I think it would take a little longer in zoom and I would have a lower confidence that we had properly understood each others perspective. Face to face communication has a whole lot of information in the form of body language, intonation, expressions, etc that I don't think can be reasonably approximated in text format, even with reactions like in Discord (which are very helpful!) it still feels fraught.

I feel like I totally understand your position, I just respectfully disagree. I’d say I’ve spent ~two minutes max in this thread, from the comfort of my house, doing about 6 other things to clear my mind between code bursts.

It’s pretty hard to read and comment on HN when you’re in the office. Especially an open office where everyone can see your screen.

It doesn't have to scale. Sometimes it just makes it easier for a few stakeholders to get through something more easily and quickly.

Pivot to a written-first culture. It's the natural endpoint of remote orgs.

In my experience a written-first culture is horribly inefficient for exactly the kind of impromptu interactions that happen in colocated spaces.

doesn’t that hurt folks who aren’t great at writing?

Writing is a skill that can be learned. You don't need to write deathless prose, just be clear.

So is speaking.

See I feel that it robs my of all my energy that I get for ideas from working with people. Not just that, but after grad school I actually have anxiety writing.

I feel all these "solutions" just tell the other type of 'verts' to suck it up and adapt to the other style.

Submission boxes, pitch dens, hackathons, or even just a place to dump written proposals etc. Some kind of structure so that contribution does not require winning a social battle first.

Introverts are supposed to be better at quieter, more deeply introspective one on one conversations. That's a different class of serendipitous face to face interactions, but one which may be just as valuable, or even more so.

Think Lex Friedman in a one-on-one vs. Joe Rogan with 2 guests at the same time.

I didn't see the loud mouths being any less annoying or obnoxious over the last 2 years.

I'd say the opposite. It allows introverts to negotiate alternative venues to share ideas.

This article is heavy on quotes but very light on actual data.

Here's the thing: Data on serendipitous meetings is going to exist primarily in the form of anecdotes! Fundamentally.

And I really take issue with the racial angle that feels like it is basically part of every single NYT article these days. A lot of the issues reported here feel valid, but just zooming back out (maybe pun intended?) for a second, this reporter seems to be arguing that actual face-to-face interactions are so fraught with racism that minorities need to be "protected" by remote work

Historically, here's how it has worked throughout history: To break into a field as a member of an under-represented identity group in that field, you had to be "So good, they can't ignore you." In fact, there are many areas of human endeavor where "So good, they can't ignore you," is just the regular price of entry. It is, in fact, the standard price of entry for those entities known as "startups."

Is this, in an absolute sense, fair? No. There are always going to be proxies to actual merit used in evaluation. That's just the reality of how non-omniscient beings work. We can only strive to make things as fair and accurate as we can. That certainly does not mean seeing that the lever is thrown one way, then wrenching the lever the other way. The lever needs to be changed from being a dumb lever and hooked up to meaningful data.

To illustrate how easy it is to inject a racial angle into anything, here's Brandeis University on why "picnic" is oppressive language:


[edit] They just removed it. Here's what they had previously: https://archive.is/NR0Zj

I can't believe this nonsense. This is Maoist at the core - it's requiring everything in our language and culture to be re-examined under a petty lens and for what? To appease people who could possibly complain about something? To me it sounds like cultural decay - when life is too good and consumer good are in abundance, petty people have to come up with new problems and dragons to slay to justify their $60,000 administrator salaries.

Lol, even the phrase "Trigger warning" is too triggering!

Picnic's not on the list?

It’s in a snapshot from earlier today: https://archive.is/NR0Zj

> The term picnic is often associated with lynchings of Black people in the United States, during which white spectators were said to have watched while eating, referring to them as picnics or other terms involving racial slurs against Black people.

Snopes disagrees, maybe why they removed it: https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/picnic-origin/

The "rule of thumb" etymology is also bullshit but it's still there: https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1998-04-17-19981070...

Reading that, it wasn't established last, but I didn't find any other definition for that term in the article. I'm pretty groggy, did I miss it?

From the link:

The false etymology persists despite the Oxford English Dictionary definition: "A method or procedure derived entirely from practice or experience, without any basis in scientific knowledge; a roughly practical method." The OED dates the phrase's first reference to 1692.

In the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, "rule of thumb" is additionally defined as a method by which brewers once tested the temperature of a batch of beer: They dipped a thumb in the brew.

Wow, they literally must have just changed this, I looked like 30 mins ago and it was there.

This is why you should always wait a week before reacting to news stories, they usually take care of themselves.

> basically part of every single NYT article these days

I don't even click on NYT articles any more (and no, I didn't read this article either, just curious about the comment section).

> And I really take issue with the racial angle that feels like it is basically part of every single NYT article these days.

Maybe racial issues are that present? Should the NYT hide them or report them?

Many believe (without putting too fine a point on who) racism has always been that present, but was ignored by those who could ignore it, who it didn't affect, or who didn't care or wanted to perpetuate it. In part, that was because the media, from news to entertainment, could ignore it and didn't want to annoy its white consumers. That perpetuated ignorance - white people rarely talk to black people, especially about racism; they rarely see it in their media; and therefore they didn't know how bad the problem was. Then, when it's reported, white people think it must be exaggerated, because it doesn't match their prior mental model - a viscous circle.

That's my experience: I had no idea how omnipresent race issues were until some experiences in my life (unrelated to mass media) changed that. Then I realized it was being covered up, with varying degrees of intention and ignorance.

Note also that it's a common response to issues of racism: Do nothing about the racism and attack the messenger. That's arguably the biggest way it's perpetuated. So let's not focus on reporting on racism; what do we do about the much larger issue of racism itself? The former seems discussed on HN much more commonly than the latter.

Yeah and we still have video conferencing in remote world. I'm not sure why racism would cease to be an issue over zoom.

Do people still turn their video on? I feel like it has been months for my team.

It bothers me a lot that the paper of record has declined so much in quality since I’ve been watching. As someone who loves New York and worked every day right across 40th st, it hurts my heart.

I think all forms of journalism essentially started to die as soon as pay per click marketing was created. Its all just a war for eyeballs and ad dollars now; content is irrelevant outside of those parameters.

This has been a trend for a long time, five W’s reporting is time consuming and expensive it seems, so it’s been mostly replaced by opinion pieces and human interest stories.

Does it require scientific study? If your company has their shit together then they already have data on how this affects their bottom line. Ask the people who work in that area then. It's not "science" but it's not useless either.

> Does it require scientific study?

Yes. There are smart people with compelling anecdotes on both sides of the debate.

I think it's a good thing to study it scientifically, but also to be extremely conservative in the application of results. Some very thorny problems just off the top of my head:

1. Monitoring/counting "spontaneous interactions" is extremely difficult.

2. Simple "counting" of spontaneous interactions seems like exactly the wrong approach, because one would probably expect that 99% of interactions would be mundane but then 1% would be important.

3. How do you define "innovation"?

4. One might suspect that the benefits of in-person interaction would show up on longer timescales rather than shorter timescales. For example, this article is long on pointing out that how in-person interactions can be detrimental to minorities and women, but my opinion (not fact, just opinion) is that basically all of my closest business connections were formed in person. Now that I'm late in my career remote vs. in-person is not as critical to me because I have a strong network, but right out of college it was critical, and my career would have suffered greatly had I not forged those relationships early. I got every single one of my jobs after my first through my network that started in my first job (not necessarily directly, but often times through the "hey, I heard from someone they are looking for XYZ, and I heard you might be looking" channel).

I was more talking about the article itself. Does it require a scientific study to poll experts and distill into an article?

Karl Popper would be disappointed with this journalistic approach.

> This article is heavy on quotes but very light on actual data. This is a trend that I see in media (mainstream and otherwise), where they take something that is by nature very difficult to study, find some researchers or limited studies that fit their narrative, and then report it as gospel.

Sounds a lot like masks.

I know you are trolling, but it's basically the exact opposite of masks, which (now) have lots of data supporting their effectiveness, and which are much more easily studied (i.e. the outcome you are looking for, e.g. "got Covid or didn't", is much more concrete than looking for "innovation").

If you care to open your eyes the data is easily locatable from reputable sources online. One overview article: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02801-8

I wouldn't expect "innovation" in any big sense.

What I'd rather expect is less flashy but at least as useful. "Hey, it sounds like Mary in customer support is taking off next week. That might be a bad time to deploy the new mods." "Wait, you're working on that code? Maybe it'll also fix the thing I'm working on. I'll go work on something else until you finish it."

These are tiny things. The benefits are probably too small to measure, but it doesn't mean they don't exist. It would be nice if they resulted in Big Improvements For Free, but that seems unlikely. That sounds more like a way of trying to make up a visible model of something that they feel but can't demonstrate.

I have no idea if such things are worth it or not. I suspect it has a ton of variables (personalities, project type, luck) and you couldn't do a good controlled experiment even if you had a mechanism for measuring it. So different companies are going to constitute a natural experiment, and maybe in a decade or two we'll have some intuition for what worked.

On the other hand MIT was specifically designed to increase chance meetings by forcing people to work near each other. Because it worked so well at Bell Labs.

Paraphrased from Hackers, I think.

Here’s a source I could find from a study in 2017 https://news.mit.edu/2017/proximity-boosts-collaboration-mit...

"Innovation" does tend to be the reason higher-ups want face-to-face to happen, though. The reason, I believe, is the Building 20 story - an environment where people could mix their time between isolation and spontaneous meetings, and where they were uniquely empowered to change the physical infrastructure at will, seemed to lead to a remarkable number of radical innovations. Part of that story is about how innovation happens: it seemed to show that you couldn't get it from people beavering away in isolation, nor could you get it from group brainstorms all the time, you needed a mix so people could switch between deep focus on hard problems, with the occasional serendipitous ping that unlocks something.

I was hoping this article would delve into why (if) this story is not true, but it's too light.

Indeed. I think better word is "efficiency".

It seems pretty clear that at least some things become more efficient some of the time when everyone is in the same place.

The question of if that's a total net gain to the enterprise or not is probably pretty dependent on the actual task at hand (fewer efficiency gains for software companies, more for symphonies, etc) but that seems a better description of what's going on than a generic sense of "innovation".

I suspect it may even be the opposite. When offices rely primarily on social networks as their source of creativity, it means that you've got to be well-integrated into the social network in order to successfully promote your ideas. This creates a major risk of curtailing contributions from anybody that isn't buddy-buddy with folks on the hierarchy.

If, as is the case at most places I've worked, this hierarchy is dominated by upper middle class white men, this may have the effect of severely limiting the company's ability to make good use of the creativity of a large portion of its staff.

I haven't worked anywhere that does this, but I strongly suspect that a company with a more organized approach to incubating ideas would be able to do so more successfully. It would put the company in a better position to mitigate this and many other ways that good ideas slip through the cracks.

Your ideas could have stood up on their own without the jab at "upper middle class white men". When you judge groups like that, you put too much diversity into a little box guaranteeing bad conclusions.

It's not a jab; it's a simple statement of fact. That's what I've seen in my (entirely US-based) career so far. And I'm not personally the kind of person who's interested in euphemism and beating around the bush purely for the sake of euphemism and beating around the bush.

Note that what I was suggesting was not anything like, "Ignore white dudes and only talk to everyone else." I was saying, "A less informal system may be less impenetrable to people from other social backgrounds." Presumably, in such a situation, white men would still tend to be a plurality of voices, because that's just how the workforce demographics work out in the US. But, even given that, why wouldn't you want to make sure you're also doing a good job of giving full voice to folks who come from the other 2/3 of the population? Even if we frame it in purely mercenary terms, wantonly underutilizing employees' talents is probably bad for business. And relying on invisible, socialization-based mechanisms tends to have a poor track record in that department.

The benefits probably depend a lot on the size of the company... many of these ‘serendipitous’ conversations I have had were in fact network effects, but technological - I accidentally found out about someone else’s skunkworks project we found useful, or some new piece of technology developed just a row or two over we never knew about.

I would imagine the is less true in small companies, some because of the size, but also because of the homogeneity of focus - you have to have a different environment, a different work biome for the output to diverge enough to take advantage of this.

The opposite is true as well. At a large company, spread across floor, buildings, and locations, the only in-person "serendipitous" conversations you're going to have are with a fairly small slice of the company. That seems a pretty shaky foundation for innovation to depend on.

Yeah, one interesting thing in the article was an offhand comment about how too much openness actually was counterproductive because people put on headphones, so didn't actually interact. Here probably, there is a 'right' amount of mixing with disparate groups. In the (admittedly only two) large groups I've worked in, you really needed to interact outside your local group to get anything useful done anyways.

Actually, this reminds of the network effects section of 'Where good things come from' (Steven Johnson), which actually points out there is a right amount of 'edge' density - too little and you don't see outside your local group enough for ideas to flow; too much and ideas flow but don't tend to die before they can reach critical mass.

In a small company you're likely to wear more hats, though, so while the focus of the org is smaller, your piece of it is bigger.

As remote becomes more normal, I bet "scientific consensus" will shift to favoring it as well. Funny how the science follows the status quo ;)

I find that meetings in the office definitely makes meetings more useful. Why? Because of the side conversations that happen after the meeting. With Zoom there isn't much of a natural breaking off and really figuring things out after the meeting is over.

My experience is the total opposite: more often than not, when IRL meetings break, everyone scoots off as fast as possible, grateful to be free, and just wants to get back to their office.

Whereas on zoom, it's rare I go a meeting without side-channel conversations popping up just as a meeting ends or even while it's going on. e.g. someone mentions a new requirement in passing, and within a few seconds there's a group dm from the other 2 devs on the project going "wtf did either of you know about <requirement>".

It's not quite the same, but I can think of a lot of meetings where I've been pinged (or I've done the pinging) to follow-up in another Zoom with someone immediately after a larger meeting and discuss HOW to actually do the WHAT that was decided in the previous meeting. Maybe it just needs to be more intentional.

literally same

meeting right after meeting, but about real stuff.

I hate blanket statements like this. Maybe some people can work this way over slack / meets / whatever. I personally cannot. I'd rather be in an office. No amount of expert opinion is going to change that, for me.

Great. Don't force everyone else to conform to your preferences.

I'm not forcing anyone. Right now I see a major push by companies to stop using offices for cost savings. The incentive for businesses is always to have people WFH.

This externalizes costs for basic infrastructure. If some workers want that... that's fine, but I don't.

"Suppose that in addition to your present duties, you were made responsible for space and services for your people. You would have to decide on the kind of workplace for each person, and the amount of space and expense to be allocated. How would you go about it? You'd probably want to study the ways in which people use their space, the amount of table space required, and the number of hours in a day spent working alone, working with one other person, and so forth. You'd also investigate the impact of noise on people's effectiveness. After all, your folks are intellect workers - they need to have their brains in gear to do their work, and noise does affect their ability to concentrate.

For each of the observed kinds of disturbance, you'd look for an easy, mechanical way to protect your workers. Given a reasonably free hand, you would investigate the advantages of closed space vs opens space. This would allow you to make a sensible trade-off of cost against privacy and quiet. Finally, you would take int account people's social needs and provide some areas where a conversation could take place without disturbing others.

It should come as no surprise to you that the people who do control space and services for your company (particularly if it is a large company) don't spend much time thinking about any of the concerns listed above."

Peopleware[0], DeMarco and Lister, First Published in 1987

[0] https://amzn.to/3d9uHPO

I read Peopleware a long time ago (from an HN recommendation) and found it super valuable, but if I have any takeaway from this past year it is how right they were about office layout for knowledge workers.

At this point I've worked as a programmer in many open office configurations, and this past year has been somewhat of a revelation in my ability to focus and think through things. With each passing month the status quo of pre-2020 has become more absurd to me: hiring a team of highly paid software engineers to do focused thinking and plopping them in the middle of big room with multiple conversations, phone calls, people moving around, only for all of them to wear headphones and communicate with each other via Slack.

It's amazing how, 34 years later, that book is at least as relevant now as it was then.

One would have expected some improvement in that area but sometimes it feels to me like the opposite is true.

What? Are you saying that devs in bullpens like livestock wasn't part of the Peopleware vision? Maybe I should give the book a closer reading next time . . .

I can’t tell if you are being serious or not.

The book advocates for treating people as adults. Trusting them to do their work. Creating and environment and process for doing that work.

And it definitely does not defend bullpen working environments.

Indeed! The shared office building we're renting offices in was visited by the furniture police not too long ago.

Fortunately, they didn't enter the offices, if they did, we'd have thrown them out, but they did put up gigantic signs in the hallways with slogans like "together we achieve more" and "coworking can be contagious". First we laughed in disgust, then we simply became banner blind. Then covid hit.

Almost all companies are effectively anti-innovative. To be truly innovative you need to constantly try new things, without knowing if it will succeed or not, and effectively move what works into production. Almost no companies do this. So worrying about chance meetings is way down the list of things to worry about when it comes to innovation.

This is a very strange conclusion. I love my remote office for 'deep work' but most of the connections (breadth?) I make on some topics are with chance discussions with peers, colleagues, managers, directors. The recent slice of forced remote has let me go deeper on some topics but also miss ways in which my work may have been easier or more impactful. I'm thinking of 'hey I think we might need something similar to what you're doing', 'hey I think we did that in the past and it went so wrong, look up such and such', or even 'this subject is politically doomed, tread carefully'. Those kinds of conversations are almost impossible to 'chance upon' over chatrooms...

Maybe our culture is bad, too oral, and maybe some people in other corps manage it fine and I'm missing something...

For what it's worth, I agree with you. We've developed entirely new capabilities that grew out of tangential conversation after in-person meetings. A few of our technical folks prefer remote work, largely because it saves them from stupid commutes. I've noticed the folks most against it are the ones who have historically built new things (myself included), and if I stick around I'm going to miss collaborating with them in person.

I don't have evidence to back it up, but I believe that the ability to use a whiteboard boosts innovation.

> the ability to use a whiteboard boosts innovation

Beneath this simple statement is a career's worth of questions worth investigating. Oral and written communication are just two modes of conveying information and sharing ideas. Edward Tufte, for example, has made his career in exploring other modes, neatly summed up in the title of his most famous work, "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information".

Engaging the visual/spatial functions of the brain, even if you can't draw more than wobbly trapezoids and shaky, uneven lines, can enrich thinking in ways I don't think we fully understand.

I'm not sure what all the barriers are to an inexpensive shared whiteboarding tool that's as natural and effortless as a dry-erase pen on a whiteboard. Everything we have now feels unnatural without a lot of practice, is far too clunky to be worth the effort, and/or is too expensive and flakey.

I think part of it is that they begin with a draw/paint tool, rather than cutting it down to the extreme simplicity of whiteboard. Would whiteboarding be as popular and useful if you had to pick up a "draw a square" tool, then switch to "draw a line" tool? Can we make the pad/stylus for "draw lines" have better haptics and a more natural hand/eye connection?

OneNote has free-hand drawing as it's primary mode and it does that well, but still it fails at being a whiteboard.

I don't think it's haptics, I think it's the spacial layout and the social interaction around the board - I can see if you follow along as I draw or talk, I can see where you are looking, I can point out something already drawn, you can point something I have already drawn, you can draw something on top of my drawing, we can easily take turns without trampling each other. I can also get back to it the next day and point something out during a follow-up discussion; the board being in the exact physical location helps jog the memory.

There is also something about the large space. Drawing in OneNote on the iPad I technically get more space, but I still feel cramped. Next to a large whiteboard I feel like there is no limit to it, and it opens up my mind. Maybe it's just being close to a large surface I can't see the edges so I'm not thinking about them. If this theory is right then a relatively cheap 21" designer drawing tablet might prove to be a superior whiteboard compared to the 10" iPad.

Completely agree. In addition to the large space I'd also callout the ability to use your shoulder, elbow, etc. (rather than relying on fine movements) as an ingredient toward achieving, let's call it, a "frictionless" creation/brainstorming experience. The comfort of using an instantly-intuitive tool like a whiteboard allows the thoughts to pour out as fast as you can move your hand.

cratermoon, please try this: https://sharetheboard.com

I think we share a lot of the same thoughts. We actually don't want to replace the whiteboard (or any other analog writing surface) at all, just make it easier for it to "communicate" with digital tools. Please try it out and share feedback.

this site is amazing, thank you for sharing

Something as slippery as 'innovation' can not be pinned down so easily as 'office/not-office'. If it were well understood how to create a generic 'innovation' every company would be doing it and it would be meaningless. This is a silly article

Or does it just not matter if most employees innovate? I can see this being the case given the limited job scope of most people.

I am pretty sure at this point employee retention is well understood. The conclusion of the market is that it doesn’t matter.

It's a direct response to the reason many companies have given for forcing everyone back to the office.

i disagree. i used to run into people all of the time in the kitchen that provided new insight into problems

or in the loo and afterwards while washing hands :).

On a serious note, chance meetings are just one way that innovation happens. Not all innovations are created equally

I'm sorry. This does not constitute a randomized, controlled, double-blind study. You cannot know anything until you've passed that gantlet. Nothing worth knowing is actually true until this step has been achieved.

There was a study of academic collaboration (measured by co-authored journal publications) showing that collaboration between academics increases as the distances between offices shrinks.

Office is across campus? Office is in the building next door? Office is in the same building, different floor? Office is in the same hallway, but way at the end? Office is right beside? All of these correlate with number of journal articles co-authored!

At least 2 patent ideas came to me while zoning out in an “all hands” meeting. Nothing like the sound of management white noise to cause my brain into a fight or flight mode, and the only way to escape is through imagination. Harder to do that in a virtual “all hands” as you can get called on at any time.

And my daily appreciation of bad coffee. Is that a hint of rust and burnt beans I’m tasting?

Those are the only reasons to go into the office.

Innovation is a joke in most companies. The few that actually innovate are probably startups with <10 employees or big companies with small groups acting like startups.

It's not chance meetings that brings innovation, it's purpose driven meetings (often had in stressful circumstances), which can happen very well on zoom.

The real trade-off for companies is retention - productivity. People will have less distractions and be more productive when working remote from a quiet environment (unless you fill their schedule with unnecessary meetings because you don't trust them). The extra productivity comes at the expense of making friends and building relationships at work, which makes it easier for employees to just dump the company when you don't like it anymore.

Can we stop linking the remote vs onsite decision and the amount of meeting vs quiet time with "trust".

All these issues are separate and - in my experience - very rarely tied together. You can be a remote first, no meeting company and have deep trust issues (eg: requiring very precise time sheets). Or have an absolute trust in your employees and have communications issues which leads to too many meetings being needed.

Just saying that "you require onsite presence because you don't trust me", or "too many meetings are required because you don't trust your employees" is detrimental to the debate. You corner the whole discussion around trust, which is most cases is not the actual problem, and the core issues are then not addressed.

I would absolutely not feel trusted if after working remotely for so long they say they “need” me to be in the office. I’d leave such a manager for another manager. Or that manager would be the reason I’m quitting and looking for a remote job tbh.

> I would absolutely not feel trusted if after working remotely for so long they say they “need” me to be in the office

The problem is that the "I don't feel trusted" might be hiding the actual true underlying issue. What if your manager does trust you, why would he need you in the office ? Is it because you don't have proper communication channels ? Is it because he can't properly follow up what's going on ? Is it because he has to spend more time sharing the common vision with you and other employees ? Is it because he can't understand the issues you face anymore ?

All these question are not related to him not trusting you in any way and they are very reasonable concerns. Identifying and addressing those will bring you one step closer to a fruitful collaboration.

But if you stop the conversation at : "You want me to come back to the office, but I feel more productive at home so it means you don't trust me so I quit", is exactly the problem. It's super hard to start a reasonable conversation if the premise is "you don't trust me".

It is unreasonable to demand office presence in 2021 after 1.5 years of remote work being tried and tested at scale. It serves no real purpose. All those meetings about the common vision, etc, can be done via video chat.

Some managers just want to power trip by walking around the office to see who is in their chair. That’s not how we do things anymore.

Innovation is the product manager coming to your desk and saying "Hey <competitor B> has feature X. How long would it take for us to build something like that?"

I concur with your observations. I know several people who changed jobs when their old employer went remote. Their new job may be equally as remote, but pay increases and increased learning opportunities speak far louder when you haven’t seen your co-workers in-person for a year.

I have some evidence.

I once had a chance meeting in an office that boosted innovation, when I overheard a colleague doing a regular task in a way that could be done more efficiently, and communicated this to them. I'm sure of it, as it actually happened, and I was there.

I have now, using the awesome power of science, falsified this headline.

In person meetings boost opportunities for corporate butt sniffing by managers and aspiring ladder climbers.

I’ve heard so many times that ideas are not all that scarce in business — that ideas are everywhere, and that execution is the true differentiator that can make an entrepreneur successful.

There is no shortage of talented, capable people in organizations, who could dream up and lead the next profitable line of the business. The challenge is empowering and encouraging those people in organizations with top-down structures and constraining, predefined success metrics for employees’ managers. It follows that making more ideas (by chance meetings or what have you) is not going to help if the bottleneck is the organization’s enthusiasm to support the ideas that happen.

Perhaps randomly bumping into an executive is the traditional avenue for an individual contributor to get their ideas to the decision maker with the ability to help them? I’d argue that a direct instant message to that executive is much more efficient.

> I’d argue that a direct instant message to that executive is much more efficient.

Only in a small company. In a large company everyone sending just one idea a year means the CEO never has time to do anything other than read those messages. In large companies filters are required to ensure that work the CEO can get work done.

My instinct was the same as yours, but I wonder whether this is really true. Obviously you couldn't read a treatise per employee, but even for thousands of employees a single sentence per employee wouldn't take too long. And I doubt that even a majority of employees would actually send one.

I’ve been in two companies that had open submissions to the executives for ideas. In an about 400 person org, about 25 people submitted ideas. In the other one, it was about 40 in several thousand.

The one thing I can’t factor out is apathy, as every time next to nothing was done with the suggestions and perhaps lack of prior success dissuaded people from trying again.

With 100,000 employees sending one message a year, that is 50 messages per hour (depending on work day and vacation). While individual messages don't take long to read, it is enough. Don't forget that if the idea is good it will take a lot of effort to implement it.

Note the the other reply gave interesting data that I didn't factor into this. You can expanding it to assume that all ideas need to be given a good reply or the people will give up on the idea.

Creativity does not arise spontaneously from chaos, people bumping into one another at random. If one thinks of creative occupations: composers, writers, painters... one doesn't visualize big open offices, but rather a single individual concentrating on one job at a time, in silence.

There are writers rooms and painters workshops where workers can collaborate on the same project at the same time, but just because you run into Linda from accounting or Tom from marketing will probably not help your creativity or give you unique insights about the problems you are grappling with. A walk in the park is more likely to help.

There is very little innovation going on in general. It's kinda like measuring if chance encounters in retirement homes lead to more kids. The main problem is not that people don't spend enough time around each other.

For a meaningful comparison you would need environments in which significant innovations are being made. Then you can tell where it's going better.

Sure. This won't be "captured" in some survey or some nonsense because the benefits accrued might be detrimental to the company, but perhaps still good overall. Chance meeting gets people talking about salaries and negotiating up. Chance meeting gets two people talking about a cool idea, so they both quit and start a better company. Etc.

In line with most of the comments here and to reiterate them with my perspective:

Innovation is boosted by creatively thinking development teams who are able to efficiently think, design, develop, and deliver product which solves challenges for customers who in turn can use the newly innovated product to increase profits.

As soon as a colleague of mine mentions something remotely interesting I try to plan a 25 min meeting for some coffeetalk. I love it I’m learning a lot. These meetings seem to offer more depth than the normal coffee meetings of the old days.

Personally, I've always felt the "chance meeting/collaboration/innovation" argument against remote work is total bullshit.

My current fully remote team of the past year is leaps and bounds more collaborative and innovative than any of the in-person teams I've worked with in office environments for most of my 16 year career.

IMO, it's deeply backwards thinking by executives who are scared the world is changing.

I don't think it's executives. A lot of executives in large companies don't seem to be in touch enough to really notice if most people went remote.

I always assumed it was middle managers who are worried they can't justify their jobs if they aren't standing over someone's shoulder.

Yeah true - I see the same hesitancy at the middle management level too.

The "random encounters" thing is always funny to hear from executives, because they are rarely anywhere but in back-to-back meetings.

Do we have evidence that evidence can quickly overcome cultural practices? It seems to take generations for that to effect change.

How does the cost compare to single use plastics? This is the only question that matters. These innovations are a dime a dozen.

Brought to you by The Committee to WfH Forever Campaign.

Oh god. Here we go again. The academic "innovation"-measurers have reached a "conclusion."

Is "innovation" found on a napkin, a table, or a clock?

Does it need coffee?

How many people are required for "innovation?"

If you whisper too loudly, does "innovation" evaporate?

Does "innovation" go on vacation?

Can you learn "innovation" in an MBA program classroom? Answer: Fuck off.

Does pointing at the sky as the innovators do (because that must be their secret to "innovation") make you also more "innovative?" (stolen idea from a late billionaire no one's ever heard of)

Can you buy "innovation?"

Any discussions of whether offices are "good" or "bad" inevitably reminds me of the Crimson Permanent Assurance. Office buildings do need more pirates and defensible offensive batteries.


(disclaimer: I don't want to go back into the office)

This is a spicy read, thank you for the link.

My favorite bit:

> It is often said that doctors are interfering monsters obsessed with disease and power, who will not be satisfied until they control every aspect of our lives (Journal of Social Science, pick a volume). [...] The widespread use of the parachute may just be another example of doctors' obsession with disease prevention and their misplaced belief in unproved technology to provide effective protection against occasional adverse events.

This is an utter classic.

The follow up, where someone actually did conduct a randomized controlled trial where people jumped out of airplanes without a parachute, is similarly amusing:


I love this, a lot:

> Conclusions: Parachute use did not reduce death or major traumatic injury when jumping from aircraft in the first randomized evaluation of this intervention. However, the trial was only able to enroll participants on small stationary aircraft on the ground, suggesting cautious extrapolation to high altitude jumps. When beliefs regarding the effectiveness of an intervention exist in the community, randomized trials might selectively enroll individuals with a lower perceived likelihood of benefit, thus diminishing the applicability of the results to clinical practice.

> Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials

Not sure this is the study you wanted to link to.

He's referring to the "no evidence that..." statement. Some things are difficult to prove by experiment.

Wow, if that's all it takes to get published then I will start pushing put trash papers to pump my CV.

If you only published joke articles with this level of snark I think you'd have a great career.

This made my day.

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