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Long Largo

Did the office make me more productive or less?What is an office, really?That might sound like a Philosophy 101 bong rip sort of question, but the answer matters.And, if so, should we seek it out?The virtual office is hard to love.The virtual office, manifested in some sort of chat platform, is usually a woefully inadequate replacement, no matter how many breakout and special interest rooms you create.At least that’s what we thought until we spoke to Dayton Mills.We first met Mills at his office.Shortly before, we bumped into each other just outside, on a recently mowed lawn with appropriately manicured shrubbery.He motioned for us to sit down on a gray couch with a flashlight that shot out a purple beam of light.We did as we were told.Or at least that’s what he looks like according to his avatar.His office wasn’t real, or rather it wasn’t physically real.When you log in to an office, you become a colorful, smiley face blob.There are conference rooms, cafeterias, private offices, breakout rooms, game rooms, and even the dreaded copier/mail room makes an appearance.You can toggle your webcam on or off as you please.Once it’s on, your face will appear in a little circular frame at the top of the screen, along with anyone who is within earshot.It feels a bit like corporate Pokémon or an early version of Zelda, if the purpose of the game were to survive a conference call.Because he was good with computers, he was tasked with modernizing the organization’s sales team, which was made up of dozens of remote workers across the country.Their process was arcane, still heavily reliant on written invoices, fax machines, and printouts.When Mills introduced them to Slack, the team was stunned.Many of the employees hadn’t seen or spoken to each other in half a decade.Quickly, they realized they’d been doubling up on work, chasing the same leads, and talking past each other for years.Many confessed that they’d spent years feeling isolated and deeply disconnected.Slack helped, but the feeling of proximity was still missing.Mills knew exactly what they meant and how to give it to them.In middle school, he found himself spending more of his life online than off it.He’d wake up, get on Skype, scroll through his list of friends, and chat all day.Half the time, we weren’t even playing the game, he told us.We were just running around and talking and sharing our lives with each other.The connection was real.Some of my closest, longest friends I’ve never even met in person. He’d been spontaneously cultivating social relationships in digital spaces his entire life.Why not try to replicate that in the workplace?Sitting in Mills’s office, staring at his fake blob as his real voice told us this story, we were skeptical.Then he took us on a tour of the office.When one avatar gets within a certain radius of another, you begin to hear their voice as a soft whisper.It’s easy to dismiss this effect as a gimmick, but the effect is curiously disarming, maybe even a bit profound.Following Mills toward the cafeteria, we heard a faint murmur of voices that, as we entered the room, grew louder.We had stumbled upon a group of Branch employees chatting after a lunch meeting.When Mills led us past them, one blob said hello, while the rest kept talking.As we walked away, their voices grew quieter.It was the closest thing to an authentic, mundane office interaction we’d had in twelve months.Do you have like five seconds? It’s the kind of distinctly human interaction that physical offices facilitate and that not even the glowing red dot of a Slack or Teams message can replicate.Dysfunctional management can’t be gamed away using some cute blob avatars.And a toxic culture of overwork might only be exacerbated by an app that incentivizes people to be present, even in the background.But it’s also easy to see the ways in which a virtual world could foster a more inclusive culture.You’re more in control of how you present to the world.You can be who you want to be. And then there’s the logging out.Many Branch employees spend long hours on the platform, but when they leave it, they’ve clearly signaled that their day is over.You can reach them when they log back on.Guardrails, ready made.Maybe you’re rolling your eyes at this.A virtual office could be a cute, quirky experiment, but gamifying your work life might feel like a bridge too far.Besides, the last thing you want is even more time with your face glued to a screen.All of those objections make sense.Emails don’t magically stop when everyone congregates in an office.Neither do Slack messages.In fact, a great deal of our human presence in the office has been disrupted by the convenience of messaging tools that are text based.Branch, which is mostly voice based, offers something arguably more intimate and closer to the feeling of human presence than a vibration, a pinging noise, and a string of text.Branch probably won’t drastically decrease the workplace interruptions and frenetic task switching that plague our days.But it might change the tenor.We don’t yet have definitive answers to these questions, but tools like Branch encourage us to ask them.To be clear, there’s no quick technological fix to what ails our workplace.What works best for Mills and his team of young, extremely online employees likely won’t work for Linda or Mark in accounting at a regional auto parts company.What Branch does best, however, is clarify what the office actually means to you.In some offices, that feeling is playfulness.In others, it’s siloed concentration.For Mills, it’s an empathic, ambient presence.You can create connection just by being present, even if you’re not saying anything, he told us.What feeling do you want to build on as you build a hybrid future?And what traditions and practices can be left behind?Office tech works best when it illuminates and streamlines what’s essential.It works worst, and feels most exhausting, when it layers another app, another password, and an endless number of notifications onto that essential element.As we rebuild the workforce toward a hybrid future, we have to keep asking ourselves not just what we need to jettison about the way we used to work but also what’s worth saving and what these spaces meant to us.Do you reply to a group thread on your company chat client with a bland observation or question that you already know the answer to?Have you ever written the words just checking in while on vacation?If you haven’t, you’re more disciplined than we are.But most of you will recognize the slightly desperate act of performative work.You hate that you do it, but you don’t know how to stop it.It’s also a massive, massive time suck.Slack is where people make jokes and register their presence, he wrote.Naturally, it exploded during the pandemic and has the potential to metastasize even more as we move forward into a flexible work future.You update, you check in, you sneak in casual mentions of how late you worked on something.Maybe your manager actually does trust you but is incredibly bad at communicating it.Maybe they’ve never told you to update this way but have never told you to stop, either.What matters is that the distrust hangs in the virtual air, goading you to spend more time evidencing your work than actually working.It somehow also wastes everyone’s.A flare sent into the air to show you’re working incites others to send up their flares, too.It’s difficult to engender the sort of robust, enduring trust that can keep these sorts of anxieties at bay.But one of the companies that has managed to do so has a lesson for the aspirationally flexible office.If you’ve read about remote work before, chances are you’ve seen it mentioned as an example.It doesn’t have any offices and its employees live everywhere, across many time zones.It’s fully distributed, fully remote, and fully asynchronous and it embraces a radical form of transparency.Truly asynchronous work can look intense.Because employees are working at different hours in all parts of the world, the company relies on meticulous documentation.Employees take extensive notes on calls, meetings, memos, brainstorming sessions, you name it.Almost all of it, including many of the company’s internal deliberations and operations, is posted publicly.In practice, that means someone outside the company can get an idea of how its employees are building the product they might ultimately buy.Internally, it means that an employee in the marketing department can go into GitLab’s system and follow what the legal, comms, finance, and engineering teams are doing.They can read the team’s notes, monitor their objectives and reports, and follow along with colleagues as they work.They aren’t demands or even instructions, but they offer a guide to collaboration.What does that mean in practice?Ability to work whenever.The removal of all pressure to sit in on a meeting in which you have a tangential role, because the meeting is always recorded.Transparency enhances belonging, Murph told us when we spoke.And it is vital in an officeless company.Even if people don’t use the documentation or follow what other colleagues are doing, just seeing it creates an innate sense of belonging.There’s a trust that’s forged because you can see what everyone is doing.He’s also, at least as far as he knows, the first person to hold the title head of remote work for a larger company, and he’s quick to tell you that a remote work revolution will change the world.But he’s also a realist.

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