Face to face is easier. But for who?

Remote work is on the rise. While the amount of 100% distributed companies is still small, part-time work-where-you-like policies are the new normal. Most tech companies allow occasional remote work. We’re at a point where if you work as a developer for a company that never-ever lets you work from home, that’s considered an anomaly.

When you talk to people who oppose distributed teams, there is one argument that always pops up: communication is so much better in person. As someone who has spent an awful lot of time in Hello-can-you-hear-me-Skype-hell, I understand that sentiment. But that doesn’t mean it’s a great argument.

Yes, it’s easier to talk when you’re in the same room. That goes double for talking to large groups. Skype calls with 20 people are masochistic at best. But easier doesn’t mean better.

The question is: easier for who?

Creative people need blocks of uninterrupted time where they can focus on their problem. Interruptions and meeting culture are the enemies of productivity. A productive environment is one where they have plenty of those in-the-zone blocks. It follows that great communication is communication that fosters such an environment.

Now, look at the average office team. It’s not uncommon for developers/designers to be in two meetings a day about things they are not currently working on. That’s irrelevant and unfocused. Why do we have such scattershot communication lines? Because offices make it easy to initiate communication.

Since initiating communication is so cheap, it becomes ubiquitous. There is no cost to the initiator.

We don’t want to have the Big Design Upfront, but the default in the “Agile” office seems to have become constant low-quality chatter. We’ll float ideas. We’ll have quick high-level questions. Who cares if the message isn’t well thought out? If we need to talk more, we can always talk more. That’s easy, but not great communication.

Remote work gives creatives the opportunity to carve out those much-needed blocks of uninterrupted productivity. It allows them to create that environment that makes them rock.

This comes at a cost for “the others”. Their colleagues. Their managers. Business people. Other teams.

For them, walking up and discussing that new idea gets harder. They’ll have to consider whether the interruption is really needed. They’ll have to wait for the receiver to engage in the communication.

That requires writing more. Thinking more. Planning a lot better. Less chatter, better communication.

More thoughtful work means that initiating communication has a higher cost. That’s a good thing. Talking more is not the same as communicating better. The onus should be on the initiator.

That 10-minute impromptu monologue about a potential new feature could be a well-crafted blog post.

That 20-person Skype call could be a video presentation.

Async becomes the default.

But so does productivity.

When the telephone was invented, a lot of people thought it wasn’t a great replacement for face-to-face communication. But we’ve embraced that technology. None of us drives to a restaurant to book a table for later that day. We call.

Most communication works just fine over the phone. Some conversations might feel better in person, but that doesn’t mean they don’t work remotely. We have strangers closing a sale over the phone. We’ve seen people consoling a grieving friend on the other side of the globe. Long-distance lovers make it work.

If it’s good enough for love, it’s certainly good enough for office work.