Rethinking Proximity

In 2020, several large tech companies — like Twitter, Facebook, Spotify, and Shopify — announced that their employees could choose to work remotely, permanently. Millions of teams globally had proven – through the pandemic – that this model (of working remotely) could be achieved with minor business disruption. I had made up my mind – I was 100% advocating for permanent remote work. But, in September of 2020, Reed Hastings of Netflix bucked that trend saying he expected employees to be back in the office 12 hours after a vaccine is approved. I think Reed Hastings & his philosophies outlined in the book No Rules Rules are absolutely brilliant. This left me torn. Hastings left me wondering; when it comes to work – particularly my line of work in Analytics – does proximity matter (particularly space proximity)?

So I went on a mental journey… 

# A Global Truth: Space Proximity Matters

Three examples shaped my early perspective through this journey. 

First, I live in a quiet suburban neighborhood in Plymouth, MN. Down the block, about ¼ mile away, live 3 families next door to each other with small children about the same age as my kids. One wintery, sled-worthy day, those neighbors posted pictures on social media of them sledding together saying something like “we are the Orchid Lane Crew!” My wife and I felt like “damn, we didn’t make the cut…” No invite. I assumed it was either our “bizarre” east coast personalities or the fact that we simply live ¼ mile away. It is probably a bit of both, but I concluded that it is more the distance (however small). Hanlon’s Razon reminds me that by default I should assume carelessness rather than malintent. Drawing a parallel to office life, it seems like information flow might be more likely when the physical distance between people is small. Space proximity does matter. 

The second example is a more macro view of the world. One of the big reasons that people move to cities is to be closer to “it.” In an episode of Econtalk, Matt Crawford describes the thrill of stepping out onto an urban sidewalk not knowing who or what you’re going to encounter. And he says that serendipity is a secular way of speaking of grace. Going to an office introduces that aspect of the unexpected. You have people colliding and chance encounters that advances problem solving and innovation. This theory again reinforces the notion that space proximity does matter. 

Finally, there is an economic phenomenon where businesses of the same industry will cluster together geographically to take advantage of the reputation of the region. Anyone that’s ever been to the Bronx may know about Arthur Avenue – a very Italian community known for its amazing Italian food. If you open an Italian restaurant in this area… you immediately have a good reputation. For this one, the parallel in my mind to the office environment is team members feeling like they are immediately part of the team – an instant association with the group simply by physically locating near that group. This seems to be another case where space proximity matters.  

So, if the importance of spatial proximity applies to knowledge workers maybe Reed Hastings has the right idea. People should be together. People should be co-located. People and the business thrive when they are in the same space proximity. But space proximity is not the only kind of proximity. By definition, proximity is nearness in space, time, or relationship. Perhaps, space proximity is a relic of a legacy work world and time & relationship proximity are the factors that drive modern-day performance. 

# Flexibility of Work Location: A Long-Term Strategy

41% of the US workforce – or about 64 million people – work in an office setting (a 2018 statistic). The way in which we have worked through the pandemic has given us a rare opportunity to let a massive amount of people take more control of their lives. This is more control over where you live (in a climate that works for you), who you live around, and how you commute. In Daniel Pink’s book Drive he says “When institutions – families, schools, businesses, and athletic teams – focus on the short-term and opt for controlling people’s behavior, they do considerable long-term damage.” The flexibility of work location is a long-term strategy that gives people freedom over their behaviors. It allows them to optimize for time & relationship proximity.

Admittedly, remote workforces present several immediate challenges. 

  1. Shane Parrish once posted a simple aphorism: ‘trust can’t happen without time.’ Physically sharing space means more time. Start with this assumption: the average duration of employment in a role is 3 years. In an office setting, let’s say you are encountering your team members for 8-10 interactions per day. In the virtual office world, you are encountering them 1-2 interactions per day. Hence, trust-building will occur 4-5x faster in a physical office setting. Let’s say it takes 6 months to build trust in a physical office setting. By the time you have built that trust in a virtual environment… a TM is nearly ready to move on. The cost seems high because trust preludes camaraderie. Camaraderie enables increased information flow and risk-taking – both critical ingredients for great performance. 
  2. One of the big drivers of the open floor plan is the belief that serendipitous events create engagement between employees resulting in ideas and innovation. Although there has been significant pushback on open floor plans (even prior to the pandemic), the core belief is still held by many that collision points between employees working on separate but potentially related projects can enhance innovative problem-solving. Without the collision points within a physical space, we may be reducing the chance for inspiration and accelerated problem-solving.
  3. Remote work will allow for the creation of teams across the country and world – this greatly increases the odds of finding the right talent. However, if an organization thinks they can continue to operate in a 9-5 working cadence… they will implode. Time zone synchronization absolutely falls apart with diverse people from diverse time zones… coordinating meetings becomes a nightmare. Attempting to bring a “meeting culture” online across many time zones will leave TMs tired and uninspired.  

These 3 headwinds alone should help us realize that if you want to convert from an office based organization to a remote workforce… you can’t just change the physical location in which people work, you need to change your philosophy on how work gets done. 

# Start from a Blank Whiteboard

I believe you need to start from a different mental space to find a good solution. You can’t say, these are all the things we did in the office… now let’s do them remotely. I think you need to start from geographic separation. Imagine this is day 1 for your team or company… and everyone is all around the country (maybe the world). How do you optimize for time and relationship proximity? 

Here are a few ideas…

Blending. Blending objectives sometimes helps us achieve more with less. For example, I had this goal to do more core work so I could be stronger and prevent injury from running. I always neglected this. I also had this goal of spending more time with my kids. My coach suggested that I blend these goals – for instance I could lift my 2-year old daughter over my head 20 times per day or I could do pull ups when we went to the playground every day. It worked! I stuck with it.

For a group of data analysts working remotely, you want to blend their geography into the team culture. You could have team sessions where each analysts finds some kind of data or analysis related to where they are… and share that with the team. Simultaneously, the team learns about a new part of the country or world, but is also practicing data analytics. Weaving the individual’s geography into the team culture can be inspiring rather than distracting. 

Speed Dating. I recently participated in a mentor/mentee program at work. To pair individuals up, we participated in a speed dating session – where you talk to each of the candidates for 10 minutes. After the session, the mentees picked their top 3 potential mentors and the mentors did the same for the mentees. Then, we were paired as best as possible. I got a feel for many people in a short period of time… and started to develop a really good relationship with one of those mentees. This was all virtual.

In a remote environment, I think we should be more receptive to individuals that click. You may be able to create a sort of natural sorting process… where people find their people. And in doing so, you will get more productive teams and high retention rates. 

Flow. Finally, helping employees find a flow state is even more important in a remote work setting. Flow, of course, is that place where employees are challenged… but not to the point where they finish work every day feeling defeated and desperate. It’s the balancing point. It would be prudent for companies to get serious about investing in professional coaches (or perhaps training managers in coaching technique and strategy) in order to help TM’s find more time in flow each day. This increases the quality of output and, IMHO increases the quality and meaningfulness of the TM’s life. Talk about a win-win.

# A Rare Catalyst

The COVID-19 pandemic has been brutal, but it has created a rare and exciting opportunity to reshape the way we work. It just might be the catalyst we need to accelerate the 5th industrial revolution – where millions of people take more control of their work and their lives resulting in elevated happiness and mental health.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *