The Telecommuter: Human Biology vs Technology

October 30, 2017

As telecommuting becomes more and more technologically plausible, companies are opening their eyes, hearts and doors to the concept of the living room as the conference room. Can telecommuting eventually obviate the need for a physical communal office space? Human nature might have more to say about that than technology.

A little about me

(tl;dr – I work time zones and oceans away from my team)
My name is Amit. I’ve been working for Innovid for the past five years, three out of which I’ve spent working.. remotely, to say the least. My team is in a nice high tech office in the backyard financial district of Tel Aviv – Bursa Ramat Gan. As for me.. I work from my sofa, dining table, or – on the rare occasion of an internet outage – the downstairs cafe.

Although we have an office comfortably situated in Downtown Manhattan, only 30 minutes away by train, or a brisk 50 minute walk on a nice day, the 8:00am video conference wake up call necessitated by the seven hour difference between New York and Tel Aviv timezones prohibits me from getting there in time. So, half the time I find myself spending the entire day at home, rather than wasting an hour or more on commute to an office where precisely zero other members of my team work, and to which I would only be able to arrive around lunch time.

Truth be told, three years ago when I decided to make a new life for myself across the pond (and another puddle, for those familiar with the geographical circumstances), I was skeptical that my company would offer me a position here. Guiding my skepticism was the feeling that the technological infrastructure required for telecommuting just wasn’t there. Remember Skype? Remember email threads??? To my surprise, my company turned out to be real pioneers of the telecommuting era and, even lacking the tools, we made it work.

A Better World for Telecommuting, for Tech, by Tech.

In the past three years, technology has made leaps and bounds towards comfortably facilitating the new work-from-home attitude that a lot of tech companies have started adopting. Skype becomes Zoom. Email threads change to Slack DM’s and private and public channels. Cloud file sharing transforms the way we work and collaborate on documents. Internet bandwidth slowly but surely becomes more robust and reliable. Suddenly, we’re in a world where we can share our code editor window in a seamless video conference while viewing and editing a design document in tandem on Google Drive, all the while reacting to channel messages directed personally at us, but visible to all, with custom animated emojis to make sure we get our exact point across with as little verbal friction as possible. Let’s face it – we live in a world that’s wonderfully tailored for telecommuting! We’ve finally realized the dream, and from here on out it’s just about gaining more widespread adoption of the amazing concept that offices are no longer required, and everyone can just work together seamlessly from anywhere in the world. Right?

It’s true that the technology is all there. The infrastructure that I was so worried about three years ago when I started this adventure – we have it now. So why am I not satisfied? What’s missing?

The Human Element

Over the past three years, I’ve realized that the answer to that is.. We’re still human.

Before moving out here alone, an ocean away from my team, I spent two years working out of the Tel Aviv office. That’s two years that I spent building human connections over morning conversations by the coffee machine, shared lunches, office gossip and (sometimes inappropriate) jokes between co-workers from across the room.

Three years on, from the solitude of my living room, or even the busy New York office where there are a lot of great people, but nobody with whom I work closely (since my team is solely concentrated in Tel Aviv), I have come to realize that there is no replacement for time spent physically face to face with a co-worker. Beyond the obvious social aspect, there is a professional aspect at play here, too. One that is often overlooked in the debate about telecommuting.

I’ve realized that the people who are most responsive to my messages, most readily available to help me in a time of crisis, and most likely to ask for my help when they need it, are the ones with whom I was able to forge real connections – face to face – either in my time working in Tel Aviv or during one of my few visits there since I’ve left.
People forget to add me to meetings, because far from the eye means far from the mind.

My looming presence on the big screen in video conference calls means that when I speak everyone feels commanded to listen, interrupting the normal pace and style of conversations, which in Tel Aviv necessarily involves many people talking loudly over one another. It’s nice sometimes to command everyone’s attention when you have something interesting or smart to say, but trust me that sometimes it’s better for your voice to fade far into the background.

The Telecommuting Commuter?

In the tech world we tend to overlook the aspects of human biology and human instinct, often to our own detriment. It’s what drove the backlash against Google Glass, which from a purely technological perspective (for the time) should have sold like hotcakes.. it’s why social media makes people considerably less happy.. and in my opinion, it’s why offices will continue to exist for the foreseeable future. Humans are not ready to fully integrate with our machines and become cyborgs. Something about our biology rejects technology and longs for real human connection instead. We just don’t realize it ‘til it’s missing. Advancements in telecommunication have brought us within an inch of realizing our dream to work in comfort and solitude, only to realize that that dream was misguided.

What we should be aiming for is a best of both worlds solution that involves better telecommunication coupled with easier, cheaper and more efficient physical transportation. We need to make geographically disparate locations more mutually physically accessible. Cut the cost and time of flights to make a weekly or monthly commute across the planet attainable at a reasonable financial and human cost. Improve public transportation and the outdated 19th Century rail system most countries are still dragging almost midway into the 21st Century at a heavy cost. Reduce emissions and move to clean fuels so that we can connect more easily while still maintaining our planet’s ability to support us and the next generation of telecommuting commuters.

Technology can only take us halfway towards building a better, more connected, more accessible world. The rest is up to us, staying true to who we are and accepting that we are biologically social animals, and that there is no technological substitute for real human connection, whether at home, in the workplace, or in the crossroads between them.