You had me at 'social distancing'

Matt Casey

Written by Matt Casey. Co-founder of DoThings. Author of The Management Delusion and We Need to Talk About Scrum.

March 09, 2020

I live in London. I love it here, but sometimes I wonder what the hell I’m doing to myself. It’s filthy, it’s loud, we don’t technically have air, my dog keeps eating vomit, and it’s absolutely full of the general public. Blurgh. It’s an amazing city, but cities themselves are starting to feel like an out of date idea to me. When Covid started picking up steam and the recommendation for social distancing was made, I was not troubled one bit: Social distancing you say? No, problem. I’ll see your social distancing, and raise you an emotionally unavailable. I was born for this.

Luckily for us, at DoThings we already work entirely remotely. Our team is spread all over the place already, and despite this it really doesn’t feel like we don’t work together. We talk regularly through Slack, we organise ourselves and stay aligned with DoThings, and if we want a real conversation we jump on a Hangout. Working this way is normal for us, but Covid has pushed the issue of remote working front and center for a lot of businesses that have previously been ignoring it. If you weren’t previously open to the idea, all of sudden you’re faced with a situation where you don’t really have a choice. One of our founders is also the CEO of an aerospace company based in Milan, and he is facing this situation himself. I think for a lot of managers, the idea of having their staff out of reach is really uncomfortable.

It’s weird being a manager. On our own, we’re not actually useful at all. Everything we do, we do through other people. When those people aren’t in the same building as us we can feel a bit helpless. It’s like having our hands cut off. In most teams that haven’t embraced remote working yet, the reason is emotional more than anything else. There’s no logical reason that everyone needs to be in the same building to get things done, but emotionally the leaders haven’t been able to take that leap.

I was one of those leaders. For a long time, even though I knew technically all the work could be done from anywhere - meetings could be done over Hangouts, conversations could be had over Slack, work could be tracked in any number of ways - I still felt that there was something to be said for having everyone together, and I didn’t fully embrace working from home. If I’m completely honest, when I finally did commit to remote working it was for entirely personal reasons. I think I probably believed it wouldn’t be as efficient as working in an office, but I just wanted the freedom anyway. As it’s turned out, I now think it’s better for the business too.

One of the main benefits I’ve found is that I can work to my own natural rhythms now. That sounds more hippyish than I intended it to. What I mean is that I’m able to take advantage of the times where my brain seems ready to work. When I used to work in an office, I would frequently wake up at about 5am and not be able to get back to sleep. I’d be thinking about something I wanted to do that day, and find it difficult to relax again. But I’d always try. Eventually I’d fall asleep again, wake up later, then get up and go to work. I’d get coffee, chat to people, have the morning stand-up, then usually actually get working at about 10am.

When I started working from home, I noticed something changed. I’d wake up at 5am, and instead of trying to get back to sleep, I’d just get up. I found that I was insanely productive. I’d walk straight to my laptop, and was able to work in an incredibly focused way. Before I knew it, 3 or 4 hours would have passed. At about 9am I’d go take a shower, then take my dog for a walk. What I realised was that if you looked at what I’d achieved by 9am when working from home, it was usually more than I would have done in an entire day at the office - 4 hours of solid uninterrupted work is a rare achievement in an office environment. This meant that if I did nothing else, my day could still be considered productive. Working from home had effectively given me the entire day to do whatever I wanted with. If I didn’t feel like working any more, that was fine. Free of any pressure, I would generally focus on work that I found interesting, or things that I’d been putting off. Or sometimes I’d just take it easy.

One of my co-founders works totally differently. He will be completely unreachable for the entire day, but then I’ll go to sleep, wake up the following morning, and find he’s been up all night and completed a crazy amount of work. Frequently I’d wake up to completed work that I thought was going to take weeks to deliver. I started jokingly referring to him as Santa Claus, silently delivering me presents overnight.

If the two of us forced ourselves into the same office at the same time every day, we would be far less productive, and far less happy, and it would cost us a fortune in rent and travel. As things are, we just work when we’re most ready to work, and we get far more done.

I think for a huge number of companies now, it would be really sensible to evaluate if the amount of money spent on renting office space to bring everyone into the same physical location - especially in a city like London - is really worthwhile. Embracing the tools to enable remote work was a good idea before Covid, and I’m hopeful that when this all blows over more companies will allow their people the opportunity to work this way.

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