There’s a 1993 New York cartoon that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. It shows two canines at a computer with the caption, “On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Dog.”
I’ve been trying to think of updating this cartoon for the Zoom Covid staff. ‘No one on the internet can tell you’re out of the office’ maybe. Or “In this video meeting, no one will notice that I’m wearing sweatpants with this collared shirt.”
Covid has turned everything upside down, but it’s interesting to look at the things it hasn’t changed that much.
Before the pandemic, the startup I worked for had a relatively casual approach to office work. There was an office in San Francisco’s financial district, but my manager lived in Los Angeles, a six-hour drive away.
My friends at other tech companies have reported similarly lax approaches to personal work requirements.
By and large, once we had a quiet place and a fast internet connection, our bosses didn’t care where we worked.
Tech is an industry, one executive told me, where you are measured by your outputs, not your inputs. As long as we met our goals and deadlines, the company didn’t care how we did it, where we came from, or how long we worked.
That meant enormous flexibility.
If we wanted to visit family or go hiking at the weekend, we could do that – and still meet up along the way.
One year when the fire season was particularly bad, an asthmatic friend of mine headed out to clearer pastures for a month instead of getting stuck in the smoke.
For this reason, when Covid hit, our working life didn’t change all that much. Many of my friends went back to live with their parents or left high-tax cities for cheaper cities where you could meet your neighbors.
We didn’t have to make the same adjustments as so many other employees – such as Such as downloading Zoom for the first time or trying to find a quiet corner of our home to take calls.
A common topic of discussion among tech workers at long-distance walks and Zoom happy hours is will San Francisco ever come back and claim its position as the jewel of Silicon Valley? Many tech workers left town during Covid and it remains to be seen how many will return.
The history of this space is truly a history of technological innovation over the last 80 years – everything from radar and GPS to microchips and the iPhone. The question, however, is to what extent these inventions required humans to share the same physical space. Can you use Zoom to invent new technology, raise money, hire and motivate the right people?
Other tech cities are looking to San Francisco for answers.
From Dublin’s Silicon Docks to Tel Aviv’s Silicon Wadi, companies around the world are still struggling to find the right balance between in-person work and remote collaboration.
The question of whether tech cities are central places where ambitious people should live, or just meccas to make an occasional pilgrimage to, will say a lot about how these cities grow and change over time.
My own take on this question is that while there are benefits to working in person early in your career, most tech workers can probably work from home most of the time without a significant impact on productivity.
For people new to tech, there are many benefits to working in person, but the marginal utility of living in one of these tech cities diminishes over time.
I suspect living in a tech city will be like studying at university: valuable for many reasons, but not a move forever. At some point you will want to leave and start your next chapter in life.
University is a great time to learn, meet people and find out what drives you – but it’s not real life. I suspect life in a big tech city is similar.
Living in San Francisco is a great way to break into the tech industry, gain valuable skills, and socialize, but in many ways it’s not an ideal place to start a family. I suspect we’ll see a lot of people early in their careers spending a few years in Silicon Valley or visiting the company for a short time to fundraise or hire.
I’m betting that in the next 10 years more companies will be formed outside of San Francisco and technicians will relocate to other parts of the US.
However, for what it’s worth, my attitude is somewhat at odds with the company I currently work for.
They think that something valuable is lost when you only know your colleagues as squares in one Brady Bunch video call
When safe, management tells us, you are expected to be in the office three to four days a week.
I’m happy with their decision – mostly because I’m happier and more productive in an office environment. I’m also glad, perhaps due to a quirk inherited from my father, that I’m working for a company that swims against the tide.
Because some startups require employees to be back in the office and others are remote-friendly, we have an imperfect A/B test underway. I look forward to the results.
Tommy Collison is a writer and Irish expat living in the Bay Area
https://www.independent.ie/business/technology/will-the-remote-working-boom-turn-san-francisco-into-a-mere-stopping-point-on-lifes-journey-41697136.html Will the remote working boom make San Francisco a mere stop on life’s journey?