Why do we have offices?

post by Mati_Roy (MathieuRoy) · 2020-03-31T01:01:21.668Z · LW · GW · No comments

This is a question post.


    Stuart Anderson
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They seem expensive, and not useful for jobs that can apparently be done remotely.

h/t Matthew Barnett for making me wonder

Followup question: how can we translate those benefits to remote work?


answer by Mati_Roy · 2020-03-31T01:02:21.664Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


  • Social presence of other people working motivates us to work: https://www.focusmate.com/
  • Accountability
  • High bandwidth communication
  • Meta communication (knowing who's available to talk to)
  • Status quo bias

EtA 2020-04-09

  • Inertia
  • To meet people
  • Feels more trust if you see people
  • Bound more if you see people

Why do we have in person talks?

  • They don't, but they go because of manufactured scarcity
  • Because it feels like an adventure
  • Because seeing something different then their house makes them feel more like they're doing something different

Why do people prefer live events?

  • Sense of urgency
  • Shared experience

EtA 2020-05-05

  • An excuse to not be distracted. If someone wants to talk to you, it looks less rude if you give an external factor as an excuse, like "I can't I'm at the office" or "I can't I'm doing a FocusMate".
comment by Vaniver · 2020-04-01T23:47:40.446Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think high bandwidth communication (and meta communication) is the core factor, with social presence and accountability as secondary factors.

answer by Viliam · 2020-04-01T22:08:22.730Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are multiple reasons, and here is one of them:

Imagine yourself as a boss. How would you check whether your employess are doing the stuff you pay them for, or just taking your money and slacking? (Because there are many people who would enjoy the opportunity to take your money for nothing.)

This depends on the work. Sometimes the outputs are easy to measure and easy to predict. Suppose your employees are making boxes out of cardboard. You know how many boxes per hour can the average worker make, so you have a simple transformation of your money to the number of boxes produced. If someone does not produce enough boxes, they are either incompetent or slacking; in both cases it would make sense to replace them with someone who will produce enough boxes.

This is the type of work that would be safe to let people do remotely -- as long as the same amount of boxes is produced, you get the value you paid for -- although there may be other reasons that make it difficult: transportation of the cardboard and the boxes, or maybe if a machine is needed.

But imagine the kind of work like software development. To the eternal frustration of managers, the output is hard to measure. Both because of inherent randomness of the work (bugs appear unexpected and may take a lot of time to fix), and because the people who supervise the work are usually not programmers themselves (so they have no idea how much time "writing a REST controller which provides data serialized in XML format" should take - are we talking minutes or weeks?). Different people have different strong opinions on what quality means, but it is a fact that some projects can grow steadily for years, while others soon collapse under their own weight.

Having this kind of work done remotely, how do you distinguish between the case when the employee solved a difficult problem, fixed someone else's bug, and spent some time preventing other bugs happening in the future... and the case when someone did some quick and dirty work in 2 hours, spent the remaining 6 hours watching Netflix, and afterwards reported 8 hours of work? Trying to impose some simple metric such as "lines of code written per day" is more likely to hurt than help, because it punishes useful legitimate work, such as designing, or fixing bugs.

Making the people stay in the office guarantees that they will not spend 6 hours watching Netflix. They may do good work, they may do bad work, or they may find ways to procrastinate (e.g. watch YouTube videos instead). But at least, there is a long list of things they can't do.

It seems like a problem of trust, but on a deeper level it is a problem that you can't even "trust but verify" if you can't actually verify the quality of the output. So you have to rely on things like "spent enough time looking busy", which sucks for both sides.

comment by Vaniver · 2020-04-01T23:46:05.841Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Note that this sort of inspectability is, in principle, accessible for remote work; you could have software that captures what's going on for each employee's screen (or webcam), and either randomly sample it or programmatically check for long periods of inactivity, or attempts to fool the system, or so on.

comment by Dagon · 2020-04-01T23:52:26.232Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Note that supervision of complex knowledge work is _ALMOST_ as difficult in an office. There're plenty of ways to slack off while physically present - watching netflix is out, but that's not the risk. Reading Less Wrong all day looks like work, at first glance. And the solutions are the same. First,

the people who supervise the work are usually not programmers themselves

is simply a mistake. At least in the big tech companies I've looked at, managers were almost always engineers before they transitioned to the dark side. And there are 1-2 levels of management that bridge the evaluations from the line-level "able to evaluate daily work of programmers" to the senior management "able to evaluate a team's business-impact output".

Second, as long as you have SOME employees who are actively invested in the work, they'll tell you who they want to work with and who they don't, and why. This isn't perfect, and some will lie or misinterpret things, but it's enough of a pointer for managers to more actively look into.

answer by Stuart Anderson · 2020-03-31T07:42:59.642Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The office is a paradigm that is understood and established, remote work often isn't. It's not just about your own workers, you also have to interface with other industries.

If I am an employer then how to I find talent that understands or can learn a remote paradigm and works well within that? How do I train inexperienced staff into that paradigm? What are the common problems and common solutions for them?

How do you integrate remote workers with on site workers? This raises issues of communication, tracking work, people, assets, etc. The infrastructure required to serve desktops to people isn't cheap or pain free either.

What are the hidden costs of doing this? I had to have some remote workers 20 years ago and it came with problems that weren't present in the office. Nobody was 100% remote because it just wasn't possible at that point.

This is also the classic problem of the 'paperless office', which whilst easier to do today is still incredibly difficult to pull off. I don't know about other legislative domains, but here a copy of a document is only proof of its existence and not legally equivalent to the actual document itself. Lots of stuff *has* to be on paper for legal reasons. Plenty of original documents (especially financial records) have to be retained for years or even permanently.

What about confidentiality and chain of custody? I can put access control and surveillance in an office.

If I worked today and covid had happened then I would have set up an emergency NOC and moved into work. I wouldn't have been able to run the infrastructure and send everyone else home otherwise. It would have sucked. Plenty of staff wouldn't have been able to go home because their jobs weren't portable. Even if I could send people home I couldn't send infrastructure home. Half a million dollars of PBX and 500kg of battery backup wasn't going anywhere.

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