If you’ve ever brought up the topic of remote work at a networking event or happy hour, one of the things you’ll inevitably run across is people saying, “Sorry, but remote work just isn’t viable. It just can’t work. You have to be onsite to be effective.” Even if you’ve successfully worked remotely for years, people who have never done so will tell you this to your face.
Don’t believe it. At High Fidelity, we’ve all been working together in a virtual HQ since April, and we’re still going strong. As a seasoned remote employee, I wanted to share how it’s working for me personally.
First, some background. I’ve been working remotely for San Francisco-based companies since 2005. During this time, I’ve been based in Minnesota and Wisconsin, 1500-2000 miles away from headquarters at a two-hour time difference. Text chat was my main mode of communication with SF motherships and with other remote coworkers. I used AIM, then Jabber, Pidgin, HipChat, and Slack. The use of audio communication was rare, saved for all-hands meetings or performance reviews.
As a result, I was used to making my presence known over text channels so that people didn’t forget me. I was fine with scanning the company calendar for relevant meetings and asking to be invited if I’d been omitted. In order not to drop off the map, I made sure to visit San Francisco as often as permitted in order to forge better connections with coworkers. I knew I was less visible than my local counterparts, and I’d resigned myself to the idea that my career would probably evolve more slowly because of that.
All this is to say: Unlike many of my High Fidelity coworkers, I was already long accustomed to the extra labor of traditional remote work where most people are in a central office and you’re the outlier. Then, High Fidelity decided to experiment. The entire company would work remotely from a virtual office called "HQ." HQ was set on a private tropical island with always-on 3D audio, meeting rooms, common areas, and whiteboards. We would all present as semi-photorealistic avatars so we could walk around and interact with each other like we would in a physical office. So, when High Fidelity announced we would all work remotely, my first thought was, “Hey, welcome to my life.”
But my work life changed right away, and drastically for the better. After 14 years, I was finally involved with everyone in real-time. For example:
- I was pulled into more impromptu conversations during the first week of HQ than I had been the entire quarter prior. I felt more relevant to the company and more a part of its culture.
- I often worked at a group of couches with the rest of the marketing team. Because we were visible and accessible in the world, other teams came over to visit us, often to confer about work matters and sometimes just for fun.
- At times when I needed to concentrate, I could easily walk to a space where I couldn’t hear others’ chatter but could still be close enough to the action in case a team member needed me. The near-field 3D audio meant that my team member’s voices would grow quieter as my avatar walked further and further away.
- A program manager once overheard me considering a course of action with my teammates, jogged over to where we were in the virtual space, and saved me from myself. You know who you are. Thank you!
I connected with my new manager better and faster than I would have otherwise because we kept running into each other in the virtual office and stopping to talk for a few minutes. Way better than a weekly check-in call.
- I also got to know my teammates more personally than I could over Slack because we’d hang out on the virtual couch and chat as we worked.
Not only that, but some of our work went faster than it would have otherwise. We stopped scheduling 30-minute calls to discuss minutiae and started just striking up conversations when we needed to talk.
- The always-on, near-field 3D audio in High Fidelity has been crucial to making me feel like I’m really there with my team. People inadvertently misread the tone of text communications all the time. Anything that improves your understanding of tone and intent is a huge help. I’ve used other audio meeting solutions for years and they’ve never made me feel like I’m fully connecting with my coworkers in the way HQ has.
I could keep going. There’s an entire post’s worth of anecdotes about how much more I’ve talked with my coworkers, how the quality of conversation has improved and so on. I actually forgot that I’d never met one of my coworkers outside of the virtual office because we talk so regularly.
Traditional remote work is here and has been for years, although many are just waking up to it. What I’ve experienced in High Fidelity these past few months is miles beyond that, and it’s just getting started.