In early 2020, I felt scared that COVID-19 was going to ruin my advisory practice and de-rail Elements. The software was just taking shape in my mind, and everything felt really fragile.
I couldn't go to my favorite restaurant or to Jazz games, and I had to cancel the six hour Harry Potter musical I booked in London for our wedding anniversary. For a time, vacation would be moving from my home office desk to my favorite chair in the bedroom.
One of the benefits of Covid was eliminating all the commute time, and with Zoom, I could have back to back meetings! I was efficiently stacked with no breaks all day. When Elements raised our seed round in 2021, we didn't really have a choice to work in-office or remotely because the world hadn’t opened back up quite yet. I spent many months feeling productively packed with lots of meetings and lots of stuff.
Last summer, post-Covid, my team kicked off our first “company offsite.” The most memorable moment was when we went to Snowbird for the day. We played outdoor games, did scavenger hunts, puzzles, and physical activities, like screaming down the mountain on a rollercoaster. It was so good to see everyone, be in the sun, and have social interaction. So much different from the feel of Zoom meetings.
Today, as I reflect back to 2020, I’m starting to notice a subtle, yet important difference in relationship depth. It feels hard to truly build community remotely. I’m asking myself questions like: do I really know these people?
I look at my colleagues every day on the screen, and try to learn about who they are. I’m making lots of assumptions about them. Why do I feel less connected to them through the screen?
In January 2023, we held our most recent offsite, and we flew everyone in from around the country. There were around twenty people, and several I had never met. First, we held a company meeting at a shared workspace, and it felt really official. More official than Zoom, for sure. It was a large conference room, with lights and formality, a big stage, and trendy little seats all over – with snacks and a drink station. You know, the kind of thing a “real company” might do.
Department heads in marketing, customer success, sales, product, and engineering shared their 2023 plans, in person. It felt just a little bit more organized and put together, I was confident in our plan. This really felt like a company.
But we had been doing this same thing, for years, digitally, on Zoom. It just felt different in person. Having the whole team present, feeling like an organization with real structure and physical space and time together. I started to question some of the biases I’ve developed over the past two years about office space.
For our community building activity, we attended a pottery activity. I started to wonder why in the world we were doing this activity—it didn’t seem productive to me. And I think that was the biggest learning, for me, right there.
I started to wonder how much the last couple of years have caused me to see everyone as objects of productivity. Does everything have to be efficient and productive? Had back to back Zoom meetings and remote work caused me to lose tolerance for anything that wasn’t “work”? Was I skipping over the water cooler conversations that I used to have with my colleagues? I remember talking about college football and skiing a lot more when I used to be in the office day to day. I would go to lunch with someone at work, three to four times a week. I didn’t used to be so worried about wasting time.
Time seems to feel more scarce to me now. There’s something about remote work that has made me feel rushed. I don’t have a lot of space for allowing things to just be. I wonder if it’s possible for work to feel restful, and more relaxed. Where not everything has to be hyper productive.
This recent offsite gave me a chance to witness the team. Not only in-person, but engaging in activities not focused on our work. I learned interesting things about each person. Jason, a developer, is a master sculptor. Carl Richards is a Galaga genius (and loves to coach people to his level). Heber, another developer, is competitive and fair—but don’t mess with him and a foosball table.
What a gift it is for me to be in person with these people. Doing things, feeling their energy, and listening to what they think about life. Especially when it’s spontaneous with an unstructured agenda.
This feeling of connection is so important. I’m starting to look for office space again. I’m not sure what that means yet.
I’d love to know what you think.
Building a virtual firm - I think about all of this for the distant future. How to build a team remotely, and feel like you know who these people are? How to build a culture remotely? And how not to fall into that productivity trap, and just let work *be*. Interesting stuff to think through, appreciate seeing how you’re thinking about it.
I do miss the random conversations when I worked in office with people. It’s causing me to seek more in person time with friends/people outside of work.
I think there are a couple of other things going on there -
1) It's easy to get into a trap of believing time is scarce and must be used "productively" when you have SO MANY possible things you can do with it, all of which have super high rewards. I think we begin to have disordered affections (look up the Jesuit term) when we place the monetary value of our time, or some other emphasis on "productivity" above *relationships*.
2) Is there a generational difference in *desire* and value place on in-person connection? (Face it, Reese, we're Elder Millenials - aka "old"!)
I, too, miss in-person office culture -- though not what it was pre-2020, but rather something not-yet-imagined, that is more playful, supportive, collaborative, and human. If you build it, they will come!
p.s. What did you learn from/about your female colleague(s?) on your offsite day that you couldn't have learned any other way?