Did extroverts ruin remote work for the rest of us?

ALSO: the benefit of human micro-exchanges // where did Waze go wrong? // pressure to be online

In Susan Cain’s 2014 book Quiet she outlines how introverts have found that modern life (and by extension, work) has been optimised for the benefit of society’s extroverts. When it comes to deciding how plans will unfold or the way that organisations will run, true to form, the extroverts speak up and call the shots. The end result is that introverts spend their lives awkwardly trying to play along with the performative game that has been created around them.

The one upside for introverts is that they generally find it easier to fake it, to mimic extrovert behaviours, than their louder, bolder colleagues are able to wind things in. The problem is that, if introverts don’t feel willing to turn their working life into a performance there are consequences for them. Such is our bias to extroversion, we associate their behaviours with higher achievement. For example, Cain explains we often make the mistake of thinking that someone who is good at presenting is by extension, a capable leader:

“We are similarly inclined to empower dynamic speakers. One highly successful venture capitalist who is regularly pitched by young entrepreneurs told me how frustrated he is by his colleagues’ failure to distinguish between good presentation skills and true leadership ability. “I worry that there are people who are put in positions of authority because they’re good talkers, but they don’t have good ideas,” he said. “It’s so easy to confuse schmoozing ability with talent. Someone seems like a good presenter, easy to get along with, and those traits are rewarded. Well, why is that? They’re valuable traits, but we put too much of a premium on presenting and not enough on substance and critical thinking.”

In the second lockdown (the one with childcare) there was a consensus that workers were feeling surprising productive. However as time has gone on more of us have found that our number of video calls has continued to increase. If you’re one of those people who now opens your calendar with dread you might sympathise with those who feel that video calls seem to be intent on consuming their whole working week.

Or as the KitKat ad put it this week:

[edit: it turns out it was a hoax ad by Sam Hennig for @OneMinuteBriefs]

The debate seems to come down to how you prefer working. If you prefer to do your working out loud, to be talking then Zoom calls are great. You can chat, you can monologue, you can banter, you can ask questions. But if you prefer, like in Cain’s book, to do your work reflectively then non-stops calls can drive you to the edge. And the unfortunate problem is that, like with the office, we tend to veer towards the lowest common denominator. If your boss is an extrovert and wants calls then you will have calls.

A lot of the companies who have made a success of remote working are, at their hearts, introverted. They are full of developers and software engineers who want to get on with their work, quietly. They long for whole days free of meetings, they have the urge to get lost in capturing an idea precisely. When these firms say that the secret of remote working is that meetings are a last resort, it’s because they are wired to instinctively prefer things that way. Not all firms and not all leaders are going to fit this model.

Just over a decade ago tech venture capitalist Paul Graham told us about the difference between a maker’s schedule and a manager’s schedule.

The manager's schedule is for bosses… with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you're doing every hour. It’s the schedule of command.

But there's another way of using time that's common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least… When you're operating on the maker's schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That's no problem for someone on the manager's schedule. There's always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker's schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.

While Graham wasn’t talking about extroverts and introverts there’s some alignment here. Introverts and makers prefer long blocks of time to concentrate. Extroverts and managers prefer short bursts of energy and then are re-upped by a change of focus. The challenge is when these meet.

‘Shall we jump on a call?’ someone said to me last week. No surprise, it happens to all of us several times a day. When I explained that I had no childcare so I was trying to avoid back-to-back meetings we switched our communication to email. It took two emails shorter than four lines each. For extroverts jumping on a call is almost as fun and frivolous as it sounds, for introverts, in contrast, it is exhausting. When the firms who have succeeded at remote work talk about eliminating meetings for some outsiders this is terrifying.

Firstly they wonder, how will they know people are working? And secondly it raises the fearful prospect that work might be spent staring at a screen reading something and considering a reply to it. It just sounds so… hard… and so… introverted.

Which brings us on to this week’s new podcast, a discussion with Cal Newport.

Imagine a world with no Zoom or email

I’ve talked a lot about Cal Newport’s provocations about abolishing email (and Zoom calls) [find them here and here]. And in fact, I had someone last week astonished when I suggested we should try to limit video calls to eight hours a week. They thought I’d lost my mind. How would we get things done unless we were on video calls all day?

This default to video and emails is what Cal Newport calls the Hyperactive Hive Mind. He’s convinced that we’ll look back at the way we’re working right now and be embarrassed we optimised for what was easy rather than what was productive. Cal outlines how we should be setting about to fix work - by changing our relationship with technology.

It is a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant provocation that is unique to him and I think will give all us reason to reflect. Let me know what you thought by replying to this email.

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Human micro-exchanges for the win

I’m currently reading Noreena Hertz’s The Lonely Century - and one of the things she talks about is the importance of real life ‘micro-exchanges’ that we have IRL: little discussions in shops, or with people we meet, maybe someone at the gym or in a bar in olden times. Here she’s talking about it in one interview:

“Now, as we begin to contemplate post-pandemic society, we face a real danger that contactless interactions will become further institutionalized, thereby depriving us of two crucial aspects of everyday living. First, we could lose even more of what I call micro-exchanges, those short interactions at the yoga studio when we kind of smile at the person on the mat beside ours, or chat for a few minutes after class, or talk for a minute with the baristas when we pick up our coffee. Those small interactions actually play a huge part in making us feel connected to each other and less alone. Research shows that even a 30-second exchange has a marked impact, both on individual and on societal well-being”.

With that in mind I was reminded that this HBR article celebrating small talk might be a good reminder of what we already knew in that regard. The issue I generally find with small talk on calls is not that people don’t want it but when you’ve been on hours of video calls sometimes you feel that you just want to get the business side of things done (to get back to your inbox).

“What? Sushi again???”

I’ve always thought what happened to Waze and Nest (Google acquisitions that stopped being exciting the moment they were bought) was a sign that - in general - big companies can’t sustain innovation (even the ones who claim to be different). One of the founders of Waze did some media this week. Noam Bardin wrote a blog post that reflected: “Looking back, this reminds me of Western CEOs and China" - he went on to explain that every CEO thinks they can do China on their own terms and every one of them leaves thinking “ah well, that didn’t go as hoped but at least I learned about China”.

He says in 7 years Waze grew from 10 million monthly users to 140 million. This growth is criminally slow. The Waze growth inside of Google was slower than before they joined and Bardin describes a Catch-22 of being bound by corporate rules preventing them from doing clever distribution deals, in parallel with Google insiders not helping them out with Google promotion. His description of how big corporations pass around under-?>performing employees rings a bell too:

“Not being able to replace them with people that do have the right skills means that people are constantly trying to ‘offload' an employee on a different team rather than fire them... I learned the hard way that if another manager is recommending a great employee to hire, that they are probably trying to get rid of the employee since they cannot fire them.”

While he makes some eye-rolling Tech Bro comments along the way (‘You can say terrible things as long as your pronouns are correct’), his comments about some firms creating cool but unproductive environments rings true in places: ‘I was the weirdo who wanted to push things fast and expected some level of personal sacrifice when needed’. An engaging read to be filed as a prickly update to the Netflix Culture document for people who want their work to be entrepreneurial and aggressively demanding (for all the toxins that come with that…)

Here’s his blog post.


Last week’s Twitter thread about the summary of remote working got huge engagement - here it is if you missed it:

  • More than half of remote workers feel pressure to be available all of the time: Microsoft & CIPD published some research into working in the Pandemic - two-thirds of workers say their firms have given them what they need,

  • The latest round of US earnings calls have given us a glimpse into how firms are starting to buy themselves out of property leases. [NB: By the very nature of earnings calls we only get these glimpses from big international firms] Salesforce ($100m write-off), Pinterest (paid $88m to save $440m), Dropbox (wrote off $400m for unneeded offices that they hope to sub-let) - the trend to smaller definitely appears to have some truth to it.

  • More discussion here that hybrid working might be the worst of all worlds - the office becoming weaponised as a sign of commitment. It does seem to be there is going to be a degree of stratification in how this ends up. Some firms with almost complete remote policies, meeting in the office for summits. My feeling on this is that there is no hurry. We can work these things out pragmatically as time goes on. There’s no doubt that a gradual return to the office in July/August/September is going to create an appetite for more face-to-face interactions in the short term - then firms can work things out with experiments from there on out

  • An interesting MIT piece about how remote working might call for different models of managers. Coach, conductor or catalyst? Which sort of manager does your team need?

Make Work Better is created by Bruce Daisley, workplace culture enthusiast. You can find more about Bruce’s book, podcast and writing at the Eat Sleep Work Repeat website. You can always reach me by hitting reply. Sharing this email with a like-minded colleague earns fantastic karma.

Photo by Patrick Fore at Unsplash