I have a diary. I’ve been writing on it somewhat regularly since 2014. I find it extremely useful and I think everyone should at least give it a try. I do it for two reasons:

When writing, a diary is a great tool for organizing thoughts and making decisions. The process of writing forces you to articulate thoughts with much greater clarity than you could by just sitting down and thinking.

The other benefit of having a diary is being able to read it after some time. Our brains have a tendency of distorting our memories in some really nasty ways. A diary is like a brain-tampering-proof series of snapshots of our past thoughts and feelings.

Some weeks ago, I decided to read some old diary entries. I was specially interested in the period where the pandemic was starting and I began working remotely. I had this feeling on the back of my head for a while that I wasn’t evolving professionally as fast now as I was before the pandemic.

As I read my past entries in the diary, it became clear that it was just my brain painting an overly rosy picture of the past. Back in 2020, right before the pandemic started, my past self was already complaining about this very same feeling! It had nothing to do with remote work, it was just my unreasonable expectations once again.

In the process of reading these diary entries, however, something else became very clear: In office work was making me a better person in ways that were not even related to work.

You are (kind of) the average of the people you spend most time with

As I read these past entries, I began to realize how much I changed due to the influence of work colleagues.

From things like investments and career management, all the way to politics and the ethics of eating meat, work colleagues exposed me to new ways of thinking. In many cases, I did not agree with their opinions, but they broadened my views in very useful ways nonetheless.

After reading all the entries until remote work started, it became clear to me that these people were really making me smarter by osmosis. 1

Is this really the role of work colleagues?

There’s a perfectly reasonable argument to be made that exposing you to new ways of thinking about factory farming or the Boggleheads subreddit is not really the role of work colleagues. I am sure some people will read all of this and say “Just get some friends!”.

I mostly agree. Work should be about work, and if that’s all people want from work, they should definitely be able to get just that, without any sort of negative repercussion.

But these lost relationships were valuable to me, and I’m sure they were valuable to other people too. They’re mostly gone with remote work.

Building meaningful remote relationships

I’m not arguing against remote work. I love remote work. I don’t intend on going back to in-office work as long as I reasonably can. But I think we need to figure out ways to allow these relationships to flourish for remote work to really succeed for most people on the long run.

I’ve had many meaningful conversations that truly expanded my views over pure text alone. So I don’t think it really is a technical limitation. These are just not the kinds of conversations we’re having with our remote work colleagues. I feel like we just need to figure out the right culture and processes to allow them to happen. And again, if people don’t want to be part of them, that’s absolutely fine.

So how can we have these conversations on a remote setting? I don’t really have an answer, but I can offer some food for thought.

So how does the solution look like?

I see some colleagues just chatting about non-work stuff in scheduled meetings after the meeting discussions are finished, and I think that’s a good start, but far from a real solution. I also notice some teams have open video chat rooms that people can join at any point to talk about anything, like a virtual watercooler. Again, they don’t seem to have much adoption.

I’m a bit skeptical about a “cultural solution”, something that is officially integrated into company processes. You can’t just build meaningful relationships by having some scheduled meetings or doing some exercises proposed by someone from HR with your work colleagues. I feel like the solution will come from outside.

Heck, we as a society figured out dating on the internet. Some people have entire romantic relationships with people they’ve only known virtually and they’re happy. I’m sure we can figure out meaningful relationships with work colleagues.

Maybe it will take shape as a Slack alter-ego? A group chat app that is invitation-only. There would be no single official company profile, just some profiles created by employees where they can invite one another. Maybe some smaller private chat rooms? A central place where you can send internal tweets to everyone in the company? Messages that disappear over time? Optional anonymity? Am I just describing Discord? The solution space is quite big.

Chances are, we won’t figure this out on the first try. The first dating services looked a lot like facebook, in the end it turned out it was much better to just brute-force it and show people hundreds of pictures of strangers and ask if they look interesting.

  1. By the same logic, I was making them dumber. I would rather think it wasn’t quite like osmosis. ↩︎