My Home Office Struggle

My home office struggle

Remote first is the new normal. But what about those of us who desperately miss meeting our colleagues, who know how to navigate the office, and who don’t always appreciate mixing work and home space? Will we be outnumbered by a wide world competition or do we just need to break free to truly see the benefits? Join Dan Ouchterlony in his struggle.

Desperate for a human connection

It is March 24th, 2:49 in the afternoon and I have just wrapped up another video meeting. It has been the better part of two weeks since I met a colleague in the flesh, the very same people I normally see several days a week and with whom I thoroughly enjoy chatting, debating, teasing, analyzing and brooding. I deeply miss the instant gratification of office work.

Missing it to the extent that I am about to break corporate policy and possibly Public Health Agency corona-protocol and sneak over to a colleague’s home to meet up. Just sit and work together. Like we used to. Talk about things. Work. Comment on something. Work. Grab coffee. Work. A few of us have plotted this act of rebellion in sheer desperation for a human connection.

During a team meeting we sit in separate rooms in my colleague’s house, so that the others don’t know we broke curfew. Then we reconvene in the living room. As the afternoon becomes evening, we share a bottle of wine and a conversation over a meal, and in the taxi home I feel peculiarly energized. The time we spent was productive, the work we did was creative, I rationalize as the evening streetlights glare through the windows of the car. I cannot rationalize the fact that we hugged each other on the way out, but it felt really good.

Chi mangia solo, muore solo

The kitchen table is where the family spends most of our quality time together as we break bread, look each other in the non-digital eye, and share. As we partake in the deeply cultural, social and symbolic ritual of food, the family bonds deepen. I fondly remember feasts with my parents and grandparents. Thus, I have come to associate our round wooden kitchen table with a positive moment in time and as a positive place in space. Sitting down on the oak Windsor’s sheepskin pad infallibly puts me in a positive state of mind. At least it used to.

My Home Office Struggle
My Home Office Struggle

Today is April 20th, 9:35 in the morning, and I am anything but positive, despite being in a favorite place. My right shoulder is already stiff, after only an hour of work, and my mind is churning from worry over missing our Q1 targets and a colleague who is seriously ill with Covid-19. As I try to stretch and massage the nape of my neck, I see the post-breakfast mayhem of spilt coffee and unfinished dishes on the table, and the breadcrumbs in the corner of the room sharp in the unruly morning sunlight. An hour earlier I sat down my Macbook in a hurry as my 7-year-old needed more time than usual to get to school this morning. As I fixed my gaze on a puddle of tomato seeds, that just a moment ago were part of a delicious breakfast sandwich, a sense of dread and disgust came over me. Why have I brought the serpent into Eden, brought work into my family sanctum? What if I sit down for dinner tonight and think of an investment pitch instead of my family? I decided I need another place to work, and set up station in the master bedroom fully aware the ritual of work in this particular location will seep into the very precious ritual of end-of-day conversations with my wife. And work would trouble my sleep.

The more contact I have with humans, the more I learn

Conversations with entrepreneurs are normally the best moments of my working day. Their passion and energy is contagious, their unwarranted faith in the future and personal commitments inspiring, and I feel privileged to sometimes be part of their lives. In ”Skin in the Game”, philosopher N N Taleb explains how society is, in sum, a beneficiary of the results of entrepreneurship, as it evolves and progresses, while the median entrepreneur is in fact a victim. We do not read about them that often but know that the road to success is littered by failed startups, shattered dreams and burned out founders. To be an entrepreneur is to face overwhelming odds with little more than faith – and persevere. I salute you!

My Home Office Struggle
My Home Office Struggle

Today is May 13th, 4:35 in the afternoon, the kids will be home from school soon, and I have just been scolded, insulted and yelled at by a disappointed entrepreneur whose proposal I refused. My mind reels as I try to calm my bottled-up anger and shame with deep breathing, which is surprising in a Scandinavian setting, as losing control is unprofessional in almost any circumstance. Very rarely do these ranges of emotions seep through our stoic and rational facades. This is a professional failure for me. Saying ”no” to an entrepreneur is one of the singular moments of truth in professional investing, I would argue, where I hold someone else’s hopes for the future in my hand and crush it. Just as in a human relationship, I must crush it so gently, kindly, and constructively that I am – at least later – thanked for breaking a heart. This is why many in my profession practice ghosting, it-is-not-you-it-is-me, or other avoidance strategies. I think through my own actions and wonder why my concerned and empathic look and carefully crafted arguments did not work as well as they normally do, or how I so capitally misread the mood in the meeting? I give myself credit for only formulating the sharp responses to the outburst in my head, and for keeping my emotions rather hidden, but on the other hand, I shamefully recollect alt-tabbing away from the Google Meet window, wavering in the stream of emotions, and distantly humming along and excusing myself while gazing at the desktop wallpaper of my children. Are we losing the human touch in video meetings, all becoming Keyboard Warriors, not sensing or perceiving our disintermediated 2D-selves? Did I just do the equivalent of breaking up via text? I continue breathing. It is my daughter’s birthday today and I need to be at my best in a few minutes as we will celebrate together.

Co-working, in my home

It is Wednesday morning, June 2nd, around half past seven in the morning, and I am walking to work in the morning summer sun. The bridge from Gamla Stan to Central Stockholm is being repaired so I take the boat a short hop from Riddarholmen, as I watch heavy divers work on the pontoon construction. The cleaning company comes every Wednesday morning at 08:00 to freshen up our apartment. An everyday, tax subsidised luxury for the Swedish middle class, performed by the working class. That is why I now take a walk to the office to check the postal mail on Wednesdays. I might get a letter or two a month, but it needs to be checked regularly, right? Honestly, I am avoiding the cleaners. I cannot focus due to the noise of the vacuum cleaner, I tell myself, but frankly I cannot stand to see the work of cleaning being performed by someone else, someone I paid to do the work, in front of my eyes. I am too self-conscious of the class and power imbalance. And ashamed of myself for watching Netflix after a long day of work rather than vacuuming my own floors. Is that not terribly Swedish of me? I need to work on this, I decide, but I did not expect to cowork with strangers when I signed up for a cleaning subscription.

In contrast, I absolutely love coworking with my wife in our home. We typically sit in each end of the apartment, me in the bedroom, her in the living room, doors closed to muffle the sounds of endless video conferencing. We meet up in the kitchen sometimes, brew a fresh pot on the Technivorm Moccamaster together, and chat for a minute. Oftentimes she is back-to-back in meetings, so I stumble to the kitchen to pour myself a cup of ambition and sneak a peek at her from the kitchen door, working on the living room table, looking down into her laptop screen. I make some kind of sound, blow an air kiss, hold up the coffee pot pointing my finger in a silent question: refill? Who am I kidding? She always nods, so I tip toe over to pour a cup with a dash of milk and get a silent smile and a wink. My next meeting is usually a good one. What a privilege!

The future of work, and life

The vision of a remote-first workplace is a strong one, and shortly after the pandemic induced lock-downs, tech giants like Facebook, Twitter and Google announced remote work was now the new normal. Directors and Vice Presidents of Remote Work were hired and Zoom rocketed from tens of millions to hundreds of millions of users. US workers stopped commuting to the tune of 30-40 billion miles per month, and when they discovered that their big-city apartments were suboptimal workspaces, they started moving. According to real estate brokers and consulting firms interviewed by CNN, the number of signed leases for condos and co-ops in Manhattan dropped 50–60 percent in July. Where did people go? The rich people went to the Hamptons. The middle class to single family houses outside the city. In a pleading tone, Governor Andrew Cuomo has been begging New Yorkers to return to the city so they can continue contributing to the local economy: ”We’ll go to dinner! I’ll buy you a drink! Come over, I’ll cook!”

That was just the immediate impact. Is it becoming structural? Recently, fintech giant Stripe announced a USD 20,000 paycheck to employees that wished to leave cities in return for a 10 percent cut on their paychecks. When you can work from anywhere, why pay a premium for San Francisco, Manhattan or Seattle? When you are not commuting, countryside living certainly has its merits. And when your workers are remote, why not upgrade them with even remoter and cheaper workers?

Remote work visionary and entrepreneur Chris Herd, founder of Firstbase, thinks this is inevitable and predicts that a majority of desk jobs will be remote by 2029.

As I explain my doubts and emotions to Chris, he kindly reminds me I am caught in the middle. His hypothesis is that I haven’t reaped the full benefits of remote first. I am emotionally and structurally still connected to the office and its routines and modes of work. Break free and you will find time and space to be human, he says. ”Don’t you miss meeting your colleagues?” I ask. Chris says Firstbase is a remote-first company, and of course they will meet up soon. But will he bring the whole team together in Scotland, where he happens to live? Or will they all meet up in the Canary Islands, in a conference hotel suited to the task of bonding a startup team together? Certainly flights and accommodation are cheaper there off-season than in a metropolitan area.

I think about it, and perhaps the real reason I like the office is the fear of the unknown. I know how to navigate an office. How to be effective. I can protect my turf as my skills and relationships are a local scarcity. At some deep level I can justify my own worth. Perhaps what I am scared of is when the world of the desk worker, my world, truly becomes flat, and I compete with the best of the best from Bogota to Baghdad to Bangladesh. What will a 45-year-old office-rat brought up in a cubicle be worth then?

Predictions on the future of work and life

By Chris Herd, founder of Firstbase (abridged and slightly edited).

Diversity and inclusion

The most diverse and inclusive teams in history will emerge rapidly. Companies who embrace it will have a first-­mover advantage to attract great talent globally. Companies who don’t will lose their best people to their biggest competitors.

Output focus

Time will be replaced as the main KPI for judging performance by productivity and output. Great workers will be the ones who deliver what they promise consistently. Advancement decisions will be decided by capability rather than who you drink beer with after work.

Talent wars

Remote work is the perk that is most sought after by workers globally. This will only increase. Remote-first companies will disrupt every incumbent who doesn’t/isn’t able to make that transition.

Rural living

World-class people will move to smaller cities, have a lower cost of living & higher quality of life. These regions must innovate quickly to attract that wealth. Better schools and faster internet connections are a must.

Working too much

Companies worry that the workers won’t work enough when operating remotely. The opposite will be true and become a big problem. Remote workers burning out because they work too much will have to be addressed.

Bullshit tasks

The need to pad out your eight-hour workday will evaporate, replaced by clear tasks and responsibilities. Workers will do what needs to be done rather than wasting their time trying to look busy with the rest of the office.

International talent

Great for developing countries. International companies will have access to talent globally. Access to opportunity will be decentralized.

Accessible jobs

Remote work will make work more accessible than it has ever been. Nothing will stop workers getting the job they deserve because there will be no obstacles in their way.

Older workforce

Boomers may be standing in the way of the remote work revolution happening quickly, believe least in its benefits, and lack the trust for it to emerge. Ironically, remote work will allow them to work far more easily later in life.

Dan Ouchterlony

Dan Ouchterlony
SVP Schibsted Financial Services
Years in Schibsted
What I’ve missed the most during the Corona crisis
My colleagues