Since March, most of our working lives have moved to two dimensions. We stare at screens instead of interacting physically. Moving to remote has implications that cascade beyond just needing to find spaces in our houses to work.
Scientist, theorist, and all-around genius Geoffrey West recently described in-person and working as 4-dimensional. While technological progress in software is remarkable and has helped us tread water, West believes it is still far behind being in person and it is creating a gap in our ability to work and progress as a species.
"We have Zoom and Skype and all the other mechanisms and they serve a purpose. And they've done remarkably well, I must say, I'm amazed how well they've done, but they are two-dimensional. They’re soulless, they're not four-dimensional, and unless we invent — which we may well — much more sophisticated versions, we're kind of stuck with having to agglomerate together in physical, three-dimensional space and be with one another. And there's nothing more satisfying then having an exciting get-together, have a group of people creating new ideas, having discussions, watching a football game together, watching a film together, going to the theater, having sex together, and so on."
How can we think through the gaps that we are leaving behind by moving to remote working? Let’s start by thinking about how we define business culture and process. As I outlined in my recent blog post about the remote working opportunity, the most common approach to spreading culture and process is osmosis: one person tells the person next to them and so on. Of course, this doesn’t work in a remote world, so more enlightened companies have recognized that they need a more sustainable solution in the form of the written word, most commonly referred to as documentation and playbooks. This model of documentation has been proven effective over many millennia. While the Bible isn’t that old in the context of the total time humans have been around, it does provide an illustrative example of documentation in action. Here is Moses and The Ten Commandments:
"The LORD delivered unto me two tablets of stone written with the finger of God. Hew thee two tablets of stone like unto the first: and I will write upon these tablets the words that were in the first tablets, which thou brakest."
While we’ve moved past stone tablets, the principles of documenting things to allow for the dissemination of ideas, particularly within groups, has obviously stuck around. The process should seem antiquated, documentation like The Ten Commandments was combined with one of the great working systems invented in the 20th century, an office and the concept of a workplace culture, that helps all this information of a company to be learned through osmosis, largely, in person. The subtle reflections of words and meaning that happens through gestures, tones, mannerisms, and other audio and visual cues. This is what Geoffrey West gets at the idea of working in person being 4 dimensions and how it can’t simply be replaced with the current technology offerings we have created.
In the world of progress not only should we always be striving to make 4-dimensional work better, we should be looking at moving on and adding more dimensions to how we interact, learn and work. But what happens now? As we reset 4-dimensional working, it appears we are going back to the very basics and relying on less than 4 dimensions. Let me try to break that down.
The Different Dimensions of Work
1 Dimension: Writing something down. This could be the 10 commandments on a slate or Word doc that lives in Sharepoint
2 Dimensions: A video/audio recording and/or a Zoom meeting
3 Dimensions: Something more than Zoom, I will try to get at that more below
4 Dimensions: In person with an established office culture
5 Dimensions: Well, I’m no physicist but this would be the next frontier and what we are striving to create. Wikipedia defines five dimensional space as:
If interpreted physically, that is one more than the usual three spatial dimensions and the fourth dimension of time used in relativistic physics. It is an abstraction which occurs frequently in mathematics, where it is a legitimate construct.
The logical challenge we now face is in trying to move as much of our current work as possible back up to the 4th dimension while realizing that the old system (all in the same office) is probably a thing of the past or at least now a hybrid model to take advantage of the offerings that come with building a remote culture. How can we create better digital interactions that bring us closer to the 4th dimension? One place to look is a platform like YouTube. Whenever I ask someone if they would rather look something up in an instruction manual or search in YouTube, they quickly choose the video or book.
When compared to the manual that came in the box, YouTube occupies far more dimensions. What makes it work so much better?
- Intent: It understands my intent (via search) and shows me exactly what I need. Instead of a table of contents, YouTube will cut the video to the part I searched for, making it so I don’t even need to watch the whole thing.
- Object + explanation: By having it in video I can see the instructor and I can see the object or product they are working on. Trying to understand how to access the battery kill switch in a van comes is made significantly easier when you see someone else do it with the exact same model.
- Personality and Nuance: The written instruction manual has little to know nuance outside of using typeface for emphasis (bold, caps, italics, etc) and photos or illustrations (warning sign, Ikea stick figures, etc). In the video you can watch the user use their tone, inflect on things and share empathy with you in solving something
- Feedback loop: I can almost always tell how good a video will be by looking at the thumbs/down and while YouTube comments are, well, we all know, there can be some signal in there that can also provide context. This loop also incentives good videos that get voted up and help YouTube surface more relevant videos
Is YouTube better than even in-person instructions? In many ways it is. The person won’t sit there as you ask them to repeat themselves 15 times, often in slow motion, or recommend other things for you to do when they are gone. While we won’t ever leave in-person instruction behind—wanting to be in groups is clearly part of our nature—there are occasions and use cases like fixing things and cooking that clearly lend themselves well to this sort of approach.
Unfortunately, the state of work today isn’t all perfectly crafted how-to YouTube videos and the myriad things we are asked to do on a daily basis isn’t always a search away. Productivity and work will take a hit if we can’t innovate our way out of 1, 2 or 3-dimensional working and then we need to make great leaps in getting to the next dimension of work that right now is only theory.
What do you think? I hope to hear from you.