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Does remote work kill innovation? Silicon Valley’s big question

When the pandemic finally ends, entrepreneurs, engineers and experts agree that one thing is clear: Silicon Valley will never be the same.

The shift to out-of-the-office employment will permanently change the way work gets done in a region where the creation of world-changing ideas has long relied on face-to-face collaboration. But one giant uncertainty looms.

“Are you still as creative and is the feedback loop still as rich and fast over Zoom as it is in person? That’s the million-dollar question,” said Silicon Valley startup guru Steve Blank, who teaches at Stanford University and co-created a five-day course intended to help businesses of all types recover from the pandemic.

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The coronavirus outbreak has pushed the Valley into a new reality of remote work requiring far more communication by video, by email, by chat platform. To what extent the technology industry in the Bay Area will return to the office remains unknown. Twitter has said many of its workers can work from home forever, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he expects up to half the firm’s workforce may be remote within five to 10 years. People in every sector of the business say that because office-rental costs can be saved, commuting can be cut, and employees and employers can have the freedom to work and recruit from virtually anywhere, “distributed” workplaces are here to stay.

“We have this historic opportunity to reorganize working life and to rethink where people live and where they work,” said Bay Area venture capitalist Peter Rojas, a partner at Betaworks Ventures.

Still, in virtually every sector and position in the tech industry, people have learned that remote work can make innovation very, very hard.

“Fast feedback is what we’re all about in this town. That’s what’s gone away,” said software engineer and entrepreneur Joyce Park, who has worked in tech in the Valley for more than 20 years. To Park, that’s a big problem.

In an office, a tech worker can collar a colleague or two, sketch out an idea on a whiteboard, get input, explore new possibilities and possibly contribute something of value. “If you have a dumb idea or people hate your idea then you don’t have to spend more time fleshing it out, and that means you don’t have to spend more time defending it,” Park said. “When you’re trying to do really innovative work, it takes so many meetings. Zoom meetings are different than normal meetings because they’re much more performative. Most engineers aren’t really in the putting-on-a-show business.”

People tend to think ideas presented via video, even using increasingly popular collaboration apps such as Mural, must be more polished and “pretty,” which can lead to wasted time, Park said. “Pretty is the death of innovation.”

Park also worries about young tech workers, who represent the future of innovation and aren’t in offices absorbing knowledge. “Who’s going to mentor them, who’s going to make them successful?” she said. “A lot of the craft is just seeing problems and seeing how they were successfully or unsuccessfully solved.”

At Carnegie Mellon University’s Silicon Valley outpost, Tarun Wadhwa has taught a course on new innovation methods for four semesters. The most recent class took place this spring — remotely.

“The sparks wouldn’t fly,” Wadhwa said. “The students were just as brilliant as they’ve always been but the class wasn’t as able to help them advance that brilliance as it once was.”

What was missing, Wadhwa suspects, was the free-flowing, back-and-forth-and-sideways exchange of ideas that happens in person, especially during extra-curricular gatherings such as when students from different teams and different backgrounds go out for coffee together after class.

The deficiencies of out-of-office work may be fewer for projects close to the final stage, or when a team is just “chasing taillights” to imitate another company’s successful product, Park said.

Mike Strasser, whose mechanical engineering career and current employment as general manager of Campbell med-tech startup Imperative Care straddle the hardware and software worlds, believes a reduced ability to develop a rapport with colleagues when working apart poses problems across both sectors. However, the problem is worse in hardware, where teams can’t pass a prototype around a table, and easier in software, especially with collaboration apps supplementing video meetings.

The move to remote work has forced technologists to find new solutions, Strasser noted, such as relatively inexpensive 3D printers that can make prototypes at home. Even for software innovation, it may just take time to regain and even add capabilities, he believes. “We might emerge in a more efficient way with these tools that at first we weren’t really used to using,” Strasser said.

Prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper sees significant but diminishing value in face-to-face work, and believes that as technology improves, more work will go remote. He and many others foresee a hybrid future for the Valley in which the type of work, type of company, and workers’ personal preferences determine who’s in the office — or even the Bay Area — and who isn’t.

In-person meetings might take place weekly, monthly or quarterly, in shared workspaces or attractive destinations. “You could go to the beach, Pajaro Dunes,” Strasser proposed. “You basically offset those costs by rather than spending it on rent you’re spending it on travel expenses for that quarterly meeting, which ultimately will be a lot cheaper than maintaining an office and forcing yourself to hire people who are local.”

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