Roach: Remote possibility

As we emerge from quarantine, squint at the sun and begin to gather in groups giddy with reclaimed freedom — and return, at least partially, to the office — it is worth pondering how we have changed.
Empty Office
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As we emerge from quarantine, squint at the sun and begin to gather in groups giddy with reclaimed freedom — and return, at least partially, to the office — it is worth pondering how we have changed.

One of the most common observations is that our work world will never be what it once was. Laboring remotely will become the new norm for many in the post-virus economy.

The trend is good in many ways. It finally acknowledges the latitude that technology has allowed for a good while. We discovered how productive we can be when we don’t have to shower, shave, apply makeup, iron a shirt, hop in the car, swear at traffic while swilling coffee, arrive only to rush to the restroom and then breathlessly hunker down at our desks.

Zoom doesn’t even know if you brushed your teeth.

Tapping out this column is not my day job. Four decades ago, I started a small creative shop that produces video for all sorts of channels and brands. There are eight of us, plus a handful of valued freelancers. We weathered the pandemic and remote work remarkably well. But as the honcho I was nagged last year by concerns of what we were missing as we slogged, homebound, through a once-in-a-century cataclysm.

My first concern was that remote work was bad for teaching new people. There’s no substitute for what a newbie can pick up in an office simply by osmosis. You can absorb a lot about a company and its people just by sitting and watching. How they treat each other. How they answer the phone. And most importantly, whether you hear laughter.

I was also concerned it would hurt creativity. Some ideation requires solitude, but film production is a team sport. You make things better by bumping into each other or riffing over beers after a shoot. A superbly creative friend of mine in Chicago made a scrapbook of all the ideas that he had jotted down on cocktail napkins throughout his career. Some of those jots turned out to be worth millions. It’s a sight to behold.

The thing that bothered me most about our remote work was that Zoom is no place for conflict resolution. Conflict at work is inevitable and its resolution, if done effectively with a good heart, can make a business and its people better.

But body language speaks volumes during a pointed discussion. The remote world robs of us what we communicate without words. Nonverbal cues can be the most telling communication. After almost every presentation I’ve ever made, I’ve asked my cohorts a simple question: “How were the nonverbals?” Words can lie. Posture, eyes and hands don’t.

A final, maudlin confession about the remote world: I sorely missed being in the same room with my coworkers simply because of the human beings they are.

As Ricky Gervais and Steve Carell have proven, every office is a wonderful cast of characters. COVID-19 made me miss Joe’s wryness and quiet creativity. Becky’s lifesaving attention to the details that keep us on task. Jim’s (yes, we have a Jim) humor and willingness at a moment’s notice to hit the road to God-knows-where. Trish’s unselfish way of caring for everyone. Kevin’s (yes, we have a Kevin) friendly, sled-dog work ethic. Our new staffer Alex’s fresh eyes and energy. And young Anne’s discipline and talent that give one hope for the future of our species.

In a strange bit of foreshadowing, our office instituted Remote Fridays six months before the pandemic. That dumb luck put us a step ahead when the coughing began. Now that the masks are gone, we are adding Remote Mondays, too. Our folks have earned it.

But in the midst of this emerging new model, we cannot forget the heroic work of those who kept us fed and supplied. The ones who produced and administered the vaccines that have allowed mankind to emerge from darkness.

Those folks on farms and warehouse floors, or in masks and gowns, weren’t working remotely.

They were right there on the ground for all of us. Doing the work that must always be done.

The work that isn’t remotely remote.

John Roach, a Madison-based screenwriter and producer, writes this column monthly. Reach him at