My uncle works for the FDA in Maryland. When I visited him last year, he excitedly told me that they are getting more high-tech and encouraging their employees to work from home. Coming from Silicon Valley, this struck me as pretty funny. My friends at Pivotal Labs, a top software consulting company, insist that their clients work in the same office as them; tech companies routinely pay to relocate great developers so that they can work together in-person; and one startup even enshrined the importance of working in-person in its employee handbook. While the government catches on to a trend that many tech employers embraced a decade ago, some of the most cutting-edge companies are throwing out technology almost entirely when it comes to communication and going back to the most low-tech approach of all: talking face-to-face.
The same process is happening now in education. A decade ago, online education started exploding, and now a discussion is taking shape at the University of California about how to move many of their classes online. At the same time, the tech world is moving in the opposite direction, as small, in-person web development training classes like Epicodus have started popping up across the country.
I think it boils down to this: we’re social creatures, and we communicate best in person. When you’re trying to figure something out, asking somebody else often helps you figure out the answer yourself, and answering somebody else’s question helps you understand the concept more deeply. When you have a new idea, somebody else’s perspective can help take it in a new direction you would never think of on your own. When you have a conflict, talking it out is the only way for each of you understand the other and come to a resolution. Sure, all of these can be done by phone or email. But being in the same room as other people makes it easy to ask that question, brainstorm that idea, or work out that problem, in a way that other forms of communication simply don’t have.
It’s easy to forget how new all communication technology is: the phone only became widely available a few decades ago, and widespread email use is just a bit over a decade old. We’re still learning how to incorporate these technologies into our lives, and new forms of communication can dramatically change how many of us communicate in a very short period of time: witness how quickly we stopped calling each other when texting became cheap, and how fast Facebook replaced many of our personal emails. It’s going to take time to figure out which forms of communication work well in which situations, but I think it’s clear that sometimes the oldest ways are the best.