Back in the mid-90s, just as Netscape Navigator was giving us our first look at what the visual internet could be, web design came in two flavors.
There was the ultra basic stuff. Text on a page, maybe a masthead graphic of some sort. Nothing sophisticated. It often looked like traditional letterhead, or a printed newsletter, but now on the screen. Interactions were few, if any, but perhaps a couple links tied a nascent site together.
And there was the other extreme. Highly stylized, lots of textures, 3D-style buttons, page curls, aggressive shadows, monolithic graphics cut up with image maps to allow you to click on different parts of a single graphic, etc. This style was aped from interactive CD/DVD interfaces that came before it.
Both of these styles — the masthead with text, and the heavily graphical — were ports. Not adaptations, but ports. Designs ported from one medium to another. No one knew what to make of the web at that time, so we pulled over things we were familiar with and sunk them in place. At that time, Web design wasn’t web design – it was print design, multimedia/interactive design, and graphic design. It took years for native web design to come into its own.
The web became great when designers started designing for the web, not bringing other designs to the web.
Porting things between platforms is common, especially when the new thing is truly brand new (or trying to gain traction). As the Mac gained steam in the late 80s and early 90s, and Windows 3 came out in 1990, a large numbers of Windows/PC developers began to port their software to the Mac. They didn’t write Mac software, they ported Windows software. And you could tell – it was pretty shit. It was nice to have at a time when the Mac wasn’t widely developed, but, it was clearly ported.
When something’s ported, it’s obvious. Obviously not right.
Stuff that’s ported lacks the native sensibilities of the receiving platform. It doesn’t celebrate the advantages, it only meets the lowest possible bar. Everyone knows it. Sometimes we’re simply glad to have it because it’s either that or nothing, but there’s rarely a ringing endorsement of something that’s so obviously moved from A to B without consideration for what makes B, B.
What we’re seeing today is history repeat itself. This time we’re not talking about porting software or technology, we’re talking about porting a way to work.
In-person office work is a platform. It has its own advantages and disadvantages. Some things are easier in person (meetings, if you’re into those), and some things are harder (getting a few hours to yourself so you can focus, if you’re into that).
Remote work is another platform. It has its own unique flavor, advantages, and disadvantages. Its own efficiencies, its own quirks, its own interface. Upsides, downsides, insides, and outsides. It’s as different from in-office work as the Mac is from Windows. Yes, they’re both operating systems, and methods of computing, but they’re miles apart where it matters. The same is true for the difference between in-office work and remote work. Yup, it’s all still the same work, but it’s a different way to work.
In-office and remote work are different platforms of work. And right now, what we’re seeing a lot of companies attempt to port local work methods to working remotely. Normally have four meetings a day in person? Then let’s have those same four meetings, with those same participants, over Zoom instead. It’s a way, but it’s the wrong way.
Simulating in-person office work remotely does both approaches a disservice.
This is often what happens when change is abrupt. We bring what we know from one to the other. We apply what we’re familiar with to the unfamiliar. But, in time, we recognize that doesn’t work.
The enlightened companies coming out of this pandemic will be the ones that figured out the right way to work remotely. They’ll have stopped trying to make remote look like local. They’ll have discovered that remote work means more autonomy, more trust, more uninterrupted stretches of time, smaller teams, more independent, concurrent work (and less dependent, sequenced work).
They won’t be the ones that just have their waste-of-time meetings online, they’ll be the ones that lay waste to the meetings. They won’t be the ones that depend on checking in on people constantly throughout the day, they’ll be the ones that give their employees time and space to do their best work. They won’t be the ones that can’t wait to pull everyone back to the office, they’ll be the ones that spot the advantages of optionality, and recognize a wonderful resilience in being able to work from anywhere.
And they’ll be the ones that finally realize that there’s nothing magical about the office. It’s just a space where work can happen, but not where it must happen. Anytime a myth is busted is a good time.