The Insider - February 2023
On artificial intelligence, remote work, the resilience of cities, and the limitations of climate tech
Welcome to the February edition of the Insider. Do you know someone who would enjoy the Insider? Forward this email to them and they can subscribe here.
On artificial intelligence
It’s a mistake to ascribe sentience and self-sovereignty to the artificial intelligence chatbots that are parroting bizarre things back to humans, as captured in the recent dialogue between a New York Times reporter and Bing’s new AI chatbot. A chatbot’s erratic behavior reflects how the algorithms were trained, rather than revealing some autonomous being who inhabits the space behind our screens. AI chatbots have trained themselves on us: our writing, our online interactions, our absurdity. They don’t know what they’re saying. They’re just able to recombine the things we’ve said into something coherent but often untrue or disconnected from context and nuance. As the amount of content produced by AI scales exponentially, an even higher premium will be placed on humans to apply contextual knowledge, leverage ethical frameworks to steer through complex situations, and use good judgment to separate disinformation from truth. We should be more afraid of losing our judgment to AI than our jobs.
I don’t think we fully appreciate the seismic nature of the shift that remote work is causing for cities, local governments, and local economies. The post-pandemic new normal is just now coming into view. A recent podcast from Bloomberg reports that remote work is costing New York City $12 billion per year. One in three workdays is now performed remotely, only 48% of office space is occupied nationally, and foot traffic is down in central business districts since 2019. I’m curious about what these trends portend for everything: How and where we gather. The need to adapt office space. What will happen to parking lots. How municipal governments will shift taxation and campaigning. How our personal allegiances evolve between physical places and virtual ones. What do you think will happen? What should I be reading?
On remote work
I am less and less convinced that remote work is a successful model for early-stage companies looking to build ambitious things. My working hypothesis is that fully-remote workplaces are far better for mature, well-established companies than for startups. When everyone is reading from the same, perfected sheet-music, remote work can lead to no loss in progress or clarity. But for startups in the earliest stages, work looks far more like improvisational jazz than a practiced orchestra where everyone’s parts are clear and well-documented. When the stage of a company is more jazz than classical music, remote work can impede the collaboration of a team. Trust accrues more slowly in remote spaces, and the trust battery takes longer to recharge. The ability of a remote team to fully drop into a long, substantive debate on a major strategy maneuver is harder, and the unstructured time required to cultivate deep alignment and deep trust is often incompatible with the minced calendars of distributed teams.
On the limits of technology
One of the things I love about the climate tech space is how physical it is. It requires manufacturing solar panels, contractors swinging hammers, and tangible building in the real world. We’re at the dawn of a new industrial revolution to decarbonize the global economy that could represent as big a shift as the last industrial revolution. But for this to be true, it will require us to get good at something we’re not good at: building things. The technologies to tackle climate change will be available far faster than our ability to implement them. Fewer than one in five solar and wind projects actually gets connected to the electricity grid. We’re lacking hundreds of thousands of workers needed to power the energy transition. The aperture of what’s possible will be circumscribed by the permitting process of local agencies, by the time it takes to train new workers, by the on-the-ground realities that challenge the Silicon Valley theology of infinite growth at infinite speed.
On the 4-day workweek
A new study from the largest 4-day workweek pilot to date revealed (unsurprisingly) major benefits for both employers and employees. Across 61 UK-based companies, 3,000 employees took part in the pilot. The results were (to quote the study) “resoundingly positive.”
- 92% of companies who piloted the 4-day workweek decided to keep it long-term
- Burnout down by 71%
- Sick days down by 65%
- No loss in revenue
Momentum is building.
- The 4-day workweek is increasingly gaining press in top tier publications like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the BBC, the Washington Post, and others.
- In Maryland, a new, proposed bill would subsidize employers that try a 4-day workweek.
While the benefits of a 4-day workweek are increasingly well-documented, the real challenge is how to actually roll-out a 4-day workweek pilot and implement it. This is where Smart Workweek comes in. If you know of a company considering a 4-day workweek, forward this email to them so they can get a free start-guide, here.
Can you help?
- Who are your favorite climate journalists and publications?
- Interested in the future of work? I write a newsletter twice a month featuring trends, insights, and practical resources on the future of work for leaders and teams. Sign up here.
What I am reading
- The promise and fraud of Nikola, the hydrogen-powered electric semi-truck. How the newest climate technologies might be too good to be true. Wall Street Journal Podcast series.
- The rise and fall and complexity of the Buy Nothing community. How hard it is to build a distributed community online. WIRED.
- The charming idea that trees communicate and cooperate through a fungal web is being challenged. How the symbiosis between fungal networks and trees might be less strong than we thought. Scientific American.
- Ineffective communication costs US businesses $2 trillion each year. The state of workplace communication, according to Axios.
- Trends and charts in decarbonization. The state of climate change, visualized. Nathaniel Bullard.
Last October, my partner Lisa and I sat down with her parents to get advice on if we should rent a particular home in Denver. We showed up like McKinsey consultants: multi-tab financial spreadsheet, an analysis of opportunity costs and trade-offs, detailed insights into commute times, heating bills, and comparable rentals. Before we got too far into our presentation, Lisa’s mom told us she trusted our financial analysis, but wisely noted that it should not be the main calculus when considering the pros and cons of making a home. She shared a story of the first time she visited the home of her mother-in-law. The specs and location of the home didn’t matter, she explained, but when she was welcomed inside for the first time, she felt an overwhelming sense of peace. The sense of calm and love was undeniable, extending from the people who lived there into the space itself. Would this home, she asked us, be a home of peace for us in our first year of marriage? Would it allow us to cultivate a sense of financial peace between us? Would people notice it when they stepped inside? Suddenly my extensive quantitative research seemed unimportant. We moved forward and have been slowly making the house our own. Sometimes, to get to the other side of all the complexity and analysis, you just need that one question that reframes everything and cuts through it all.