A lot of us in the media, like many in the automotive industry, have learned a lot about working remotely these last couple of months.
Some conference calls and other routines stay the same. Other practices are modified or dropped based on priorities and what is possible. This is an important time for us to be working; we have the tools to do it from anywhere and we can just carry on.
But it isn't the same.
It isn't the same as a newsroom humming with theories and gossip and the latest actual news. It isn't the same as sharing coffee with a colleague, shaking the hand of a dealer or looking in the eye of a CEO.
We do the best we can. And compared with how our parents or grandparents worked, it's amazing what so many of us can do from our homes with this fabulous 21st-century technology.
But it isn't the same.
John Krafcik knows. The Waymo CEO was on a "Daily Drive" podcast last week with Automotive News Publisher Jason Stein (Shameless plug: My boss is getting great interviews and you should give them a listen at autonews.com/dailydrive.) and he talked about his newfound appreciation for face-to-face communication, as humans did before the advent of letters and emails and texts.
"Here and there, we've had a couple of important discussions where we had to have a face-to-face gathering — I was amazed, Jason, how that feels now with this new context and new baseline," Krafcik said.
He joked that the full experience of actual human interaction was exhilarating — "like having a great Wi-Fi signal."
Information is "moving very quickly. Communication is fluid and there's more signal, you know, compared to the less-signal-rich communication that a lot of us have tried to adapt to with videoconferences throughout the day."
He dutifully praised Google Meet as an excellent use of technology that happens to be made by another well-known part of Alphabet Inc. (I can back him up: When my yoga class couldn't meet on Zoom the other weekend, one student set up a Google Meet and, just like that, we all found inner peace … or something.)
But as good as video calls have become, "it lacks the three-dimensionality of a face-to-face conversation," Krafcik said.
There's value in being apart, particularly during a potentially fatal contagion. But there's also value in being together.
"I think when the world gets back to a more normal state, I think we're all going to really appreciate that [in-person connection] more than we have in the past."
Krafcik, whose career has included spells with Ford and Hyundai as well as TrueCar, said companies that focus on one thing — say, automaking, or in Waymo's case, an automated driving system — are best positioned for success in a tough economy.
It also helps to have money and friends. With its first external investments, totaling $3 billion, Waymo appears to have plenty of both. Adding outside board members such as Egon Durban, co-CEO of lead investor Silver Lake, gives Waymo "so much intellectual capital as well as capital-capital to help move the business forward."
And moving forward — eventually beyond COVID-19 — is going to require changes to how people work, building on what's happening during the pandemic.
Waymo has found that some groups can be even more productive from home, but other teams suffer. Those observations will shape the future workplace as well as spur ideas about how to minimize that productivity loss when people must work from home.
"I think we'll come out smarter when all is said and done," Krafcik said. "And that'll be the payback for the sacrifices that we are making right now."