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Focus on Bubbling with Colleagues

Have you heard of any companies that were remote-only prior to the pandemic that then decided to shift to in-person work after the virus had spread? 

I hadn’t either—it’s not an obvious move. But then someone told me about Iron Fish, a San Francisco cryptocurrency company that did exactly that, shifting from remote to in-person in August. I reached out to the founder and CEO Elena Nadolinski, to understand better why, believing that it might be thought-provoking for the rest of us. “Oddly enough, it has really worked out,” says Nadolinski, a former Airbnb and Microsoft software engineer.

The story was even more unusual than I thought. Not only did Nadolinski and her colleagues start working together in a San Francisco office last summer, about two years after the company’s founding. But in January four of them began bubbling, living together in a Sonoma home that Nadolinski, who is 28 years old, rented so that they could be face-to-face full time ahead of a product launch. 

Iron Fish is a small company, with only five employees at this point. So that limits how broadly applicable some of the takeaways from their experience are. But maybe take a moment to think about how much you’d need to be paid to agree to bubble with your colleagues—if close in-person contact isn’t part of your job currently—and consider what Iron Fish learned along the way:

  • Onboarding and training benefit from being in-person. The original impetus for finding an office was the arrival of several new employees. Nadolinski believed that it would be harder for them to understand the startup’s technology if she had to train them remotely, and the in-person approach confirmed that for her.
  • Some people are grateful to go to an office. Nadolinski called each of Iron Fish’s employees separately to see if they were willing to work together in person, telling them it was totally optional. One staffer’s wife is on Zoom calls all the time, and he was finding it hard to focus at home. “Oh my gosh, I have to get out of this apartment,” Nadolinski says he told her. This colleague goes to the office every day, while another one is there just two days a week.
  • You need to trust the people you’re working with—and ideally have a similar risk profile. The team has been working together in the office without masks. They originally drew up a document with basic expectations around things like washing hands and wearing masks outside, and transparency about the pandemic risks each of them was taking. But Nadolinski says they haven’t consulted that recently, and ultimately it comes down to trusting the people you’re working with. “If we’re going to be doing this, you have to be responsible here,” she says they discussed. “Don’t go to parties. Don’t go to raves or whatever.” Anyone who takes an airplane is expected to get tested before coming back to the office. 
  • Some work is still easier when you’re in person. Tools for collaborating remotely, including writing computer code together, do exist. “But it’s still so much easier to just go to a person and say, ‘Hey, I need help here. Can you help me?’’ says Nadolinski. “And the speed of your solving that problem is just way higher than if you were to do it remote.”
  • It’s a good time to lease office space. Nadolinski rented what she describes as a large, beautiful furnished office with much more room than the four of them need in San Francisco for about half what it might normally go for. She paid $2,400 monthly to begin with, though agreed to increase that to $2,800, and organized daily cleanings.
  • Bubbling with colleagues can work, if you have the right perspective. The team got tested prior to heading off together to the house in Sonoma that Nadolinski rented. “This house has been really great for our productivity and morale level,” she says. “Just seeing people and seeing them after work without worrying has been really, really great.” Nadolinski believes that she hasn’t had trouble separating her work time from the rest of her life, and if they weren’t bubbling she still wouldn’t be seeing her friends—so she’d rather bubble than be alone. 

Is Iron Fish renewing the Sonoma rental after this month? Nadolinski laughs. “This house has been really great and I think it’s healthy to do these things once in a while,” she says. “But, if you see your coworkers every single day, giving it a break…” she trails off, chuckling. 

What Else You Need to Know

Jeff Bezos is stepping down as CEO, but Amazon’s anti-union efforts are revving up. The more than 5,800 workers in the online retailer’s Bessemer, Alabama warehouse are expected to start voting this month on whether to unionize—and Amazon, the nation’s second-largest employer, is making a push to keep them from doing so. A yes vote would make Bessemer the first unionized Amazon facility in the country. 

  • Amazon has pushed to delay the vote and argued against allowing mail-in ballots. Bloomberg reports that workers in the warehouse are being required to sit through anti-union information sessions.
  • Amazon’s $15 starting wage and health benefits, as well as high turnover in its warehouses, have undermined some of the momentum for unionization. 
  • But a Bessemer win by the union camp would have tremendous significance for other efforts to organize Amazon’s more than 800,000-person US workforce. 
  • Just 10.8% of American workers were union members last year, compared to 20.1% in 1983. 

The Bessemer contest could presage increasing union activism, especially since the Biden administration has signaled it’s on their side—“I’m a union guy,” the president told business leaders after the election. 

Older workers are staying on the job, and finding remote options attractive. About 20% of Americans over 65 are employed, compared to 10% in the mid-1980s. Bloomberg reports that the possibility of avoiding commutes and office face-time is proving attractive to those who otherwise might retire.

Airline pilots are making errors because they’re out of practice. They’ve lined up with the wrong runways, and come in for landings too fast or too high—saying mistakes are happening because they’re not flying much and are rusty.  Airlines flew almost 50% fewer flights last year compared to 2019, and as of the end of 2020 about one-third of commercial airplanes were still in storage. There are no reports of passengers being injured because of the mistakes. 

  • But it’s a reminder as we prepare for more Americans to resume their normal work amid the vaccine rollout and anticipated economic recovery in the coming months. A lot of us will find that we’re out of practice at lots of things—from actual work tasks to in-person office social banter. 


Your friends help shape whether you’ve been acting responsibly during the pandemic. Researchers studying Facebook data found that people with friends in places with major Covid outbreaks are more likely themselves to stay at home, and more likely to post in support of social-distancing measures.  

A Supreme Court shift to remote audio-only proceedings has some advantages, according to justice Stephen Breyer. The teleconference format, along with specific time allotments, “required considerable concentration, perhaps more than normal, and I think that was a good thing,” Breyer told an interviewer. But Breyer, who dialed in from his home in Massachusetts, regretted that there was less laughter than during in-person sessions. “There rarely is a light moment,” he lamented.
How did we not see the return of the balaclava coming? Forget Zoom collars and leggings. The pandemic wear we should have been focused on is the balaclava—essentially a hat plus a mask built in—which the Wall Street Journal says is making a comeback. “Functional yet creepy,” is the Journal’s bottom-line assessment of the full-faced ski masks.

The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive this briefing by email.