Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 171: Remote work forever; the psychology of ambition; the EU on China; and more...

Remote work is here to stay

Welcome new readers! Thoughts in Between is a newsletter (mainly) about how technology is changing politics, culture and society and how we might do it better.

It goes out every Tuesday to thousands of entrepreneurs, investors, policy makers, politicians and others. It’s free.

Forwarded this email? Subscribe here. Enjoy this email? Forward it to a friend.

We talked last year in TiB 117 about the potential for the massive, COVID-enforced experiment in remote work to boost innovation: you lose in-person collaboration but, the argument goes, gain access to huge, previously untapped talent pools (I wrote this piece in Wired on the topic). Not everyone agrees. Claire Cain Miller has a good piece this week in the NYT on the battle for the future of post-pandemic work. As she notes, remote-averse CEOs tend to cite the importance of serendipitous office-place interactions for innovation.

But there’s little evidence for this. Miller points to this piece by Ethan Bernstein of HBS, which suggests that modern open plan offices are actually peculiarly bad at facilitating in-person interaction. This thread by Richard Florida presents the counter argument. The Allen Curve - the idea that communication is inversely proportional to physical proximity - seems to have held up in the internet era, at least in the pre-pandemic world.

Nevertheless, remote work is here to stay. This new paper suggests that working from home will likely be four times as common in the post-COVID equilibrium as it was before the pandemic. Moreover, expect the debate on remote work to take on a culture war dimension. As Miller notes in the NYT (and evidence such as this paper underlines) remote work tends to have particularly strong benefits for some marginalised groups. I suspect there is no return to the status quo ante.

EU's (not?) afraid of the Big Bad China?

Bruno Maçães has an excellent column in Politico (plus a follow up in his Substack) on the US and Europe’s contrasting strategies on China. The difference, Maçães says, is that the US sees China as a rival across all spheres of activity (“strategic rivalry”), while the EU wants to limit conflict to the political sphere and pursue economic partnership (“systemic rivalry”). This framing helps illuminate the proposed Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), which would strengthen China-EU economic ties, and greatly frustrated the US.

Is it possible to separate economic and political conflict with China, though? As Maçães notes, it is not a distinction the CCP itself makes - which is one reason the CAI remains unsigned: the EU’s decision to sanction Chinese officials involved in repressing the Uighur population has made Beijing unwilling to push forward with what it saw as fundamentally a political agreement. Maçães praises the EU’s strategy, which he sees as more coherent than the America’s.

Presumably, though, this comes down to whether China blinks: are deeper economic ties with Europe worth doing business on Europe’s terms? I’m skeptical that this is the conclusion Beijing will reach. We talked in TiB 86 about China’s growing willingness to use its economic power to project its values and demand acquiescence from anyone who wants to access its market (Derek Thompson has called this the “values tariff” - worth a read). See also TiB 88 on “What China Wants”. The EU may well find that pursuing economic integration alongside moral authority just means giving up on both.

Podcast: Gena Gorlin on the psychology of ambition

One of the most interesting people I've met in the last year (thanks Anna!) is Gena Gorlin, an academic and practising psychologist who specialises in working with "ambitious innovators" such as entrepreneurs. We've been so impressed by Gena's work and the impact it can have on founders that we've been working with her in my day job at Entrepreneur First to give nascent startup teams access to her expertise as they begin their startup journeys. This week's TiB podcast episode is a conversation with Gena on her work and the ideas that underpin it.

The nature of ambition and its impact on the ambitious are big themes in Gena's work (and long-time obsessions of mine). In our conversation we discuss the idea that being ambitious today is lower risk than at any other time in history - it's much less likely to get you killed, for example, than a few hundred years ago - but that accessibility of opportunity can create a real psychological burden: if anything is possible, why haven't you achieved more?

In the episode, Gena talks through how she helps founders and other ambitious people navigate questions like these. We also discuss:


Quick links

  1. Threads offline, bread's online? Which pandemic shopping habits will stick? Interesting early evidence.
  2. It's a mean business. How wealthy is the US? It depends what kind of average you use (Lots of great nuggets in this thread)
  3. If I can see you... "The 2,000 stars where aliens would catch a glimpse of earth".
  4. Vive le brain drain? Almost a quarter of American billion-dollar companies are started by Indians.
  5. The unfairer sex (gap). Female startup CEOs took big pay cuts during COVID. Their male counterparts didn't, data suggests.

The bit at the end

Thanks for reading all the way to the end. If you'd like to help me out, please forward this to someone who might like it or share it on Twitter or LinkedIn.

As ever, do just hit reply to send me your comments, questions or ideas.

Until next week,

Matt Clifford

PS: Lots of newsletters get stuck in Gmail’s Promotions tab. If you find it in there, please help train the algorithm by dragging it to Primary. It makes a big difference.