In these Covid times, the term “new normal” has been used extensively. I personally hate the term. I want to smash the term “new normal” against the wall until it never gets used again. Like many others, I feel that if this is the new normal, I don’t want much part of it. I was highly skeptical of the world being shut down like it was, and as this lockdown has progressed I’ve become more and more vocal and angry about the massive economic disaster it’s creating.
But I’m not going to argue that point. The internet, and Twitter in particular are rife with opposing takes on our reaction to the virus. There’s enough discussion about this out there.
One of the key talking points coming out of this ‘crisis’ is around the future of work. Specifically, the future of where we work. Working from home was obviously very topical in the early weeks of the lockdown, as if some people weren’t doing that once or twice a week anyway. As time went on the narrative has shifted to when, how and if we’ll ever work in the office again.
A piece from the Atlantic on 19 May ominously suggested that The coronavirus killed corporate culture. Get used to working from home.
A new report conducted by access-management company Okta among 6,000 office workers across Europe has found that just one in four UK respondents are keen to go back to the workplace full time.
A CNBC report through survey monkey of 9000 US workers showed that 44% are happier working from home since this pandemic began. 38% of respondents want to continue working from home once things go back to some element of normality.
An article in the UK’s Campaign Magazine on 20 May quotes Barclays chief executive Jes Staley saying that large numbers of people working together in a central office could become “a thing of the past.” The article also mentions French carmaker Groupe PSA saying that remote working will become the “benchmark” for any activities not directly related to production.
So the appetite is there. Not just from companies but from workers themselves. There’s a lot more of this research and sentiment out there. So much so that it almost seems a little too . . . co-ordinated. Now that the initial shock has worn off, people and companies alike are clearly getting into habits and understandably becoming more partial to the situation.
Yet I can’t help but wonder if much of this is incredibly shortsighted. I’m enjoying the more leisurely mornings and the absence of crowded tube rides just as much as anyone, but I don’t believe this is the world we want to be creating.
For the sake of my argument let’s ignore the property market meltdown which would result from a work-from-home world. Let’s also ignore the fact that many workers would suddenly now be competing with a worldwide talent pool, since it wouldn’t matter where someone is based anymore. I’m going to focus a little more on the human aspect of this.
It’s been a fear of mine for a long time. This fear that slowly but surely the world is moving into a state where humans are overly controlled. Where individuality is almost outlawed. A world where we all follow the prevailing narrative and rules like robots. A world where life’s character is extinguished. So of course I fear that a world forced to work from home would be a world that has shifted ever closer to this state of affairs.
Aside from the Dystopian fear, I have a very deep concern for the nature of the corporate world, and indeed humanity itself.
So much of life itself exists within the realm of the office walls. The clichéd idea of conversations around the water cooler are in fact a very real thing, and important. Even if they don’t involve an actual water cooler. It’s a chance to let off steam, have a laugh, connect with people and enjoy the fact that work isn’t just about work. Maybe grab beer every now and then with a couple of colleagues you get on well with. This is what life is about.
Since the beginning of our species humans have been social creatures. From birth we require that human bond, and as we grow it’s the social interactions which grow us. If we stop going to work among other people face to face, we stand to lose part of a major pillar which makes us human. We thrive around other humans, we need it whether we like it or not, and the best moments in life are experienced with other people. This cannot happen behind a screen. Spending a career working from home will likely lose many of us a wealth of valued experiences.
I’ve met some of my most important friends at work through the years. These are friendships which would never have developed in a purely virtual working world. The reason for this is pretty simple — in virtual work environments, the only time people talk to each other are scheduled meeting calls. That’s it. There’s also the small fact that I also met my own wife in the office environment.
Of course, it’s easy to sit there at home working and keep up the good relationships you already have with colleagues through chat and call. But that’s the point — you already have these relationships. I’ve seen the other side of this. I joined a new company on 1 April, during the lockdown. To date I haven’t met a colleague face-to-face. I haven’t had a side conversation with any of them about life, family, sport, my country of origin . . . nothing. It hasn’t been pleasant in that regard. How do you build a decent company environment this way?
One of the more prominent trends that has grown in the corporate world in the last ten years or so is that of company culture. It’s become a pretty big deal, with companies spending large amounts of time, resources and money into building great company cultures. In reality, I’ve always said that good company cultures grow organically. They grow through people of complementary types working well together, and given the platform to work well together from leadership. And yes, often this involves friendships. They aren’t created by posters on the wall, catch phrases or expensive employee programmes. And they certainly can’t be created virtually. Any company that thinks it can have a culture virtually is sorely mistaken. What you’ll find is that all companies will end up having the same company culture . . . none.
I’ve been on one or two of these ‘social calls’ where a number of employees get together in a virtual meeting, over a drink. It turns into a mess. Four people end up talking over each other, conversation is stunted, and I found I missed a few opportunities to get a word in, because I was too slow. It just doesn’t work.
We’re human. We’re social animals, even us introverts. Let’s not be too eager to give that up in favour of Big Brother Covid. As I keep saying, let’s take our chances in a Covid world, rather than exist in a world not worth living in. Count me out of this dystopian Brave New World.