For most people, the COVID-19 crisis has meant spending a lot more time online. While some of us were accustomed to working remotely and on our own - I’ve been in that situation on and off for more than 20 years - for many others, the past 10 months saw an involuntary change of circumstance.
The existence of platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams have enabled organizations to keep their workforces productive, as well as enabling families and friends to keep in touch at a time when close social interaction in person isn’t possible.
That’s all to the good, isn’t it? Well, yes, but there is a potential downside that’s becoming all the more pertinent as lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders are extended or re-introduced as COVID refuses to go away. In the UK, for example, the initial lockdown in March was supposedly for three weeks to “flatten the curve” of infections; flash forward to today and the nation is in its third lockdown, a state which is all too likely still to be in place when the anniversary of the first one comes around.
The truth is we’ve all ended up living our lives online for an awful lot longer than anticipated when the pandemic first hit last year. Some changes that have resulted are unlikely to go away. People are used to shopping online for groceries and having them delivered and may well be disinclined to going back to the store for the weekly shop. Equally, organizations in the main have managed to operate without everyone located in a city tower block, so does everyone need to go back to the office? Some of these are positives, maybe some negatives, depending on your point of view.
But people are essentially social beasts at heart and this is something that isn’t necessarily supported by a Zoom world. Yes, such platforms enable people to keep in contact, but let's face it, remote drinking over yet another Zoom trivia quiz doesn’t really live up to an evening down the pub with your best mates, does it? So the assumption is that as soon as social distancing restrictions are lifted, we’ll all race out to meet up with our friends, hug everyone within grabbing distance and generally revel in the escape from enforced isolation.
Or that’s the theory at any rate. There is however an alternative vision in which people have become institutionalised by their own effective ‘house arrest’, where fear of the virus - stemming from horrific casualty numbers and fuelled by 24-hour news cycles chasing ever more lurid headlines - makes staying safe inside a socially-distanced online realm appealing. In other words, what if the wholesale life-and-shift of life online has led inadvertently to the creation of a kind of COVID-enabled agoraphobia and a demographic of people who prefer isolation to socialisation?
If that theory stands up, it has significant implications for all sorts of businesses, from hospitality through retail to travel, as well as for the return to the workplace that we’ve heard lots about as the pandemic has progressed. With vaccines now rolling out, this debate about getting back into the office will ramp up, a sort of 'Holy Grail' of the supposed 'new normal' (whatever the hell that is). A number of enterprise tech providers have put a lot of highly-commendable effort into solutions and programs to facilitate such a safe return. But if the workforce, or a significant part of it, has become instinctively isolationist in the months since they were sent home to work, then all the tech in the world isn’t going to make those water cooler moments look as appealing as they used to be.
Admittedly all of this remains a matter of speculation at present, but it’s a set of considerations that every enterprise ought to be taking into account as it looks ahead to operating in the Vaccine Economy of 2021 and beyond. It’s a topic that was brought before the UK House of Lords’ COVID-19 Committee last week as part of that body’s ongoing work into examining and preparing for the long term implications of the virus outbreak on the economic and social wellbeing of the country. Evidence from expert witnesses to the Committee provides some useful food for thought that has relevance well beyond Britain’s borders.
For example, Olivia Field, Head of Health and Resilience Policy at the British Red Cross, provided a useful summation of the underlying issue:
Entrenched loneliness and isolation is a huge concern for us now with COVID. Many people have been isolating for the whole period since March, almost a year now. [We're] really concerned about those people's ability, even when it's safe to do so, to re-integrate and have the confidence to connect with those around them when there's an opportunity to do so.
Social platforms have been a boon on one hand, Field admitted, helping society to connect and function, with some of the people she’s dealt with in recent months saying they couldn’t have coped without them. But there’s a caveat:
At the same time, the majority have reflected that that online connections just haven't been as meaningful…as in-person ones would be. Many people report that it's actually much harder to broach difficult conversations, particularly about people's emotional needs, their feelings, including loneliness.
And loneliness is a scourge that has wide-ranging implications, she warned:
Loneliness is often about how satisfied you are, how meaningful your connections are, but actually for many people, everyday interactions provide a level of protection against loneliness that cannot be over-estimated. Many of the people we help have no support networks, they have no friends and family and they feel estranged from their neighbours. So actually they tend to rely on going to places like the supermarket and even just being able to recognise a familiar face, having somebody to have even quite superficial conversations with, can protect them from feeling really alone.
It’s an easy step from the supermarket to the office space, from the familiar face behind the checkout till to that person in the office whose name you don't really know, but who you chat to about last night’s TV when you’re both making a cup of tea in the kitchen etc etc.
There’s good reason to be concerned here, confirmed Robin Dunbar, Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Oxford, when considering how poorly the digital world can substitute for face-to-face interactions:
At the end of the day I think the digital world is is an amazing invention. It clearly works very well, otherwise people wouldn't sign up to social media in the way they do. However, all of our research points to the fact that nothing replaces face-to-face interaction. What digital media are is really a sticking-plaster…We have so many more cues in face-to-face interactions, just being able to stare into the whites of somebody's eyes as you talk to them, in a way that's impossible on almost any digital meeting really.
For his part, Dunbar doesn’t buy into “all the hype at the moment” around the 'Future of Work' and the assumption that remote working is here to stay. It’s been tried before, he reckons, in the late 1990s/early Noughties, when Big Business wanted to sell off city center tower blocks to save money and get employees to work more cheaply from home. It didn’t last, he told the Committee, for the simple reason that people spend more than half of their time in work and that’s where they make friends:
People seem to forget that the business of work, the business of any organization...works because people know each other. They know each other not by meeting online or face to face, but by having a meal together, having a chat in the corridor, having a coffee together, having a beer together in the bar. It's those kind of social environments that make the world of work go round. It won't take all the businesses and organizations which have been saying, 'Great, we can all go home and work from home' very long to realise that actually their efficiency starts to plummet very quickly.
Even given that premise - which popular thinking at present would appear to question - Dunbar did express concern about the possible impact of isolation on younger members of the workforce, those in their twenties:
We have this epidemic of loneliness in 20-somethings and the reason primarily is because they're leaving the natural social cocoon that they've been in - family, home life and the home community and then university and so on - and suddenly they're in the middle of a big city where they know nobody. They don't know where to go. The only place you've got to make friends is work, so if you take that away you run the risk of increasing loneliness among the younger generation.
Despite his misgivings, Dunbar does retain grounds for optimism and predicted one hell of a party in the offing:
We will all bounce back. If lockdown went on for several years, we'd probably be in serious trouble. It would be the equivalent of being locked up in prison and the consequences that that often has for people…All I can say is, just remember what happened last time we went through this [sort of pandemic], which was exactly 100 years ago. It was exactly the same [situation]. It was being terrified of having contact with other people and the Spanish Flu was much more contagious and much more lethal, so it was really very frightening for them. But what followed was the Roaring Twenties and they just went out and partied like crazy.
As I contemplate the tedium of Lockdown UK version 3.0, I’ll take that last thought quite happily.
That said, these are some interesting considerations that need to be fed into the 'return to the workplace' conversation. At diginomica, we’ve taken the position that this is something that’s not as straightforward as it might seem and certainly not a case of ‘vaccine’s here, everybody back to their desks!’. As noted above, a number of tech providers have done some excellent work in thinking about this challenge and coming up with enablers for a safe return to the office. But, as we’ve said in the past, ultimately this comes down to people and to levels of trust. Your employer has bought the XYZ solution from Vendor A and says it’s therefore safe to get back to your cubicle. But do you trust what your employer says? The trust deficit at play here is something that we’ve already seen evidence of.
The fact that most of us have spent so long now interacting with one another, carrying out day-to-days tasks and conducting huge chunks of our lives online is inevitably going to have an impact on us. For my part, I have no issue with working online, but I hate not being able to browse pointlessly around a shop, have a coffee on a whim in a cafe or meet friends in a pub. I’m first in line for all of those in the Vaccine Economy. Equally I know someone who reckons it will be 2022 (at least) before she’ll want to venture into any of those environments and who can’t imagine returning to a daily commute into London that was previously routine. The COVID complications aren’t going to vanish with a needle being stuck in our arms and that’s a reality that enterprises everywhere need to turn their attention to right now.