From grappling with remote collaboration to the lack of a clear demarcation between home and the office, shifting to collective home working has dramatically changed our experience of work.
As a social and cultural anthropologist, I’m interested in our sense of self; how we relate to others and to our environments. Usually extreme circumstances and how we react to them live in the land of speculation: it’s a hypothetical zenith nobody wanted to see happen. But now we’re here, we can learn a lot by looking at our collective experience and how it feels to live like this.
Here’s what I’ve observed.
Ok, William Carlos Williams said it first, but we’re all feeling the shifting sands of time in lockdown. It flickers between days that both fly – and crawl – by. We’ve lost ingrained routines that bookend the working day, like commuting, and replaced them with new habits – not all of them helpful. If you’re not careful, what you lose in your commute you gain in front of your emails.
Along with this comes two related notions: our sense of expectation and the feeling that our lives are on hold.
Digital connectivity means we are always just a message away. But this fosters an unachievable sense of expectation that everyone is ‘always on’. We’re attempting to navigate those relationships and our expectations differently, since we can’t simply walk over and notice when others are engrossed.
And of course, lots of us feel like our lives are in suspended animation. In anthropological theory, there’s a longstanding idea of liminal states – a sense where things seem caught in transition. With no deadline to work towards we can fall into a state of inertia. Storytelling and a steady recognition-based drumbeat of comms is vital for businesses looking to keep their people interested and motivated.
Right now, our worlds feel like they’re shrinking and we’re not straying far beyond our own four walls. Places that once didn’t seem far – perhaps the next village over – feel further away because our sense of space is compressed. This means we feel distance from one another more acutely. This new perception of distance feeds into our sense of isolation, meaning finding ways to connect with other people are more important than ever.
Our boundaries are important. Not just our psychological borderlines, but our physical ones, too. In many cultures (our own included), houses and places of work have explicit, physical boundaries to keep certain activities in a particular place, and to keep the wrong things out.
I’ve noticed my own boundaries are weakening. I don’t cross the threshold of the office, so I find myself staying longer to meet a virtual deadline. It’s not like I have anywhere else to go! This may be true but it’s a trap we don’t want to fall in to. We need to be careful about collapsing our boundaries and creating a culture of presenteeism.
We have an intrinsic need for connection but, as social beings, we crave real-time, real-life interactions. Although we can talk to anyone in the world in an instant, it’s a substitute. Much like sweetener in place of sugar, social media is a quick fix alternative, but is still a compromise for what we desire.
We’re missing a lot of bonding-based nuance at work. If we strive to structure our days and force productivity, we’re less likely to find time for a coffee with a colleague. We keenly feel the absence of spontaneous chats as we reserve our face time for work purposes.
Making time and space for keeping up social ties beyond the 9-5 grows the rich and rewarding relationships that used to bring us joy at work.
Conferencing, collaboration and communication have all gone digital, and while that’s essential for us during the current crisis, I’m keen for it not to wholly become the norm.
We’ve all seen the capability and limitations of technology, but we can’t replace the intangibles of human interaction – we’re hungry for it. When we rebuild our post-pandemic workplaces – much like making an effort not to default to email in the office when a quick chat would be better – we must be careful not to let tech replace talking.