Office technology is no substitute for human interaction

Two years ago this week, amid anxiety and uncertainty about the coronavirus, thousands of employers sent millions of Canadians home. Fingers were crossed that work could be conducted remotely without chaotic collapse.

We were among them. Our single-storey office used to house 180 for several Glacier Media publications and services; there hasn’t been more than one-quarter of those people in it any day since March 2020.

In the early days, it was heroic when teleworkers sprouted sudden technical skill to communicate by Zoom, Teams, Skype, Slack, Signal, WhatsApp, Hangout and plain old email to connect their residential internet seamlessly to our corporate servers.

In our case, we didn’t miss a publication deadline, reported on whoever we could without mechanical impediment, sold advertising to whoever we could find working at home, created virtual events for whoever would watch in place of in-person gatherings, used words like “pivot” and “resilient” like never before and confirmed that many office things are portable and even more enjoyable when done in the comfortable confines of our homes. (That assumes, of course, space and peace and quiet.)

It was hardly surprising. Ever since the arrival of word processors and modems in the 1980s, there was no reason for skepticism that media work could be effectively performed remotely.

But there is a grand difference between media work and the work of media.

Our two principal creative functions – the generation of revenue to finance the generation of journalism – require as fuel physical company, chatter, rambling, digression, gleaning, socializing, body language or what a CEO described to me as “bullshitting your way to a good idea.” They require people to meet people, to learn in their presence to not only get the best results but to afford personal and professional growth, for both our mental health and for an organization’s financial health.

These qualities are not specifically the stuff of productivity metrics – the per-hour goods and services increase that the raft of bullish studies cite (no doubt, written remotely) – but they are the stuff of a productive operation. There are reasons this worked pre-pandemic, and reasons it still does.

If remote work appeared to work, I don’t believe it will work out – at least, not in enshrining for five, or even four, or even three workdays a week what was doubted not long ago could be done for one, much less two or more.

We need the office climate back. Not the 2019 version, but something that grafts the branch of remote work on to the tree of the office. The breathtaking technological breakthroughs complement but cannot substitute for the difference-maker of presence.

Remote work saved countless businesses, but didn’t particularly advance them. My main worry is that has done more to reinforce personal patterns than professional ones.

There are true positives: it has furnished ease, reduced the grip of the clock and accorded flexibility for workforces that had slid into repetitive strains of daily rituals.

But in affording this individual agency, it also traded away much of the inherent value of the critical mass, particularly in creative organizations. Remote work generally yielded effectiveness but not necessarily excellence, improvisation but not necessarily innovation, convenience but not necessarily competitiveness.

In the process of fulfilling tasks in this two-year trial, we have confused what we liked and wanted with what we needed. A distortion field arose to set aside other matters that matter.

After fighting to eliminate organizational silos, they have been sanctioned all over again with the scattering of the workforce. After fighting to flatten organizational hierarchy to encourage more peer leadership and influence within workforces, businesses have reverted to their executive-run traditions to ensure clarity in direction.

The enervating, enduring pandemic has both revealed and accentuated our mental health challenges. It is evident how, just not how much, and the public sentiment to dispense with restrictions is telling of the toll.

That being said, it is easier on us physically, mentally and financially when we can keep clothed less formally, when we don’t have to fight traffic or crawl along in public transit, when we can eat when we want and more affordably from our fridges, when we can bifurcate our workday to accommodate errands, when we aren’t on display all day, when our dogs and our legs can be walked, even when we don’t have to be in the presence of the boss.

Not everyone loved the office in the first place, not everyone is an extrovert, not all offices are healthy habitats, and remote work has licensed a certain personal sanctuary. Still, our mental health is far better served if we address problems with office culture than work around and away from them. The efforts at diversity and inclusivity are hopeful signs on this, but let’s be clear that their success is predicated on participation and collaboration – not isolation or insulation and their impact on a sense of belonging at the heart of work’s contribution to identity.

Which is to say that, on balance, we have learned enough about remote work for it to earn a permanent role – just not the dominant one. A day, maybe two a week makes sense from here on in. For now, anyway. We have learned valuable lessons in the pandemic, but let’s not lose the valuable one that we are social creatures first and foremost.

If the maxim of the pandemic was that we would get through it together, then let’s indeed be together as we get through it. •

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.