Coronavirus crisis shows office workers what we’re missing
When was the last time you wore an orange T-shirt to the office? Have you ever ducked away from your desk to take a friend’s dog for a walk? And can you recall the last time you tried to take a shower, only to be stopped over and over again by co-workers sending “urgent” emails?
I did these things last week because I’m a coronavirus office refugee — and pretty soon, I suspect, many of us will be.
For almost a month, I’ve been stranded in London instead of at home in Hong Kong. An underlying health condition means my doctor thought I would be safer here than over there. Now, I’m staying and working in a friend’s home.
As coronavirus spreads across Europe and the US, colleagues who had asked me what it was like to live and work in a city plunged into crisis — first by months of anti-government protests and now by a health emergency — are finding out for themselves.
Coronavirus is the black swan management challenge of the age of globalisation. Companies are being forced to buy bucketloads of hand sanitiser and instruct staff about the importance of personal hygiene. They are cancelling travel and everyone is having to quickly develop and implement plans for remote working.
It is manageable — just. But for all the flimflam about the wonders of working anywhere and being agile, this crisis has unearthed a host of unexpected challenges.
For a start, technology is a help but no panacea. Platforms including Slack, WhatsApp and Microsoft Teams allow organisations to communicate. Video technologies, such as Skype and Zoom, help too. But these require their own etiquette.
The friend who is housing me is a fashion industry consultant and also works from home. He thinks carefully about how he looks for video calls — he is in fashion after all — and the background clients see.
I was reminded of this when one senior colleague, who was working from home, recently appeared on screen in a black T-shirt. It was a slightly alarming sight at first but that quickly gave way to reassurance that I was not the only one dressed like a student while producing a business newspaper.
The second thing coronavirus has revealed about organisations is how much managers trust their people. It is common for HQ to ignore or dismiss a regional outpost. That feeling is amplified for staff who are suddenly forced to work at home. Despite all the messaging platforms, a crisis like this makes it ever more important to empower and have faith in your able lieutenants. And if they do well, drop them a note or call to tell them.
Coronavirus has also showed how intertwined our personal and professional lives are. The biggest challenge for many in Hong Kong has been the closure of schools. Teachers hold daily Google Hangouts with the children and schools have put reams of content online. But for younger pupils, it is impossible to keep up without a parent helping out as a full-time, at-home teacher.
Japan and Italy have closed schools and it seems likely that other jurisdictions will follow suit. Given how many families have two working parents, companies have to brace themselves for a potentially huge disruption affecting multiple employees at the same time. Organisations and managers that handle this well will engender loyalty and productivity.
But perhaps what is most revealing about coronavirus is that it has shown us what we’re missing out on. For my kids, it is the social aspect of school itself. For many of us workers, that same feeling comes partly from our interactions at the office. We bemoan the politics or the commute, and yet we need it as social beings. The conversations in the canteen or the boost you get when someone offers to make you tea cannot be replaced by the ping of a message landing in your inbox.
The evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar once told me that in-person interaction is an essential part of how humans maintain communities, build meaningful relationships and learn how to compromise. “In a digital environment, you can just pull the plug,” he said.
These are qualities that are essential to office life. And the joy of wearing a T-shirt and hanging out with a cute dog will never replace that.