Social Distancing and our Essential Nature

October 29, 2020
Golden Retriever with paws over a rural fence

Social distancing and wearing of face masks have become the new normal for most of us, thanks to the continued threat of COVID-19.

As someone who's over sixty, and yet not quite ready to bump wood when I stick out my elbows in the morning, I'm appreciative of my neighbors who wear their face coverings and keep their distance, as much for my protection as for their own: we need to contain this thing using the best tools we have available.

And yet, as ever more people work from home, and more students attempt remote learning, I'm concerned about a growing chorus of folks who are celebrating this enforced distancing as a welcome wave of the future, and suggesting that what started as a temporary fix should be embraced as a permanent fixture of 21st century society.

My concern starts with my personal experience, as a manager who was given a remote work assignment about 15 years ago. (Yes, this is not really a new thing, believe it or not.) I was physically removed from almost everyone who worked for me, as well as those to whom I reported. And while this sort of arrangement worked to some degree, for some time, it definitely had its limitations.

  • Senior employees who already had a complete understanding of the work that needed to be done, and who had already forged strong relationships with key contacts, fared the best.
  • Junior employees who needed regular mentoring and guidance fared the worst.
  • When I did meet people in person, they would tell me things that they would never entrust to an email or a phone call.
  • When working remotely, communication tended to be strictly task-directed, which meant that important information that was tangential to the task at hand sometimes never got communicated.
  • Routine management chores could be handled remotely, but it was very tough in a virtual work environment to communicate needed changes in direction: employees working from home tended to get up every morning and do what they had always done; as a manager, I had a very limited range of communication mechanisms with which to signal that goals or processes had changed.
  • It was very hard to get confirmation that messages being sent were being actively received: with people sitting together in a room, it's easy to look around and see who's listening, and to get some feel for how they are responding; it's impossible to do the same with email or other forms of written communication, and it can only be done in a very limited way with Zoom calls, or other forms of video conferencing.

In my organization's case, we congratulated ourselves on how well we had implemented our virtual workplace right up until the time that we had a new VP assigned. One of his first goals was to meet his employees through a series of town halls. When most of the invited employees didn't bother to even respond to his emailed invitation – let alone actually show up for an in-person event – that was the beginning of the end for our work-from-home program.

Of course, you may have better tools than I did back then, or may be smarter, or better educated.

However I still think there are realistic limitations on our abilities to work virtually.

I just finished reading Survival of the Friendliest, by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods, and it makes the case that we humans have become the dominant species on the planet because of our social abilities, our adeptness at working together with others. And it cites research showing that dogs in particular have evolved to exhibit this same kind of productive friendliness toward humans.

Now I don't know about your dog, but none of the rituals that keep my dog connected to me can easily be conducted remotely. Don't even try to talk to him about Zoom.

I know that humans are able to adapt relatively quickly to changing conditions via the miracle of cultural evolution, but I suspect that some of our friendliness is hard-wired in ways that depend on at least an occasional physical presence with one another.

I've also read This View of Life by David Sloan Wilson, and he argues that we humans function best as members of small teams. You can scale up to larger organizations by forming teams of teams, but the small group is still the essential building block.

And I strongly suspect, again, that some of the high functioning of our small human teams depends on at least occasional face-to-face contact with other team members.

After all, this is one of the reasons why so many of us love watching sports: we're fascinated by seeing other humans doing what we were so clearly meant to do – to work together as part of a team sharing the same physical space.

And when we turn our concerns to remote learning, the issues with social distancing loom even larger. Much of what we learn about how to be together with other people comes from our social contact during our schooling. And many of the lessons we learn from our teachers involve intangibles that arise from our presence in the classroom. (And believe me, I've spent enough time multitasking during virtual meetings to know that it's not going to be the same with all-digital classrooms.)

None of this is to say that remote work and digital communications don't deserve their rightful places in our 21st-century society: I believe they are both powerful and capable adjuncts to face-to-face contact in the workplace and in the classroom.

On the other hand, I think it important that we not get too carried away with these “new” ways of working and learning, and start to imagine a completely plug-and-play virtual workforce of the future.

Once we get COVID-19 behind us, I think we'll find that human nature hasn't changed all that much. At some point I think we'll look back on all this and realize that this virus was so effective precisely because it targeted part of our essential nature: our need to be together – not just in spirit, or via clever manipulation of electrons, but physically in the same space.

And my dog will be smiling all the time, saying “I told you so.”