August 12, 2020
There was a time we used to talk with dismay about the Japanese phenomenon of intense social distancing known as hikikomori. We would consider with horror the isolation, lack of engagement with society, poor mental health and loneliness of the people who had almost completely withdrawn to their rooms. Those poor bastards locked up in enclosed spaces linked to the outside world only by screens.
Now we have firms adopting it as policy. And being applauded for it.
There is something seriously wrong with the narrative right now. It is unhinged, a collective insanity. As Charles McKay famously wrote in his book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds: “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, one by one.”
The reality of remote work for many people is not working from home, but sleeping in the office
Part of the problem we have is with the language we are using to discuss where we go from here. Words matter. As the writer Alan Moore believes in his own batshit way, the language we use casts a spell and summons up all kinds of things, horrific and beautiful. Our world holds together or falls apart based on a consensus of words and ideas.
For one thing we need to draw a distinction between flexible working and remote working, which we still use interchangeably for some reason. The conflation of the terms helps to explain why the top down pronouncement of execs that some percentage or all of their workforce is to work remotely in future is met with approval, while the informed and nuanced suggestion by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella that working from home isn’t something to consider permanently is seen as heresy.
Remote isn’t flexible. It’s just differently rigid. The work that people will do while physically disconnected from each other and monitored by apps is transactional. Zoom calls and weekly gatherings in a hotel for a corporate approved and observed get-together are not as good as the bonds that we are used to. They only approximate our connections, a poor facsimile of human interaction.
I have seen the reality of this for many people described as not working from home, but sleeping in the office. They may not want to return to the old ways of work, in particular the insanity of commuting and rigid times of work, but nor do they want to swap them for the sort of work they could expect as a freelancer.
The principle underlying a lot of the current narrative about remote work is old and something that until recently we could reject with little opposition. It is Economic Man, that idea of the perfectly rational, perfectly informed individual who makes decisions only to maximise their personal utility. It is a 19th Century idea formulated by the likes of René Descartes and John Stuart Mill and we have been fighting it for decades. Yet here it is again, its DNA drawn from the amber and injected back into society.
The other phrase we need to discard if we want to magic into existence something better is new normal. I hate it and we will not give it a platform. It’s not just because it’s a cliché, so the opposite of thinking. It also suggests that there was an old normal and perpetuates the fallacious idea that organisations are evolving toward some single, universal work culture. They didn’t share one in the past, they won’t in the future.
None of this is to suggest that there aren’t problems with the way we worked before all this happened. Indeed we created this platform to highlight those problems and the potential solutions, to hold better conversations and find better ways of working focused on the needs of individuals. The issue was and is how we create a better idea of the workplace, woven from its physical, digital and cultural threads.
There are people having excellent and balanced conversations about work and workplaces. They include this wonderful piece by Catherine Nixey in The Economist and this conversation between Kerstin Sailer, Tim Oldman, Arjun Kaicker and Nigel Oseland, four of the best informed and most interesting speakers on workplaces in the world today. I almost forgive them the use of the phrase new normal because it’s at least in quotation marks. Almost.
The current mainstream narrative often lacks the nuance of these conversations. We have a chance to open up the existing debate about better work and workplaces and their role in the world to a much wider audience. Instead we are seeing the propagation of an old and anti-human vision of work as an economic transaction between the individual and the firm, which monitors every keystroke and interaction.
The possibility of permanent remote working is no indicator if its desirability. As Ian Malcolm says so emphatically in Jurassic Park, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Mark is the publisher of Workplace Insight, IN magazine, Works magazine and is the European Director of Work&Place journal. He has worked in the office design and management sector for over thirty years as a journalist, marketing professional, editor and consultant.