Can we work and thrive in a completely online world? How important is physical community in our lives?
Four years ago, I listened to a talk about evolution and culture. I learnt how animals develop different methods of physically protecting themselves. The talk questioned why we as humans do not have these physical features and why we cannot protect ourselves the way animals do. This was the first time I had ever been exposed to the study of humans and ever really wondered, what makes us human? As I continued my interest in learning what it means to be human, I started realising that people and societies are our form of protection. We have evolved to rely and learn from one another. Socrates asks, “who are we?”, which extends itself out to new questions such as, why are we?
This question is more prevalent than ever during the pandemic we are facing. Our ‘why’ is each other. We are human because of the way we have evolved and grown around each other. We need each other. We need people. What this virus has therefore revealed to us is that we cannot survive on our own. Humans have too much dependency on other humans to live and even beyond that, to thrive. So face us with a time where we have to reduce our human contact to as little as possible - you get crisis.
Gillian Tett is the chair of the Financial Times US editorial board who has a PhD in Social Anthropology (now you see why I’m so interested in her) who wrote an article last week, ‘Against the Odds’. The article examined how we as a society manage risk. Who gets to decide what is best for us? What choices should we make in protecting ourselves and how much of that will consider the protection of others too? Tett refers to Anette Mikes, a risk management expert at Saïd Business School, to discuss Mikes’ identification of four models regarding the social management of risk. 1. Individual management, 2. Egalitarian, 3. Hierarchical and 4. Fatalism. What I learnt from this was that egalitarianism has become to most socially adopted model so far. It is the method of everyone in the community trying to help each other. Tett uses the example of masks and links this to the culture of Asian collectivism in trying to protect others first and foremost. The US have now made masks mandatory, and above this the wearing of masks has become a social responsibility with social pressure attached. Those who do not comply will face this discriminatory backlash of not adopting this egalitarian model.
Essentially, we need to help each other. As part of our protection mechanisms, we have learnt to use humans to grow and to make our species stronger. We have learnt to use each other to build societies based around people and establish communities and groups that create a sense of belonging in so many different ways. This belonging is a massive human desire, and one that I think the current covid-19 situation has made us realise about ourselves. That there is a constant need to belong to a group and to use this to feel safe. Especially now when so much of the world doesn’t feel safe, we find our safety in people. Whether it be those we live with, whether it be the people making decisions about the safety of our world. Whether it be the author of an inspiring book you read to get you through these times, we as people want to belong to something and we will find that in whatever we can.
Beyond facing the pandemic, we also face the return. Going back into ‘normal life’ (and what we remember of it) is not going to be a straightforward strategy. As Tett argues, who decides the risk? When we are officially allowed to go back to work, to the shops, to see friends, how many of us will do these things as if nothing ever happened? Although lockdown may come to an end, fear will not. Further, all this being online for so long has also encouraged new ways of going back to the real world.
“When the coronavirus lockdowns finally ease, there may be fewer desks to return to… a PwC survey this week found that a quarter of chief financial officers were already thinking of cutting back on real estate” - Daniel Thomas, Stephen Morris and Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson, The Financial Times 2020
Online working has given room for a potential cost cuts in office spaces, providing reformed real-estate opportunities. But if offices start working from home on a much larger scale post-corona, human connection is going to be at stake. Many others also argue that home working has brought out inefficiencies and does not support the maintenance of working online. I believe that the workplace as a community is a sacred space for many people. While a lot of people have enjoyed having time at home and have been able to relax a bit more not needing to dress up for work each day and make their respective commutes, I think if the world remains like this there will be social consequences. As I have said before, humans need humans and I just hope that after this pandemic we realise this more than ever. I hope we are still able to return to a world where human contact is all around us, allowing us choice and freedom in the people we keep in our lives.