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Monday, September 28, 2020, 01:52
The flipside of working from home is at work on a larger scale
By Alex Rong
Monday, September 28, 2020, 01:52 By Alex Rong

Much of the world with the means launched into a sweeping “work-from-home experiment”, as it is often called, after the novel coronavirus pandemic struck. Many think the experiment has been a success: Over 80 percent of Hong Kong workers say they want to telecommute at least one day a week after COVID-19 is no longer a threat, according to a Lingnan University survey that polled 1,976 people during April 8-26.

Public discourse has been lavished on cybersecurity, the impact on work efficiency and work-life balance, as well as the prospect of this practice outliving the viral outbreak. But the wide array of topics has, by and large, neglected the alienating effect on people who now spend their working hours interacting with digital devices much to the exclusion of face-to-face contact.

The answer to this passivity enabled by circumstances is as straightforward for the workplace as is for a divided society — earnest dialogue. This would mean clashes of ideas and compromises, constant alternation between frustration and gratification, but also self-reflection and eventually personal growth

This disconnect is most keenly felt by people new to the job, who are looking to build rapport with their colleagues, let in on inside jokes and gossip, and figure out the workplace dynamics. 

With the current state of technology, telecommuting transports, if not exacerbates, the frustrations at work to a domestic setting. The best way to assuage workplace grievances has been through earnest dialogue in person, for which emails, texts, phone calls and video conferencing are poor substitutes.

Remote working provides a buffer for conflicts, to be sure, as it gives people a break from their bosses’ watchful eyes, and from desk mates’ annoying habits, maybe munching chips or typing too loud. But it also means that people spend more time crafting carefully worded emails that suit decorum. And painstakingly typing a message that could otherwise have been shouted out from the office chair might just be too much of an undertaking. 

As a result, minor discontent or misunderstanding is left souring; everyday trivialities that help build collegiality — such as overreaction to a new shirt, exchange of Game of Thrones theories, lunch excursions and commiseration over not winning the Mark Six — easily lose relevance among “work friends”, or only get a select audience. Conscious and measured conversations defeat the purpose of idle chitchats.

It follows, sometimes without us knowing, that people become more result-driven; and colleagues are reduced to weird icons on messaging apps that either get the job done or not, instead of real people whose difficulties call for understanding and support. An icon on the computer that stays on until 3 am just doesn’t evoke the respect, the urge to help out, or the encouraging words that generously go out to a solitary figure toiling away at a dimly lit workstation. 

So the distance between co-workers grows, even as conference calls have allowed glimpses at each other’s couch or kitchen table — the reason being as simple as the indifference and decontextualization made easy by the larger part of remote working. 

It doesn’t mean we are inconsiderate or selfish people who don’t spare a thought for others unless we feel like it. “Passivity enabled by circumstances” would be a better choice of word — it’s just harder to register the need to get into other people’s shoes when we don’t have visual confirmation of their plight.

People don’t necessarily love their job and their co-workers, so they are not incentivized to communicate, especially if the work atmosphere is less than amicable. The work-from-home experiment shows the lack of “face time” and the resultant decontextualization surreptitiously drives apart people with a bond somewhat begrudgingly forged. 

In a broader sense, what does virtual-only contact mean to the relationships between complete strangers? Probably something less desirable, since worries about repercussions and accountabilities are out of the way. 

The internet made it possible for us to pass judgment and even exact vigilante punishment on people whom we know only from a viral video clip, or by a handle name. It provides fertile soil for such decontextualization on a much larger scale. Its promise of the free flow of information also buries the full story under rumors and half-truths that often take self-disciplined investigations to dispel.

Much like the ease we feel when working from home in our pajamas, the internet creates a bubble for people to preach ideas to like-minded friends, and temporarily shields us from the real world that is rife with conflicts, compromises and conflations of equally true antitheses. 

While the comfort of the echo chamber promises simplicity, satisfaction, and even righteousness, its darker side often harbors a binary worldview, bias, and even malice. If unchecked, these two aspects combine to make a pernicious force. That’s why even the generally well-intended cancel-culture movement makes people cringe at its uncompromising hammer from time to time. 

The answer to this passivity enabled by circumstances is as straightforward for the workplace as is for a divided society — earnest dialogue. This would mean clashes of ideas and compromises, constant alternation between frustration and gratification, but also self-reflection and eventually personal growth. 

The author is a Hong Kong-based journalist.


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