London: Embracing tech distancing

Commuters, as a tribe, tend to be “unloved”.  Victorians called them “the dark horde”. T.S. Eliot compared them to the souls in hell. But now suddenly we need them, desperately. “Come back, commuters. Rally to your city. It needs your fares, your rents, your Starbucks, your Prets, your nights on the tiles.” Without them, cities are dying. In London, Tube travel is down around 75%. “Shopping is crippled, at 32% of normal footfall.” Boris Johnson is urging us to return to our offices, without success: a third of UK office workers have returned to their desks, against 70% to 83% in Germany, Italy and France.

But while the PM was encouraging us to go back, the Chief Scientific Adviser, Patrick Vallance, was declaring that there was “absolutely no reason” for people to stop working from home. Besides, Britons seem to have fallen in love with working from home , or WFH, as it is now known. And no wonder. One manager at a big insurance company told me that there had been a 15% improvement in productivity among home workers – perhaps because they were no longer enduring long, stressful commutes, and were able to sleep for longer, and spend more time with their families. So what if the rail unions and coffee chains charging £3 a cup lose out as a result? A YouGov survey found that 68% of homeworking newcomers would like to keep working from home when the crisis is over.

That’s all very well for them, but not so good if you live in a tiny flat, or work in a company serving commuters. Few phrases make the heart sink more than: “You are invited to a Zoom chat.” Cue “a screen full of squinting faces”, some periodically disappearing, everyone saying: “No… no, you first… you… what?” For all its benefits, the technology is deeply frustrating, and it’s no long-term a substitute for meeting colleagues face-to-face. “Please let tech-distancing be for the pandemic, not for life.”  (Simon Jenkins, London Evening Standard, repeated in The  Week, 15 August 2020).

My comment:  I wonder how an improvement in productivity of 15% was measured.  Or is it a figure plucked from the air?  All I know is that my British family members and friends are, indeed, working successfully at home, and are not complaining.  I can see an argument for an Epicurean solution: splitting time between office and home (50% each?), a compromise.  It does help to talk face to face with your colleagues, especially when it comes to people management. Awkward interviews may be even more awkward if you are dealing with them online.  I used to like looking into the eyes and watching the body language.

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