Are You Working Virtually or Virtually Working?
Our society is set to undergo a seismic transformation. I’m talking the kind of fundamental alteration of day-to-day reality that social scientists point to centuries later and say “Yup, that’s when the world changed.” The advent of the printing press. The dawn of the Industrial Age. The first Beyonce video. Yes, I am talking about a truly defining shift in the way we as human beings interact with each other and the world around us. I mean a totally reenvisioning of the modern-day workplace, that could be in the office or at home, but still using things like sound absorbing panels can be useful anywhere you work.
Recently, Google told its employees that they would be working from home until at least July of 2021. This came on the heels of Microsoft allowing its employees to work remotely indefinitely, even after the Covid pandemic abates. Of course, numerous other companies such as Uber, Indeed, and American Express have followed suit as the impact of the corona virus continues to impact the way we conduct business. Though the original shutdowns have been lifted, many companies continue to expand the work from home model that became our new Zoom-centered norm. And as if to prove my point, none of you would have had any idea what the hell I meant if I had said Zoom just a year ago, but you sure as heck do now.
But don’t expect this trend to discontinue once the days of the global pandemic are over. Following the pandemic, more than half of Americans want to continue working remotely, while two-thirds of companies are more than happy to oblige them and render their current work-from-home policies permanent. More and more, we are going to watch the end of the office workspace as we currently know it and see the proliferation of an economy based around at-home workers. The corona virus will someday come to a much-awaited end, but its impact on the global workforce will linger well beyond our own time and be felt for generations to come.
The reason for this is simple, as it always is in the world of business: money. While companies will have to factor in some loss of productivity as workers unmonitored at home will probably have even more of a penchant for updating their Tinder profiles and checking their fantasy football stats, they will, of course, save on office space, overhead, and other costs associated with running an actual office. Sure, they will probably maintain a scaled-down space for requisite in-person meetings and conferences, but businesses will be able to streamline their physical profile and thus run more efficiently. Online retailers have been foreseeing this trend for years, as companies like Amazon do away with the superfluous costs of a brick and mortar presence and thus undercut competitors beholden to an outdated business model.
And this greater efficiency for business actually translates to the environment as well. Think about what millions of less miles driven in high-volume commuter traffic will mean for our already desperately ravaged planet. With employees sitting at their kitchen island writing out their latest marketing proposal while eating Cheerios in their pj’s as opposed to commuting miles down a congested interstate, air emissions will be dramatically reduced and our beleaguered transit system will get a much-needed break. After decades of undermining environmental regulation and protection in order to better serve their bottom lines, businesses can finally do something to help the planet without reducing the holy sanctity of their profit motive, proving once and for all that you really can be a tree hugger and a corporate douchebag all at the same time.
But this change in how, or more pointedly, where, we go to work will have downsides as well. As the world transitions to a virtual workplace environment, those who own and operate corporate workplaces and properties will have the rug pulled out from under them, and the office spaces they own will become about as washed up and empty as a Blockbuster video store. Let’s face it, I wouldn’t want to be in corporate or retail real estate investment right now. Office buildings across the country have been shuttered up during this pandemic, and for many of them, their clients aren’t coming back.
More importantly, we have to consider the way this shift towards a virtual work environment will impact the daily lives of millions of American employees. Gone will be the days of shooting the breeze and recounting weekend exploits with your co-workers while getting a drink at the water cooler. Gone will be the days of discovering which of your co-workers is having severe relationship issues and who has a drinking problem lying right beneath the surface as you all go out for drinks after work and reveal just a bit too much under the liberating influence of alcohol. Gone will be the days of putting on unnecessary calories as you celebrate a colleague’s birthday with a piece of store-bought chocolate cake. And gone will be the days when you knew the life story of the grandmother of the guy who sits at the desk right across from you as he tries to compose himself while sharing his grief upon her passing.
Because that too is part of life. It is our connection with other human beings and our sharing in a part of their story. We are, after all, social beings, and it is through our interactions with each other that our lives take on meaning. In a world where we draw further and further away from each other and instead retreat deeper and deeper into the recesses of our own solitude, clinging to a virtual life full of internet chat rooms and social media profiles that maintain virtual connections rather than real ones, we mourn the loss of genuine connection, the very connection that makes our lives worth living in the first place.
Steven Craig is the author of the best-selling novel WAITING FOR TODAY, as well as numerous published poems, short stories, and dramatic works. Read his blog TRUTH: In 1000 Words or Less every THURSDAY at www.waitingfortoday.com