As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to touch all parts of the world, a reality worth highlighting is that this epidemic, like all others, is a social phenomenon. It’s easy to overlook this point when barraged with statistics, graphs and projections, but it remains the case that people and their everyday doings are central to any equation. And the changes we face are readily evident, as many people work entirely remotely and we all seek ways to manage a new normal.
What new social practices are we seeing emerge and crystallize? How might employers and employees adapt? As a cultural anthropologist working in industry, I have given these questions considerable thought over the past several weeks. As new social practices emerge, employers will need to adapt to new patterns of work to engage and empower a distanced workforce. Four themes are especially compelling:
1. Technology Becomes More Tangible and More Intimate
Most of us are touched by technology on a daily basis, whether we are conscious of it or not. How we shop online, what we see on social media and even the logistics behind how food is delivered to our local grocery store are all reliant on technology. If you are like me, you may not give these background technologies a thought; they just exist. They are largely ubiquitous and easily taken for granted — until they are brought to the forefront.
The analogy of a hammer is instructive here. A carpenter using a hammer to build a fence is focused on the task of fence-building. It’s only when she hits her finger or misses a nail head that the hammer becomes an object of conscious thought. Otherwise, it is part of a largely unremarked background.
As we jump on video-enabled conference calls from our living rooms, with kids running around in the background, pets seeking attention, and parents wandering in and out of the frame, we become more self-conscious about ourselves, our social worlds and the technology necessary for carrying out our work. Many of us have become much more context-aware as our work productivity tools reframe how we enact “work life” and “personal life.”
For those of us fortunate enough to have jobs that allow us to work remotely, it is evident that our technology tool kits promise experiences both familiar and strange. Video conferencing is now a mainstay. Our meetings start with the now-familiar participant mosaic — a new kind of social grid of avatars and images and a new form of connection. Still emerging is an understanding of how employees will adapt to and even evolve these reimagined configurations. But it is safe to say that it is as much a social and cultural matter as it is a technical one.
2. Team Leaders Are Prioritizing the Human Connection
Humans are social beings and, as such, are largely unaccustomed to the physical and social consequences of “sheltering in place” for any length of time. Again, technology helps us stay connected and, in many respects, does a decent job of it. Still, in the absence of direct physical presence, employee morale can plummet, so team leaders need to consider ways to engage employees across the divide.
Practices that seem to be gaining positive momentum include virtual team lunches, sharing photos of and stories about home workspaces, and round-robin-style daily check-ins. Supporting the human desire to be connected, to tell stories and to be recognized as an individual, while challenged by “remoteness,” doesn’t need to be depleted of what makes us human.
3. Empathy Is Critical in Bridging Divides
Empathy, the act of demonstrating care for another person, is needed now more than ever as leaders help steer their employees through these difficult times. As people find their way through personal circumstances and cope with increased levels of stress in a work/life balance that has become a full blending, leaders’ role as guide and mentor will be essential. An ability to express their own vulnerabilities goes a long way in helping to comfort people who are struggling.
4. We’re Reminded of the Power of Inclusion
We live in a deeply connected world, made up of diverse economic and cultural realities. Across the world and within its different cultures, these challenging circumstances are interwoven into how we express love, our modes of mourning and our ways of conveying empathy. As successful team leaders know, diversity of people and perspective has a significant, positive impact on team creativity and innovation.
As a cultural anthropologist working in human capital management, it is my sincere hope that as a consequence of this deeply troubling and inclusive historical moment, we – as individuals and team leaders – discover more nuanced and productive ways to celebrate the cultural differences from which our shared humanity emerges.