By Dan Kempner, Managing Editor, Valutus Sustainability R.O.I.
This morning I had a meeting via UberConference with Daniel, he in his New York office, me in my den in Vietnam.
It was late for him but still early for me, so I hustled out of the meeting and ran to the living room, as I had a call scheduled with a friend under lockdown in California. I reached him on WhatsApp and we swapped obligatory COVID-19 stories and caught up.
After that I pulled out my Vietnamese language homework as my class was starting soon. All in-person sessions had been cancelled, so we were working via Go-to-Meeting.
My kids came in while I was studying, wanting me to play. My five-year-old was repeating her new mantra: Daddy? Can I watch teeee-vee? Pleeeaase? because school’s been closed since January due to coronavirus. To say she has cabin fever is not saying nearly enough.
I gave them a couple of minutes, then rushed upstairs to class, dialed in, and went over the dialogue I’d been practicing. The tones of this language are a little tougher to hear online than in person, but I did okay.
I have a standing coffee date with another of the students after class every week. We usually hit a local café and chat over cà phê sũa dá – iced Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk. But no need for my travel thermos today: the coffee was real, but the date was virtual.
My wife makes heavenly coffee, so I shouted downstairs asking for some – in my experience at least, if Vietnamese aren’t shouting between rooms there’s something wrong – and jumped on my friend’s Skype link.
Our usual café has a koi pond with fish that could swallow a U-boat, and I miss that. But unfortunately, all cafés – and now everything else in the city – are closed by fiat.
I asked my wife to join us, but she was busy texting on Facebook, by phone, and on Zalo – a Vietnamese social platform – with the usual dozen friends at once. Meanwhile, she was on Facetime with her younger sister, who arrived back from the ‘States last week and is in quarantine nearby.
Incredibly, she was also prepping to teach her English class, looking up lesson plans and settling a whiteboard in front of her computer for the remote learning session. How does she do all that at once?
Soon it was time for me to prep my own English class. I have four students, including three Vietnamese teenagers hoping for acceptance at Western universities, and of necessity the class is now on Skype or Messenger. We are reading Charlotte’s Web over the web, which is odd. Still, I’m petrified I’m going to cry at the end, as I always do. Perhaps I can fake it better online, so long as I don’t blubber into the mic.
Class over, I played with the kids, and went back to my office for work. I shared drafts of several articles with Daniel – via Google Docs and Dropbox – and talked to him about them on the Webex Meeting platform.
A playdate was in progress – rare in these days of COVID-19, and this was to be the last one before the shutdown. There was rampaging going on, so I slid upstairs to my mother-in-law’s apartment and worked from there for a while, sending off emails and collaborating with a friend on via Webex document.
A quick call on Google Voice to my cousins locked down in Illinois, and that reminded me to Messenger text my bro-in-law in Mumbai, in lockdown too. He can’t get back to his wife in Singapore, as that country closed their borders also.
I worked for a while, grabbed dinner with the whole shut-in family gang, then it was time for my men’s-team meeting. The twelve of us logged onto Zoom for 90 minutes, and the discussion, as always, was intense. The fact that we weren’t around a firepit in someone’s backyard – as I always was back in Massachusetts – was of no consequence. This week one member was in Mexico, one in Cuba, another vacationing in Costa Rica, and the rest were sprinkled around the U.S., Canada, and Asia.
These men and I also keep in touch all week long via Marco Polo, a sort of video walkie-talkie app that allows individual or group discussions with no need for coordination: you talk when convenient, watch when convenient, respond when convenient. It is incredibly intimate despite time and distance and here, twelve time zones ahead, this comes in mighty handy. For scheduling and stuff, we use Slack.
I had some work to do later in the evening and I sometimes get distracted so I dialed into my scheduled SpaceWorks online co-working space.
Look, there is a downside to social distancing, no doubt. Daniel is writing about just that this week, delineating why and how we must be careful once this crisis is over. If remote work and remote school became the norm, we must guard against ‘distance’ becoming ‘isolation.’ He is making an important distinction between physical distance and social distance.
Some friends in Massachusetts held a gathering on their lawn this weekend – one of those hobbies requiring knitting needles, I think. They set up folding chairs six feet apart and knitted… or crocheted or something. Physical distance, yes. Social distance, no.
Now, Daniel and others correctly point out that the water-cooler chats are not so easily replaced. The pop-in office confabs that – legend has it – lead to brilliant solutions, may be lost the more people work remotely. It will take time to learn whether any online platform can adequately take the place of the casual chance encounter due to office proximity.
It is also understood that there’s value in nearness, in contact, in being able to assess body language. Simply knowing someone else is around has real, measurable physiological and psychological impacts, and Daniel’s upcoming article will expand on all of that. I have my family around me for company and contact, as I’ve explained, but by no means everyone does.
One solution is the growing trend towards work hubs, co-working offices – both virtual and physical. Shared offices, where unrelated people can gather to work with others wanting both office space and company, seems to solve a lot of the problems distance working may create. Work, chat, grab a coffee, perhaps meet that special someone, all without venturing into the home-office digs or staying home alone. If this model were decentralized, as easy to find as a café but equipped for business, that could represent a game changer.
Shared virtual offices, where others working at the same time give a feeling of togetherness, and a moderator keeps you onpoint, are another brilliant option during this crisis and for anyone who ever works in isolation.
We may not know for a while just what the effects of all this are. Whether people forced online during a crisis will embrace it thereafter, and whether companies will want them to.
We needed astronauts to spend a year in space before we could tell for sure if human muscles atrophied or cells broke down in zero gravity. We may need some time here, too.
Personally, I am a convert to the online experience. I well remember leaving my wife and baby behind and heading off for ten hours or more of physical and social proximity with people I did not particularly care for at work. Some of them felt the same for me, I fancy, which was no fun either. Was I isolated? No. Distanced? No. Alienated? Yes.
As you can see, in no way am I socially distanced now. Not at work, not with friends, not with anyone. I am surrounded only by the people I choose, with a few work exceptions online. I’ve never felt more social, more connected.
I can walk out of the office and kiss my wife and daughters whenever I wish – though the sooner those kids get back to school, where they can run around and learn to socialize properly, the better! And, once this crisis passes, I can go out any time and crowdsource an actual crowd in the real world whenever I choose.
There seems little doubt that we’ll come out of this with a new understanding, a pretty good idea what works and what doesn’t when it comes to social and working distance. The scientists will get busy too, and we’ll get readings on the brain, the heart, the feelings of those who regularly operate online.
When they do, there’s bound to be a webinar we can jump on to have it explained. See you there!