We, the Socially Distanced

Seems like it took a pandemic to make us actually realize how distanced we have become from one another and now everyone’s knickers are in a twist.

But I’ve watched it coming and so have you

Television drove us indoors decades ago. We all let the fireplace grow cold and cozied ourselves around the moving-picture show in our living rooms. TV tables were invented so we could avoid the stress of actual family conversation and eat in silence, like cats watching a mouse-hole.

Next came the marketing ploy by universities that it was no longer enough to earn a degree, it had to be from a prestigious name-brand school, maybe one like theirs, if you got the hint. Harvard, Princeton and M.I.T. suggested that if you wanted a Wall $treet job, your state university might not quite have the caché.

What has a top school to do with social distancing?

Competition. To get there you needed top grades, membership in organizations, sports activities, a place on the school paper and class president wouldn’t hurt. Stay with me, this is important. Those all sound like wonderful social interactions, but they’re not, they’re frantic races from one to another, each with the pressure to win—to check off that box on the university application. You make no friends on the tennis or debate teams because there is no time to be friends before rushing off to another check-box. Mom became your coach and chauffeur.

That was before Zuck and then came Zuck

How old is Facebook? Well, I guess 2004 is a good enough start date, but it didn’t really get going for a couple of years and since then our world has become an entirely different place. Not all good, not by a long shot. Zuckerberg was a mere child of twenty when he loosed his brain-child on the public. Zuck still runs Facebook like a spoiled child, stomping his foot at the candy counter. But his way is the highway because he owns a solid controlling interest in the company. Whether that’s a good thing or bad is up for argument and a conversation for another day.

Look up from your own phone to see what’s going on around you. From ages ten to twenty (and beyond) the cell-phone has become the TV, except the damned thing is interactive. It requires your constant attention, less you fall behind and not be part of the conversation. Fingers scroll and type. Brows are furrowed. Five hundred (or five thousand) friends and no one to meet for coffee. Who do you call at two in the morning, when life has turned to shit?

And now the corporate world is in the game

Because of various pandemic lockdowns and requirements, many businesses turned to having their employees work from home. Distancing once again and that had its own problems, but we worked most of them out and carried on. There were even some benefits—no commute, no cost of lunches and that meant both more money in your pocket and more time. But now the fun has begun and it’s no longer so much fun.

Companies are getting nervous because corporate culture is based on hundreds of years of control. Middle managers can no longer see you at your desk and that makes them nuts. Of course that’s part of the fun, but the enemy is out there, tapping its fingers. How can I tell, they worry, if Joe is really at his desk?

In a perfect world, we trust. But this is not a perfect world

Amazingly, over their hundreds of years of control, managers haven’t learned all that much about helping processes along. What they have learned is how to protect their own interests and that skill always relied on the mistruth that employees must be closely watched or they will cheat the company. And so they tap, tap, tap their fingers.

Sign-ins and sign-outs. Requires trust, won’t work. Morning Zoom meetings. Nah. Cameras on computers. Aha! Might serve the purpose, a bold move on their part to keep hold of their job.

So you see where we’ve come with this social distancing over the last half-century or so

And I don’t see it going away. Technology has not yet seen the need to explore answers to offsite working, but they will. As for all those middle managers at risk, the competent will become true team leaders, if they’re not already. Depending upon the work at hand, that means individual flexibility and relationships built on trust. How can we make this work better for you is job number one. All else comes from that.

That was true on the factory floor a century ago and in the offices as well. So, perhaps what we have is an opportunity to catch up rather than a problem to solve but, if it is built, it will be built on trust.

The question is whether we have become too socially distanced in both our work and personal lives to make that happen.

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