Debra Allcock Tyler: Remote working is a relationship of proximity, not compatibility

Years of studies show that we learn, work, communicate and build relationships better when we are in the same physical space

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

I expect that, like me, you’ve at least once been on holiday and met a “Rita, Barry and the twins from Lyme Regis”, who were great fun to hang out with. In a blur of bacchanalian bliss you vowed to stay in touch only to be absolutely horrified when they took you at your word and, over a subsequent interminable surprise visit from them to your home, you discovered you had nothing whatsoever in common other than that you happened to be on holiday in the same place at the same time.

This lockdown scenario reminds me so much of that. Despite the Zoomoaning (my new word!), I’ve nonetheless noticed several folk opining that this remote working is the “new normal”, a phrase I have always loathed.

But the reality is that huge swathes of our workforce have lost their jobs or been furloughed so they can’t work at all. Those who can are mostly making this way of working work because we are being forced to (for understandable reasons).

For those of us who are privileged to still have jobs, the truth is that it’s actually pretty uncomfortable. Perching on the kitchen stool and balancing your laptop against the butter dish so you get a better angle for your Zoom meeting is a less than ideal workspace. And constant communication by video is stressful and tiring, because it is not natural for human beings who need to be in social proximity to each other.

Those who have had to Zoom with family members will know the huge inadequacies of that form of interaction: the same human need to be in physical proximity with family applies in our wider lives.

Yes, in some ways we have learned things that we should retain. We can now legitimately call out employers who resist flexible working. We now know we don’t need every member of a team to work nine to five, and there is no justifiable reason why people with caring responsibilities can’t regularly work from home and flex their hours.

The fact that remote working is obviously possible for many office-based jobs is also important for marginalised groups. There are now pretty much no excuses for employers to deny people living with disabilities, or other challenges, jobs on the dubious grounds that “this job can’t be done from home”.

But even if the socially distant life is sustainable as a future way of working, most of our UK workforce does not have the luxury of being in the sorts of jobs that can be done from home. According to Office for National Statistics data from 2019, little more than 5 per cent of the 32.6 million people in employment can take advantage, and it varies by sector and role.

For example, in the two largest industries – accommodation/food services and health/social work – only 10 per cent report being able to work from home. Even then, they’re usually in managerial or admin roles. If you are a driver, nurse, cleaner, social worker, police officer, farm worker, factory worker, chef, hospitality worker, gardener, builder, distribution worker, supermarket worker and so on, work is “out there”, not “in here”. The same is true for many of our charities.

So, even though for many of us the only way of getting the job done right now is through this virtual world, we would do well to remember that this doesn’t change the fundamental human need to be around other people.

Years of studies show that we learn, work, communicate and build relationships better when we are in the same physical space. Not all the time perhaps, but often enough. If we don’t, we die younger, are more prone to mental health issues and are more likely to become physically unwell.

Rita, Barry and those awful twins turned out to be a holiday fling, a relationship of proximity, not compatibility. So while social distancing measures are still in place, treat this time for what it is: a weird holiday from normality.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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