A week ago, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby spoke at a Wall Street Journal event discussing the future of transportation. It wasn’t about fancy fuselages, microfiber headrests, or 3D entertainment centers for economy class (though that would be cool).
“Business travel is not about transactions, it’s not about picking up the phone and asking quick questions, which Zoom can replace,” Kirby said. “It’s about getting to know people, getting to talk about their families, going out and having a drink or going to dinner – that’s where you develop those relationships.
He’s not wrong. In fact, he’s very right.
We seem to think that Zoom (and its competitors) are supplanting office work — even upending in-person relationships. The numbers bear this out: Daily users jumped from 10 million in December 2019 to 300 million in June 2020.
And yes, remote work and connection are convenient. But they’re also damaging. The Atlantic dialed into this in April of this year, highlighting some unsurprising side effects of the virtual trend: we’re all suffering from boundary-less work , acute loneliness, and varying degrees of unhappiness. We’re not even sure who to call a friend anymore.
Much has been written about the critical importance of physical closeness in romantic relationships — the release of endorphins, reassurance, safety and trust — but physicality in relationships of all kinds is critical to reducing our stress.
As researcher Tiffany Field found out in several studies, touch — even physical proximity — produces a greater sense of happiness and ease, which makes communication easier, focus clearer, and productivity higher.
There’s also something about in-person engagement that changes relationship dynamics. Some things we share only in person with someone we trust — the mark of vulnerability that builds bonds. And yet, with digital becoming our primary channel for communication, we’re either withholding that information altogether because we haven’t established trust or we share it anonymously in the social media ether. Neither approach is healthy.
Coming back around to Kirby: While his insistence on in-person engagement serves United well, it also serves us. We can’t get carried away with online dating, online work, online family engagements, online weddings. The online world was designed to be a bridge that connects people in specific ways, not a platform to supplant in-person relationships.
If we spend too much time on Zoom, our loneliness and unhappiness will undoubtedly soar — we’ll feel increasingly disconnected, unmotivated, unproductive, lacking in purpose.
I’ve felt it myself, and it’s terrifying.
So how do we fix it, especially in the midst of a global pandemic?
Encourage safe in-person engagement of vaccinated, masked small groups — both in and outside work. And even if the remote nature of business makes that next to impossible, you can still create a new narrative for your employees: Talk about the importance of social engagement. Encourage employees to set work boundaries so they can unplug and spend time with family and friends. Normalize discussion of mental health issues, offering channels for both private consultations with HR or public channels for employees who feel comfortable sharing with bigger teams.
Most importantly, take time out of your work to discuss these very issues. Let’s remind ourselves what Zoom and our digital connections are meant to accomplish and strive to (safely) reconnect in person wherever possible. It’s those in-person relationships that will re-energize society, boost business engagement, and redound to much greater personal happiness.
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