Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Small Talk

Despite the fact that I rate off the scale on introversion on every personality test I've ever taken, I am skeptical about the the Work From Home and Remote Learning trends. As necessary as they are during these Plague Times, I don't think we have any idea of the long term effects on our corporate culture, our productivity, our innovation, or on our and our children's emotional maturity and communications skills. We are a species that evolved to live and work in tribes.

This morning I read two articles that I liked on this topic.

In "What a Year of WFH Has Done to Our Relationships at Work" (Baym et al., HBR, 2021-03-22), three Microsoft researchers analyze ginormous datasets to determine how communication between team members have changed. Hint: they've become much more siloed.

In "I've lost my conversational mojo - can I relearn the art of small talk?" (Samadder, The Guardian, 2021-04-17), actor and columnist Rhik Samadder talks - socially distantly - to experts in the art of small talk, including to the neuroscientist for which the "Dunbar Number" is named. Upshot: the experts think we'll adjust back to being social again more readily than we might think.

I am concerned about limiting our interpersonal communications to those channels moderated by technology. It's not just about the loss of body language and other social cues. Or the lack of the productive backchannel that is the spontaneous hallway conversation. Or the magic that happens when you get a few smart people in the same room in front of a whiteboard.

It's also about the way in which I turned from being a socially awkward introvert to being - I am told, anyway - skilled at collaborating, teaching, public speaking, and giving executive briefings (while still being a little socially awkward). Being a strong introvert - some might even say a nerd - those skills didn't come naturally to me; they were learned through years of hard-won, and sometimes even painful, experience. Experience that we are eliminating in the WFH and RL world.

I hear a lot of folks talk about how much they prefer WFH and RL. And a lot of those preferences are totally legitimate. But for some of those folks, the strong introverts, I fear that they prefer it because it gives them an excuse not to grow and learn and exercise important social skills.

I also fear this is just another facet of late-stage capitalism, in the form of another cost - the cost of providing adequate infrastructure - that corporations can push off onto their employees, while the resulting hidden expense to the organization remains largely unaccounted for.

I don't think we appreciate what we're giving up. And we have little understanding for the possible long term consequences.

Update (2021-04-22)

Laurie Kenley, a cloud security wrangler, made these insightful remarks in another forum, and kindly gave me permission to reproduce them here verbatim.

I am off the scales in extroversion and I have been working from home for 2 1/2 years. I had to re-create my life around the fact that I would not be getting social interaction in my job well before the pandemic. I had it all figured out. And when the plague hit, all of that collapsed. It took a lot of figuring out how to be OK. Not great but OK.

One thing I will say that has been “better“ during the pandemic as a remote worker, is that everyone is remote now and it’s a level playing field. I have been able to be more effective and more plugged in to my coworkers than ever before in this remote job. To use a Hamilton reference, "the room where it happens" is now a virtual room. It has democratized decision making in a way I don't necessarily expect to last in the coming months.

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