That Personal Touch

I asked my son what he did last night, and he told me he had a “zoom date.”

“A what?” A “zoom date,” where he and a woman swiped in the same direction on some app, if that’s how it works, and they then have a “date.” On Zoom. Where they sit in their own homes and stare at a screen and attempt to make a connection. There was no shared food, no beverage, no smell, no taste and no feel. It sounded awful. No, it sounded ridiculously sanitary, as if no two human beings could possibly believe this was a good idea. Yet, this is the time of COVID, so real dates couldn’t happen and virtual was all they had left.

“How did it go,” I asked? “It wasn’t good,” he told me. They tried to talk, asking the usual questions of each other, forced, strained, virtual. After 15 minutes, both knew it wasn’t working, but they played it out and after an hour. it was over. They mumbled good-byes, thankful that it was over.

This is no way for human beings to live, to connect. It might be all there is, but it’s missing one crucial ingredient necessary for human existence. The ability to establish a personal connection. While it might be understandable due to COVID now, and perhaps for the foreseeable future, some are seeing it as evidence, maybe even proof, that our future will be built on a foundation of isolation.

I was sitting in my office the other day, relishing the silence but also regretting it. As I scanned the empty desks where my colleagues and I used to banter in an open newsroom-like setting, I was beholding the ghost town that has become the white-collar workplace.

In September, 2001, my office was on the 51st Floor of the Woolworth Building in downtown Manhattan. It was in what they called the “Red Zone,” where the flames from the World Trade Center licked the windows when the plane crashed into the tower. I would be allowed in once a week to collect files I needed, walking up 51 flights because the elevators had no power, and saw the same office that Allan Ripp saw. The empty one, where things were sitting where people left them, untouched, but there was no one there. It was a silent, empty space.

Our office on the ninth floor was like a Pompeian diorama of the final hours before civilization fled—scribbled call notes, empty yogurt containers, flickering computer screens. The wall clock had stopped. I threw out someone’s expired salad dressing and washed some mugs. On a colleague’s desk was a yellowing copy of The Wall Street Journal from March 11, the last paper before an early virus cluster in Westport, Conn., ended his commute.

For those of us who worked in offices, know our colleagues and can still reach out to them by email, text or, if you’re old, telephone, we’re still the same people, just separated. We already had personal connections established when we sat next to each other and whispered or made jokes. But over time, we didn’t talk like we used to, sticking our heads into each other’s office ten times a day for dumb banter.

I puttered around email and wrote an “important” memo, but the overwhelming quiet and lack of collegial buzz took me off focus. If this was the future of work, I was wary. After checking Facebook and Google News, I called my wife to see how she was managing her time in exile. “Can I come home yet?” I asked.

For those of us who can work remotely, COVID has proven that physical offices aren’t “necessary,” in the sense that we can get our work done from anywhere. It’s got some significant benefits, as we recapture the time lost to commuting, no longer need to buy and wear the office uniform and save a small fortune on the cost of real estate. This is being seriously considered as our future.

Our company has functioned well in separation. We run errands as needed. There’s no commute. We do calls in our long underwear—well, some of us do. Judging by our monthly results we’ve been as productive as ever. If my lease were up tomorrow, I doubt I’d renew, especially since my landlord has refused all appeals for concessions. But if I could conjure the bullpen back together, I would. Some forecasters say it could take until late next year or 2022 before herd immunity kicks in sufficiently to bring people into office settings, never mind back onto subways and trains. Government warnings and Covid posttraumatic stress disorder may keep white-collar employees at home even after millions of Americans are vaccinated.

For those of us who experienced office life, established relationships with the person in the next office, the isolation may be disconcerting, but we at least know the people on the other end of the email. But for new people to the workforce?

My son’s best friend and roomie got his Ph.D. in computer engineering, what MIT calls Course 6. He got a job with an exceptional salary from a tech company where he works on a team. They do everything in teams now. He’s quite brilliant, having entered MIT at 16 years of age, and companies were bidding for his interest as he’s the rarest of precious jewels, brilliant, black and highly credentialed. He’s no mere code monkey, but the real deal.

But he’s never met his colleagues in person. He knows his team’s names and email addresses, but he doesn’t know his team. He’s never shared a beer with them, never even shaken a hand. I don’t know if he would recognize the sound of a team member’s voice. He feels no real camaraderie. He loves his work, but he doesn’t know what it means to feel loyalty to his employer, his co-workers. He tells me there are disconnects, misunderstandings, sometimes hard feelings from miscommunications or someone failing to complete a task that others were relying on, but nobody really understands why this is happening.

He’s never worked in an office where he established real-life relationships with these people first, and then was separated due to circumstance. His connection to his team is about as real as a Zoom Date, and just about as fulfilling. His employer let go of their office lease and doesn’t plan to rent new space when the pandemic is over.

I wandered to a window and gazed through my binoculars at the office building across 57th Street. It appeared uninhabited, and I could hear “The Twilight Zone” theme in my head.

The things we do now to avoid infection may well be understandable and prudent, but just because we’re managing for the moment doesn’t mean human beings no longer need to establish real, physical connections with each other. Even though those of us who spent decades in offices with our friends and co-workers may barely be able to overcome the sense of isolation, people who have never had that experience will not know what it means to be part of a team where we have actual human connection.

6 thoughts on “That Personal Touch

  1. The Real Kurt

    I consider myself extremely fortunate not to have suffered this fate. I make my (short – 3 stop signs and 3 traffic lights) commute to the office each workday, where our well-distanced cubicles partitioned with half walls allow us to work without masks. We are supposed to wear masks outside of our cubicles, but for my team and within our part of the building that’s honored more in the breach than the observance, and we wander over to each other’s cube several times a day to chat.

    My sympathies to those who, like my wife, must work from home and do zoom/webex/teams meetings.

    It’s isolating as hell for anyone with an ounce of gregariousness – and it’s even worse for those (mainly women and again like my wife) who have to also do before and after school care for offspring.

    Dating like that? Not a chance.

    That reminds me – time to get her some flowers, for no reason at all.

    The Real Kurt

  2. Skink

    You hit this right on the nose.

    I’m functional. I tell those that need to know what I want done: background this guy; send letters to these dopey lawyers. But the regular interaction is lost. The stories of children doing stuff, talking of newsish stuff, just regular talking, is gone.

    The most in-depth conversation I’ve had with anyone in the last month was with a guy that needed bus fare back to Miami.

  3. Rxc

    This situation is not good for developing good human personal interaction skills.

    The Naked Sun, by Isaac Asimov comes to mind.

    Hopefully, the elements of human nature that have encouraged us to procreate, for a very long time, will eventually triumph.

  4. kemn

    I’m not usually a social person. I’m the wallflower in parties, the quiet guy in the corner.

    But after having been stuck remote since March, I’m slowly (or maybe not slowly) going insane. The isolation from my colleagues and co-workers is crippling my interactions. It was hard enough in meetings when multiple people all wanted to talk when things were in person. Now? it’s a nightmare.

    Not being able to hear what’s going on with another engineer, offer my analysis, or easily ask for help? It’s killing me.

    Work is getting done, yes. But is it *good* work? Is it our best work? No.

    1. SHG Post author

      You can see it because you know what good collaboration can be. For those who don’t have your prior experience, will they understand?

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