One of the limitations of remote working is the lack of shared, physical space between co-workers. While many might feel this is a benefit that allows one to focus more without the interruptions of idle chatter, for some companies this absence can have long-term, detrimental effects on the abilities of employees to come together as a team and feel part of a business with which they can identify. And although there might be some benefits to virtual connections provided by remote platforms, what such platforms really cannot replace is the kind of spontaneity that informs a great deal of creativity and comradery that is important to innovation and problem-solving.
In this blog, I explore the ways in which remote working conditions are often not organic enough to allow for the kind of cultural visibility that many businesses require in order for them to function beyond the mere fulfillment of operational ends and tasks. Much of what I have to say has arisen from on my ongoing consultation on meaningful work with the analysts at Quorsus. (Thank you!)
Organic and Virtual Spontaneity
So why can’t virtual platforms allow for the organic kinds of moments and relations that I described above as spontaneous? One can certainly use such platforms spontaneously by deciding on a whim to log on and search or call someone just to touch base. One might also discover new information or ideas by virtue of scrolling about a platform’s various features.
What is crucial to the distinction I am making between organic and virtual spontaneity is that the former is limited in terms of the interfaces that mediate its functioning (think here of pstructured physical space). The latter is often dominated by interfaces of various kinds that often introduce different operations to perform a function. I will elaborate on this in a moment, but let me just try to encapsulate the above by saying that organic spontaneity is defined by an open proximity, while virtual spontaneity is defined by a closed or distant proximity.
If you are familiar with the philosophy of technology, you will either like or hate what I have just said since it is characterized by what is often referred to as a classical (and by implication, too narrow) view of technology. Yes and no. As a philosopher, I am certainly guarded about technology, but by no means do I think we can remove ourselves from it.
So what do I mean by the dominance of interfaces and closed or distant proximity when referring to virtual spontaneity?
It is simply the idea that a set of technological operations intervene on what would normally occur biologically or physically. Take a basic example of this in terms of bodily locomotion and machine technology. To get from A to B, I would typically initiate movement in terms of my legs and arms to walk somewhere. When I introduce a technological machine, such as a car, getting from A to B will involve a different set of operations (i.e. starting the ignition, shifting gears, pressing the accelerator, etc.).
With virtual technology, the sets of operations are evident in having to sit at a computer, interrupt physical movement and relations by retrieving one’s mobile phone, activating an application, engaging in a set of operations to make a video call, etc.
Remote Working at What Cost?
Now it is true in both instances of the car and virtual technology that they provide significant advantages with respect to travel, connectivity, time efficiency, and so on. (Though I question to what extent how we really understand time efficiency in both instances.) Nonetheless, the cliché holds true that for any increase in capacity comes a cost.
As Henry Drummond, Spencer Tracy’s character from Inherit the Wind (1960), once said (I remember this bit from when I saw the film in the 1980s):
“Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there's a man who sits behind a counter and says, ‘All right, you can have a telephone, but you lose privacy and the charm of distance. Madam, you may vote but at a price: you lose the right to retreat behind the powder puff or your petticoat. Mister, you may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.’”
One of the costs with virtual communication platforms is that we become used to engaging through the interfaces and protocols that facilitate virtual communication. Has the use of emojis and short texts had an impact on our ability to articulate and express ourselves as a culture? Or has video chatting changed the way we speak and relate to clients and co-workers?
These are open questions.
But one way in which we can see some kind of response is in how the organic time spent with co-workers needs to be scheduled when using virtual platforms. This is because one’s co-worker is no longer physically near in terms of proximity. One can’t just pop over to a co-worker’s office or cubicle, or run into someone while getting coffee. Instead, one has to schedule and plan for such events.
And this is not to say that virtual technology cannot work. I think we have to find ways in which it can, as we move forward with remote working. But I think there is a lot more than just relying on technology and allowing it to shape how we engage and interact with others.
We need to be mindful and creative of the tensions between organic and virtual relations and, at least from my point of view, let the organic version of creativity try to inform the latter . . . if that is possible (some classical philosophers of technology would say it is not!). In an attempt to propose solutions, I want to make an analogy to parkour. But perhaps for another time!
Todd Mei is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Kent. He runs the public philosophy website philosophy2U.com and is a keen windsurfer and recovering rock climber.