You’ve probably seen headlines proselytizing the demise of the American city as we know it. It’s true that some are fleeing large metropolises like New York City in favor of less dense, more affordable suburban areas. And of course, marketing and advertising professionals are relinquishing certain career-boosting benefits of big-city-living during this time.
But let’s call attention to what’s being lost. Networking and other interactions may look different in the next couple of months (or years)—and facets of white-collar life may reemerge as something entirely different than what we’re used to. For example, the three-martini lunch may not be a reality in the foreseeable future (but is anyone going to miss that anyway?).
If anything is true, it’s that communication different during the pandemic. It seems like every conversation must be scheduled these days—and meeting time is more precious than it’s ever been. Gone are the days of walking over to a colleague’s desk to ask a question. Watercooler chats have all but been replaced by 15-minute video chats.
Everyone is busy now. And I appreciate the discretion coworkers and clients use when scheduling conversations. However, this emphasis on scheduling has led to a more formalized perception of time. Unlike the informal, in-person collaboration that occurs naturally in an office setting, we’re being forced to compartmentalize our conversations. It’s all business these days.
Collaboration is sometimes stilted in a remote work environment. While there are virtual whiteboard and project management tools by the dozen, there’s a certain energy that’s forfeited when you aren’t rolling up your sleeves with your team in a conference room. Plus, if a conclusion isn’t reached in an allotted timeframe, the task may get put on the back burner.
While video conferencing has come a long way, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard suffered through subpar audio or spotty Wi-Fi. Plus, we’ve all heard the old adage that up to 93% of all communication is nonverbal—and there are those of us who may be less expressive or more introverted. Of course, these are minor complaints in the grand scheme of things, and, if anything, they’re reminders that we’re all human. But minor Zoom gaffes are an affirmation that there’s something that’s lost in translation with video chat.
So, what does the future of work look like?
As someone who resides in Los Angeles—and who has colleagues and clients in big cities across the country—it’s a question that’s worth considering. Cities and office life may look different for a bit. And of course, I’m not the only person to ask this question.
This year, we’ve seen technology used to an extent that we once only thought about. Customer service reps make yield calls from their homes, doctors consult patients online, and teachers provide online lesson plans. For the most part, we’ve adapted. As a Wired article suggests, the main barriers to automation weren’t necessarily technology—they were cultural.
There are certain companies and industries that will bounce back to normal in a post-vaccine world. But there are many others that won’t—and some of these decisions are intentional. From Twitter to Upwork to Zillow, many of the country’s largest employers have chosen to transition to a remote-first model. REI made waves in summer 2020 when they announced they were selling their yet-to-be-opened corporate headquarters to make way for a remote future.
For the record, I’m not advocating for lunch to disappear. This is not an article about intermittent fasting. I love an afternoon Chipotle burrito bowl as much as the next person. Nor am I taking a hard stance on in-person work. However, perhaps one takeaway we’ll see is a renewed emphasis on time allocation and flexibility. I can’t tell you how times I’ve heard a coworker or client apologize on a video call about a barking dog or crying baby. This just normal life now.
Without making predictions about the future of work, some things will change. It’s inevitable. I personally miss that informal gray space that exists in offices. That five minute conversation in the hall with someone from a different department; that destressing, post-work rant with a trusted colleague. But I also know that not everyone feels the same. For some, remote work has been their reality for years—and others are welcoming the cultural shift that’s occurring.
Lunch isn’t going anywhere. But some of us may continue to eat from their homes—and that’s okay.