Aristotle had famously said, "man is a social animal", suggesting that people cannot survive in isolation. How paradoxical it is now that the survival of the same creature depends on "social distancing". No wonder it has left us all disoriented - even as we learn to navigate through the initial phases of "unlock".
Social distancing caused us all to acknowledge the value of human proximity that we all took for granted and from time to time, even abhorred. I plead guilty. Well, I fall closer to the introvert end of the introvert-extrovert spectrum. But after 3 months even I feel the weight of Aristotle's pithy observation.
It's human tendency to preoccupy ourselves with what once was - what we have lost. In an ever-changing world, we seek comfort in nostalgia. However, the instinct for survival instructs us to try and focus on the bright side. Making us think instead about what there is - what we have gained.
Other than the notion that distance makes the hearts fonder, distance has typically been viewed as a barrier because of the heavy reliance us humans place on physical presence. We spent copious amounts of time, effort and money on covering distances. This was considered indispensable in order to get things done. We were used to it. We were okay with it. Even when the technology was invented to facilitate the cutting down of some of this expenditure, we resisted it. Perhaps owing to an inherent distrust of people which gets alleviated a little when they are in front of you, under your nose. And we carried on with it. Until the pandemic hit. Leaving us with no choice.
Just like that within three months, the world witnessed not just 'work from home' in full throttle but also everything else we couldn't have imagined earlier - from new business pitches to theater-plays to wedding ceremonies being conducted on video conference. It's not nearly as much fun as actual weddings, but this does show us something.
We all have groups of cousins or old friends spread across the globe we haven't met for ages. Everyone keeps inviting each other to their respective cities. Plans are made repeatedly but they seldom materialise. It never occurred to most of us to meet up on video conferencing. But now, for some reason it did. Umpteen screen shots of friends and family gathering over video conferencing, with a sparkle of delight in their eyes or in splits of laughter stand as testimony. It doesn't beat actual visits but it does beat ending up never catching up at all - sometimes for years.
Another kind of intimacy boost, if I can call it that, this lock-down has given us is that with our celebrity idols. With no other avenue to connect with their audience and little else to do with their time - public figures resorted to the LIVE feature on social networking platforms with unprecedented generosity. For the first time we got to see their living spaces and often the people they live with.
Speaking of living spaces, for the first time, we got glimpses, in varying degrees, of the homes of our colleagues. Even if just on video, it's often more than we have ever known the people we have worked with for years. It has been a lesson in being at ease with keeping things real.
Social networking is often accused of bringing out the fake and pretentious in all of us. If that is true, then 'social distancing' seems to be the antidote to it. It has compelled us to get comfortable with our own and each other's vulnerabilities. Bringing us closer to being authentic - something that we had started collectively craving for. We are emerging with an even greater respect for transparency and with an enhanced ability to trust and be trusted.
Just the catalysts needed to create the necessary work culture shifts that we have resisted for over a decade. There are murmurs about exploring the possibility of a three days at office and four days at home system - saving tremendous amounts of time, and from having to choke ourselves in traffic at least twice daily. Giving us enough extra time to get more done - at work and with family and on self – assuming by then we would have overcome the initial disorientation that comes with sudden change.
Covid19 happens to have hit in the era where businesses have begun to recognise the value of empathy, kindness and authenticity. Today, we have overwhelming evidence of the positive impact of these components. And yet it was a tough call to facilitate and therefore legitimise time spent with family and on self - for better productivity at work. Until now.
This compulsion to social distance is perhaps just the necessary shove we needed to use the technology that has been available to us for decades (getting sophisticated by the day) to increase productivity while cutting down expenditures. And to enable empathy and authenticity.
Social distancing is not fun, no doubt. But it has inversely also demonstrated to us that distance need not be a barrier to getting things done - in our businesses (barring those that directly rely on travel and tourism) and in our personal lives (barring travelling for leisure). But for everything else, the writing on the wall seems to be, to borrow from the familiar Jay-Z lyric, "we have 99 problems, but distance ain't one".
The author is a brand strategist with a career spanning close to 15 years across agencies in Mumbai and Colombo.