Read the Room

There are only two reasons to be in person:

One, you're doing something that requires a physical act of cooperation. Help me carry this, steady my ladder, drive for me, hand that to me, hold my beer. In my world, all of those sentences should include, please.

There's a whole lot that we used to think required being in person that, since the invention of writing, has migrated to remote, and that migration is accelerating. Besides, the technologies that bring us together, except for the bicycle, are costly to the ecosystem.

And wipe that smirk off your face because there's a whole lot of virtual sex going on that doesn't need to be in person. As it ever was.

The other, you're doing something that requires high-bandwidth, nonverbal, subjective data; the stuff conveyed by our facial expressions, body language, style and fashion, the way we organize and decorate our spaces.

Turns out this is overrated as well.

I spent a significant chunk of my career doing interviews, for private school admissions, college admissions, and for job applicants. It was wasteful and stupid. My brilliant boss, Walter Baumhoff, in 1990 pitched a random draw for elementary school applicants. I was horrified, and successfully pushed back. Walter, you were right and I was wrong. It was hubris on my part. I regret having taken so long to figure this out. Daniel Kahneman documented this as early as the 70's. In August, Noam Shpancer published the definitive word in Psychology Today.

High-bandwidth, nonverbal, subjective data sharing can enrich our human experience. It's useful for sharing joy, sharing love, sharing grief, sharing uncertainty, in short, sharing our humanity. Not all of us need this or can access this to the same degree.

We can use it to co-create in our cognitive realm: help me elevate this idea, help me steady my resolve, show me where you would go with this, what do you have to add, watch me while I try this.

Most of our work is one of us doing a thing -- like me right now. There are people I will turn to: help me elevate this idea, help me steady my resolve, show me where they would go with this, what do they have to add, watch me while I try this.

None of them needs to be in this room, much less in the building.

In contrast, my wife, Susan, is a baseball fan. Tonight we'll go to a pub to watch the Red Sox. We'll put ourselves among a group of people, mostly strangers, to share joy, to share love, to share grief (it is the Red Sox after all,) to share uncertainty, in short, to share our humanity. In this context, being in a place sharing high-bandwidth, nonverbal, subjective data enriches our human experience.

Why would you go back to in-person work?

Do you do physical tasks that require you to be physically present to do them?

Do you benefit from engaging in an exchange of high-bandwidth, nonverbal, subjective data?

Turns out, the data is in. Angelica Pucio, reporting her research in the statistics news service, 538, shows that polls poorly as well.

"The group most enthusiastic to return to in-person work is white men — 30 percent want the office to be the only place where they work. Roughly half as many Black men — almost 16 percent — feel the same. White and Black women are in the middle, around 22 percent each.

That might be because in the U.S., office culture was originally created to accommodate the needs of white people, and specifically men, says Angelica Leigh, a professor of management and organizations at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Leigh’s research shows that when dealing with the aftermath of massive social events that disproportionately affect people of color, such as the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, many employees of color suppress their emotions in order to fit into the norms of the office. She and her colleague refer to that suppression as identity labor."

In the decision to return to the office, are people doing jobs that require them to be in person to co-create more effectively?

Or maybe they need to be supported in doing the things they need to do, and leave them to share joy, to share love, to share grief, to share uncertainty, in short, to share their humanity, in contexts more conducive to them than the office.

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