Kirk Klasson

Work in the time of Covid

By now, it’d be safe to assume that you are thoroughly versed in social distancing, rigorously practiced in hazmat antiseptic procedures and have joyfully embraced the art of living prophylactically. All things routinely proscribed by the Germaphobe’s Handbook of Acceptable Hygiene. Where once you went about your every day errands grudgingly resigned you now view gripping the handle of a shopping cart like a romp through a Bangkok brothel. You see halos of fever floating over strangers and fear public sneezing like you would an active shooter incident at a crowded business convention. If stopped on the street and asked “what do you fear most?” would your answer be a) rhetorical hypotheticals, b) random acts of terror or c) the Covid virus?

Putting aside the personal suffering this disease might ultimately entail, precautionary measures such as travel bans, remote work, institutional and public venue closures are about to provide an unprecedented glimpse of derivative consequences into the way we currently live our lives. And perhaps more importantly, challenge the conventional thinking that supports routine cultural norms and the role that technology plays in promoting, sustaining and changing them.

We can all imagine the near term technological changes that might be involved; they already exist but often are only contingently employed. Telemedicine, uniform healthcare records, on-line shopping and food and drug delivery, telecommuting, remote schooling, etc. Most would also acknowledge the inevitable rise of intermediate term innovations; things currently on the periphery of economic justification but whose value could appreciate and adoption accelerate due to current circumstances. Cashier-less retail, driverless transportation, voice recognition and integration of core enterprise applications, virtual and augmented reality. Fewer might even subscribe to emerging technologies such as somatosensory, empathetic inference and contextual conceptualization, the nascent realm of human and machine companionship.

What most of us are about to experience is a technologically predicated re-evaluation of occupational social contributions to everyday life. One can easily imagine the headlines from our not too distant future. Items such as “Open office floor plans eliminate employee occupancy” or “Diminishing returns from Georgian architecture to Ivy League eductions”. Students at the University of Dayton, upon learning that all university housing and facilities would close due to the virus immediately staged a riot, or as some characterized, a party, until the wee hours of the morning. A sincere expression of regret for the life style they were about to forego.Technical capabilities and provisioning have made significant strides since the last virus scare of about 10 years ago. Back then, face-time occupations and cultures shivered at the prospect of remote engagement. Today the obvious solution for social distancing is to simply move everyone off-prem.

What has yet to be determined is the impact distance has on workplace social interaction. People are complex beings. Every gesture, every glance is imbued with subtle, often emotional, meaning. Recent research suggests that our emotions and our intellect are intimately, even limbically, intertwined. Why else would emojis enjoy such popularity, were it not for the obvious need for sympathetic augmentation of plain text communication?

An emerging class of computer technologies is designed to address this very circumstance. Variously referred to as Social, Affective, Empathetic, or Relational computing its mission is to augment existing AI techniques with emotional tempering, facilitating the sympathetic rendering of computer-based human interaction. Initially these techniques were viewed as being mostly beneficial to healthcare situations, particularly in those instances were doctor-patient communications might be compromised by declining mental or physical capabilities. This included the delivery of elder care, a growing concern given the vulnerability of this community to the recent corona pandemic. More recently, these techniques have been folded into call center capabilities to help improve sensitivity to customer concerns. Ultimately, they could find their way into remote work capabilities acting as an invisible coach for employee and management interaction. Look for products like Zoom, Slack and Happy Tools to move in this direction. Platform suites like Microsoft’s Teams, Google’s G Suite, Salesforce’s Chatter and Facebook’s Workplace may be uniquely advantaged as they can combine exiting AI capabilities with emerging affective computing techniques. While the value of these solutions may seem obvious to some, so far, this hasn’t been reflected in their current rate of adoption. But this is likely to change and for very practical considerations. I’m reminded of an admonishment I frequently heard as a consultant that’s attributed to Teddy Rosevelt, “nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care”.

The inevitable consequence of social distancing will be a critical re-evaluation of the need for immediate work related physical connection and proximity. Some occupations will always require a human touch. But increasingly others will not. And the need to spend a two hour commute to support a largely administrative workflow is going to look like the very definition of insanity. If the only value of proximity is as a means of flattering the managerial class, no one but no one is going to be jumping on the Long Island Expressway at 6AM ever again. And if you have any doubt just look at the non-sense over at Charter Communications.

So what will happen to the ranks of professional management once it is discovered that employees can do their jobs without someone standing over their shoulders? Generations of professional managers, the acolytes of the Jack Welsh model of management, would suddenly be rendered irrelevant. Likewise, how could employees and students curry favor and solicit opportunities if they couldn’t be seen flattering and sucking up? Without the organizational norms of play ground politics and fawning sycophancy, how will any institution know who to cultivate and promote? What role will culture play in the value creating properties of future organizations? What happens to all those “best places to work” awards when you don’t actually work in a place? And how will all those woke organizations promote their virtuous diversity when they no longer have the visible affordances of race, gender and orientation to rely on?

After all, as the New Yorker once so aptly opined, “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

Cover image courtesy of CDC all other images, statistics, illustrations and citations, etc. derived and

included under fair use/royalty free provisions.

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