The New Manhattan business district is online. Cultural and anthropological implications of technology-based lifestyle changes in the Covid-19 society


Have you noticed how organizations all around the globe shift abruptly to home-working?
En-masse. Millions of people leave their offices at short notice, as organizations close doors, but cannot close business: banks, insurers, retailers, advertising agencies, doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, EU officials - the whole European Commission and Parliament, all intra-muros consultants. All white-collar workers are working remotely.
Coronavirus created a profound shift in society, human interaction and business culture. Not an incremental change, not a technical change: it is an earthquake. This poses exciting challenges and opportunities, from a cultural and technical perspective, which are discussed below:
  • challenges posed by adapting to a remote digital collaboration style, but also
  • opportunities such as IT tools productivity; cost savings from working with less expensive remote consultants; increase in creativity and innovation.

Introduction

History is typically formed of continuous incremental upgrades in technology and behaviour, with rare moments of technology breakthroughs. Organizations upgrade to remain competitive; technology makes everyday life better, daily. Fax, email, phone, social media, video-conferences became ubiquitous one after the other - but we still commuted daily to our local business district, in crowded subways and on highways, to crowded office buildings, to shared workplaces, to daily meetings and chats by the coffee machine.
I’ve been working for 15 years in pan-European and international IT projects, with tens of partners and thousands of stakeholders from all EU and neighbouring countries. Remote collaboration is part of my regular lifestyle, meeting more people online than in person. I am not alone – we were a small minority of digital workers, spending more time in front of our video-cameras than with family and colleagues. Now, the whole world is abruptly adjusting to working 100% remotely. Work has not changed: we need to perform the same tasks, in the same teams.
Technology is not the driver of change this time - it is merely a facilitator. The tools have been around for a while, and we’ve been waiting for the workplace digital revolution for years: well, here it is. Covid-19 changed our culture abruptly. The cultural paradigm shift is dictated by external, health factors.
This change is about philosophy and culture. Quarantine forces entire populations to continue to work secluded, from their homes. Technology allows us to continue our professional and private lives as normally as possible. Because it can.

”Virtual remote intra-muros”: a new perception about distance

It doesn't matter anymore if consultants are working in your office, in their homes, or off-shore. Your team can be 2 km away, or 2000 km from your office - physical distance makes absolutely no difference, they are practically in the same office as you, wherever they are. There is no difference anymore between intra-muros, proximity, near-shore and off-shore. We are all working in a ”virtual remote intra-muros” paradigm.

Opportunity: cost. The business perspective

When setting up “virtual intra-muros teams”, organizations can work with significantly cheaper consultants situated in different geographical areas, say in Eastern Europe. These offer similar levels of quality, language, communication & technical skills, with reasonable or no time-difference, and perfectly matching the culture and tools for remote collaboration. Experienced outsourcing suppliers such as Tremend can supply such consultants immediately.

The cultural perspective

The switch is forced by external factors, and people are adapting fast, working from home, collaborating and socializing online. We see regular video conferencing. Live folk concerts. Webinars with university lectures. Online parties. School homeworks on email and messaging. Virtual coffees.

Types of distances between private and professional life

The dimensions of the contextual separation between the home and work are: 
  • Temporal distance (working hours vs. personal time);
  • Spatial distance (office vs. home);
  • Psychological distance.

Challenge: context-switching

There was traditionally a clear separation between working hours and personal life, office space and home, which also imposes a psychological differentiation, distancing between business attire and home clothes, between the type of language and communication and even attitude. The physical time-space separation is gone. When working from home, children and family invade your temporal & spatial working space, colleagues invade your personal dimensions with video calls and messages (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mh4f9AYRCZY).
The main cultural challenges of working remotely, and from home, are:
  • The need for maintaining separation between the private and professional worlds;
  • The interpersonal need of belongingness (the middle layer of Maslow’s pyramid of needs), i.e. the human need for bonding, intimacy, friendship.
  • The need for informal communication, non-verbal communication, micro-expressions, gestures (https://www.paulekman.com/resources/micro-expressions/).

Managing context-switching

There are lots of dedicated blog articles, sites and studies on how to manage remote collaboration from a social perspective. Change management best practices include:
  • Cultural changes are more difficult than technology-changes. Tools and procedures must be introduced incrementally.
  • Start with simple tools, accessible to everybody. Tools known and familiar are preferable. Simple  tools are preferable first.
Working from home provides several opportunities: less time spent on commuting, cosy environment, personalized facilities, closeness to family, flexible working hours.
Personal best practices for remote collaboration include:
  • Time-management. Depending on the type of project and organization, work schedules should be more rigorous or more flexible. Home working tends to favor too much flexibility. Even if the project does not require strict continuous collaboration between co-workers, it is advisable to establish a clear schedule of work and meetings each day and each week. Increase the frequency of keep-in-touch meetings with colleagues and customers. Respect meeting schedule. Do not cancel meetings only because it feels more difficult or “unusual” to talk online.
  • Space management: create a secluded work-space when working from home, and dress for business. The space doesn't need to be a separate room - it can be a physical area in the living room, but the family must recognize it as “office space”.
  • Maintain the same etiquette in virtual and physical meetings.
  • Continue all daily office habits: getting up and dressing up at the same hour, the morning coffee routine, daily planning, formal reporting, checking your colleagues tasks, daily meet-ups.
  • Reduce perceived distance with video-conferencing and lots of calls (better than email and messaging, but complementary to emails and messages).
  • Use video in conferences, not only sound. It enhances the experience greatly, making the presentation more personal. Stop the video only when Internet quality is low.
  • Use a laptop for video-conferences and for work, not a smartphone, even if you work from your couch. Better quality, larger screen. And it allows for separation between personal and professional physical space - the laptop is static, and forces you into an “office space” atmosphere.
  • Mute all microphones of participants that are not speaking. This reduces noise in large groups. Control who speaks - unlike in physical meetings, in virtual meetings we are less capable to follow multiple conversation flows simultaneously.
  • Use "shared screen" often, to show your screen and presentations to all the others. Watch presentations and faces simultaneously - unlike our ears, our eyes are capable of multitasking.
  • Work collaboratively in the same document, when collaborating in groups of 3-4 persons (Google docs and MS 365/Teams allow for document-based collaboration). Do not edit the same document simultaneously if there are more than 5 contributors.
  • Always use shared folders for work artefacts - never store documents offline on your laptop.
  • Organize documents in sub-folders, for each topic, use “sharing” settings to control who has access to each sub-folder, and what each user can do (read, or edit the files).
  • Respect people’s personal time. Remember that some people prefer to use Facebook or Whatsapp only for the personal space, some not. Similarly, some people respect working hours for sending messages and emails, some not, even from home.

Challenge and opportunity: mixing international cross-cultural teams. The positive aspects of organizational complexity

There is a long list of literature and scientific studies regarding challenges of working in geographically distributed, cross-cultural teams; and even special university courses (I took a special Global and Transnational Management course with Tiffin University, and several chapters in Management and Leadership courses). Mixing international cross-cultural teams has traditionally been seen as a challenge, with issues related to:
  • Language barriers;
  • Cultural and business-culture differences, such as punctuality, respect of deadlines, sense of honour, duty and responsibility, negotiation styles, collectivist vs. individual orientations.
  • Technical/professional expertise, quality of education and training.
The Western civilization is quite uniform from this point of view. In particular, the European Union has helped build a European identity and culture in the recent years. Especially in IT but also in the world of the international and European institutions, there is already a unique feeling of belonging to the same culture, with specific tools and business practices, and there is even a unique language.
Mixing people from various geographical, professional and cultural backgrounds is an incredible opportunity. In fact, this is an example of “positive complexity”. Diversity encourages creativity and innovation. Innovation is born out of loose, self-organized, complex teams, that exhibit chaos characteristics, emergence and black-swan, fat-tale phenomena (see also this paper of Floricel, Michel and Piperca). I will get back with details on the concept of “positive complexity” in a separate article - I’ve been working on this concept for a few years now.

Social perspective: are fully digital societies viable ?

Covid triggers a major transformation of business culture and lifestyle. But humans are social animals, and will never replace completely personal interaction with digital interaction. 
Virtual collaboration tools are a proxy for physical interaction; highly efficient in an incredible number of situations, but not all. A Stanford study in 2019 found that online has become the most popular way US couples connect - but online supports romantic relationships, not replacing them. Similarly, remote collaboration teams must meet face-to-face regularly - monthly or quarterly, in order to remain efficient and maintain cohesion and to preserve common values, mission, culture and belongingness. Of course, this applies for regular times - it is not possible during the Covid pandemic.
In The Naked Sun, Isac Asimov makes an interesting anthropological study of a fully secluded dystopian society - the implications to social life are provoking and unnatural. Isac Asimov was a pioneer in this area as well, after his magistral analysis of the social implications of artificial intelligence (my thoughts are here: AI Ethics, Machine Law and Robophobia).

Technical challenges. Criteria for selecting a (video-conference) platform

There are numerous articles on how to manage remote collaboration from a technical point of view - this is not the focus of this paper. A long list of remote collaboration tools is here  https://techagainstcoronavirus.com/. The main criteria for selecting a collaboration platform, e.g. for web-conferencing, are:
  • Functional requirements: mandatory or optional features, such as video and audio-conferencing possibility, screen-sharing, chat, video recording;
  • Non-functional (technical) requirements: usability, maximum supported number of (concurrent) users, performance, maintainability; availability of support, stability and reliability, integration with other IT systems, availability as a cloud solution, know-how of users and IT team, alignment with IT strategy.
  • Cost for licensing, implementation and operation.
IT departments meet particularly difficult times today, as company servers are not typically  configured to support the huge number of remote connections required today. Companies that rely already massively on cloud services do not have this problem, and more than that, can manage their IT infrastructure remotely.
For telecom companies and providers of online services, especially software-as-a-service (SaaS), these new times pose important challenges from the technical and service points of view. But there are also incredible opportunities, and the stock markets are responding accordingly, boosting the shares of digital solution companies.

Conclusion

The transition towards a digital remote collaboration environment is a challenge, but thousands of organizations around the globe are adapting to it daily. If the transition is managed correctly from a technical and cultural point of view, the transition challenges are easily overcome.
The new economic realities created by Covid-19 also provide numerous opportunities: boost in efficiency due to IT productivity tools; cost savings when working with less expensive experts from different geographic regions; huge potential for suppliers of remote collaboration solutions, automation, eCommerce and everything digital, increase in creativity and innovation.

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