Finding Shared Ground: The Subtle Fear Underscoring the Remote Work Debate

6 months have passed since remote work entered mainstream debate. It has, of course, generated running commentary in certain circles for decades, but has taken on heightened importance amidst concerns of workplace safety due to the COVID pandemic.

In this time, we’ve witnessed every argument for and against working remotely. My website lists 68 distinct dimensions of the conversation and I see more and more identified as the weeks pass. With so many facets available to debate, it becomes easy to run around each other in circles. What does this look like? Remote work advocates laying out a utopian future of virtual work. Detractors citing valid concerns of their own. Shared ground and open-mindedness become scarce. Stances harden as the grooves of argument deepen. And should you espouse blanket statements either for or against remote work? You will meet the full force of every exception to your position, across industry, type of job, and form of argument. Branded as a close-minded traditionalist or naive progressive.

So where does this leave us?

With no shared ground.


Lost in the relentless noise of the argument is the very source of debate. What factor subliminally drives our implicit concern for remote work? Even a fear of remote work?

A slippery slope. The concern that our real lives are slowly descending into virtual ones. While the remote work debate should deal strictly with HR departments and the workplace, remote work affects every facet of our lives. At our deepest level, we fear a world that is outsourced. Digitized. Virtual. Not real.

Remote work critics are most in touch with this. Advocates (paradoxically) identify with it too. By contrast, they believe that the freedom to connect with your friends and family in new ways actually counters the loss of face-to-face interaction in the office. (I’m in this second camp).


What drives digitization wariness? Consider the digitization of the below:

Money

Not only is cash disappearing, but electronic payments via mobile phones are increasingly supplanting the use of debit/credit cards.

A Delivery Culture

Name it and get it delivered to your home.

Play Time

Through video games and, increasingly, cell phones.

Digital Media

Already digitalized by definition, but increasing its hold over print media. How does nostalgia affect us here? And does the Internet keep us from deep thought and genuine introspection?

Education

While the issues with distance learning are well-documented and scores of families eagerly await the return to traditional classrooms, it is difficult to shake the feeling that online programs will continue to increase their share of pie, particularly for older/university students.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

While I know next to nothing about artificial intelligence, there is reason to be wary. The Precipice, an intriguing new book that quantifies existential risk in the 21st century, identifies AI as our number one concern, beating out natural catastrophes, warfare, etc. And by a healthy margin.


Does remote work build community or deepen isolation? Given prevailing opinions and a society shut in from the rest of the world, it’s not difficult to see how the digitization of the workplace may feel like a final straw. Or close to it!

Debate does not occur in a vacuum. Especially at the present.

Your argument is as strong as your weakest link. And subject to your biases and all-too-personal personal experiences. How can we cultivate a greater shared understanding in the remote work debate? And what does maintaining humanity in a digital age look like?

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