A friend was going through a momentary disturbed state of mind. Daring the pandemic, I invited him one evening at a market-place. We sat at a place, which was maintaining strict discipline with respect to the corona protocol; and rightly so.
I had an inkling of what was bothering him, but I preferred to hear from him. There was no provocation. After the initial pleasantries, as we sat, I merely asked, “Tell me, what is bothering you?”
Lo and behold!
Tears flowed down his cheeks.
I was stunned. We had been conversing regularly but over the past few months, there had been no face-to-face meeting. He had always maintained his composure and withstood his tears. The eyes may have been moist but never got wet, at least during his presence in on-screen conversations.
Tears revealed the chasm between the inanimate screen and the animate human being!
Merely, a physical presence could open the floodgates.
It was at that moment did I realise that we have been so used to the virtual meetings at workplace that the real touch has been gradually eroding in our work-lives. The contemporary literature is replete with issues creeping out of the excessive dependence on virtual meetings and the ad nauseam frequency of such meetings.
Jane Fraser, the new Chief Executive of Citi Bank, said that the relentlessness of the pandemic workday had taken a toll on people’s well-being; and therefore, as a first step, in a memo to employees, she announced “Zoom-free Fridays”. Recognizing the inordinate (and perhaps, unnecessary) time that the employees had spent on video calls, she initiated a step back – at least for one day a week. The Citi employees would not have to turn their video on for any internal meetings on Fridays.
While the zoom free Fridays are not a transformation from virtual to real world, but at least this has corroborated the fact that continuous on-screen work leads to fatigue. The compulsive work from home, triggered by Corona, has given birth to many economic models. There are sufficient studies/articles/presentations and support papers that bring in the economic rationale, rather than the pandemic, behind the decisions of various industries to announce work from home on a regular basis. Organisations, deriving benefits from the real estate savings of work from home, are offering allowances so that the couches and the bedroom chairs may be transformed to home offices; employees may be dancing in the new-found glory of home studios; their kids may be enjoying sitting on a rolling chair or listening to songs on a new speaker provided by the office. This is a fabulous evolution, as the work and workplace take new shapes.
However, who is watching the sobs that are accumulating within the employee? Where are the office lunch conversations or the chai pe chugli options? Whom does the employee have, but a screen, to share his/her emotions with?
Even though the operating models are evolving, and virtual working is establishing itself as a new-found reality; the developments around off-screen days, as cited above, are equally significant. It is time to bring back the in-office days, even though partially; it is time to recreate the humane bonhomie, in a ‘real’ medium rather than solely in a ‘virtual’ screen.
This is not merely wishful or rhetorical; a silent revolution around the need for psychological strength is already shaping up. For example, a global survey quoted by The Psychiatric Times showed at least 1 adverse mental or behavioral health problem in 40.9% of the sample covering people from UK, China, Spain, Italy, Canada, India; The Hindu reported a general increase in mental health issues; a US Census Bureau Household Survey shows that the percentage of adults showing symptoms of anxiety/depressive disorder has risen from 11% in January 2019 to 41% in January 2021.
Psychologists rely on a cardinal principle – conversations; and they know that there are several things in life that emerge from them. A human being needs a vent-out and he/she needs another human, most of the times. The best path to discovery is through conversations and more so, face to face.
I realised this the moment I noticed that my friend was searching for a handkerchief, which probably, he had missed to carry that day. I quickly handed him over some tissues. This tiny act accelerated the flow of tears.
The only ‘touching’ gesture so far had been the physical presence and the handing over of tissues. If these were not enough, I managed my calm and got up to give a warm hug to the friend-in-need; only to be interrupted by the server entering with his notepad, asking for the order!
An unnerving silence prevailed, as we deferred the order.
During this disruption, my friend wiped the tears and restored his normal composure. As we spoke thereafter to unveil the pain points, we felt that the accumulation was more, and the substance was less.
An act of friendly ‘touch’ – a tissue (!) or a hand on hand or a pat or a hug – can be another version of what Sanjay Datt calls as Jadoo ki Japphi in Munnabhai MBBS.
Can we offer this ‘touch’ to our people ‘in person’? Or are we expecting the screens to invent synthetic arms and hearts to wipe the real human tears?
A dilemma that deserves some attention!