“Let’s zoom really soon!”
So said the older man loudly into his cell phone at the conclusion of a call that everyone in the waiting room could overhear. He was using zoom as a verb, just as we might talk about googling something on the internet or xeroxing a document. Before the pandemic, videoconferencing was mostly restricted to dreary business meetings in which people hundreds or thousands of miles apart could speak over each other in what everyone realized was a poor substitute for being in the same room. But the pandemic made zoom into a verb and people started using it to keep in touch with family as well as colleagues.
Better than nothing, right?
It certainly is better than nothing, for now.
We have Zoom, FaceTime, and many other ways to interact with family and friends who we haven’t been able to see in person over the past year and the fact that many businesses could operate remotely softened the economic blow of the pandemic.
Like everyone else, I have used Zoom and FaceTime more over the past year than ever before. I used it to communicate with family, attend virtual conferences, and even to take music lessons. The technology has advanced greatly over the past decade and increased bandwidth allows for less latency in video and audio. But it is still hardly the same — try talking to smaller children over FaceTime or dealing with the latency issues when playing musical instruments. It is still far inferior to being in the same room.
The benefits of being in the same physical location used to be taken for granted. This is obviously true for friends and family but also in professional settings. The camaraderie of working alongside colleagues with shared objectives and goals is an important part of a cohesive workplace. So are the serendipitous encounters you might have with people in an office setting that just aren’t going to happen over Zoom.
There’s also a huge difference between maintaining existing relationships over videoconferencing and establishing new ones. You can take a team that has functioned well for many years and continue for a period of time working remotely. But what happens when you bring new people on board? You lose the shared set of experiences and sense of purpose that can only come from real life interaction. It is by no means impossible to onboard new people remotely, but it is certainly harder.
Understandably, many workers who had terrible commutes or were living in tiny apartments just to be close to work might relish the thought of permanently working from home. Many people have even abandoned cities for the suburbs or smaller cities during the pandemic thinking that they could continue working remotely for their current employer permanently. There is no doubt that some people will find that a better work-life balance can be struck away from the office environment, but plenty of people are going to find that they will actually work harder than ever before because there is no longer a clear physical separation between their work and home lives. And too much togetherness can be a problem in some families.
In the late 1980s, Ray Oldenburg came up with the term third place which refers to social environments separate from one’s home and work life. A third place might be a setting such as a bar, coffee house, library, church, bowling alley, music venue, or a bookstore. Oldenburg believed that having third places is an important element for human beings to fully engage in civic society. Think of your pre-pandemic life and chances are that you had one or more third places that you visited regularly. I know that I did.
For many people, the pandemic robbed us not only of those third places but also of the second place, our workplace, leaving us with the home as the only environment.
I believe that this is very dysfunctional and problematic in the long run.
But I admit to being biased.
I like urban areas, the more urban the better, and have always viewed the bustle of cities as a representation of economic activity and human achievement. I won’t go so far as to say that I enjoyed packed subway cars, but I find the deserted subways of the pandemic even more disturbing.
The talk of the decline of cities after the pandemic strikes me as a terrible development for humanity and I hope that people will again return to offices. But this might be a minority opinion. The conventional wisdom certainly seems to favor a permanent shift away from cities and offices — a secular trend that might have many unintended consequences.