At long last, I have Covid. Our family had eluded the plague all this time, largely because we entered lockdown already optimized for isolation: Rob and I both worked from home, and one of our kids is homeschooled.
I got Covid the way I expected: speaking to a roomful of human beings about how to make the most of hybrid work. I was in Washington, DC, and the human beings I was speaking to had flown in from all over the world. Like me, they had changed planes and time zones to get there; they had negotiated childcare arrangements and put overflowing inboxes on hold; they had braved jet lag and the very real prospect of DC in a government shutdown.
And we were in a room together because of one common pain point: the return to office. The people I spoke with last week worked at a range of different organizations, but just about all these organizations have been pushing for employees to spend more time in the office.
The irony of in-person
One woman in the room pointed out the irony of this situation. Like every employer represented in that room, hers is an organization that stakes its reputation on providing equal levels of consideration and service to every client it has — regardless of location. Whether you’re in Nairobi or Naples, Bogota or Bangkok, these organizations promise you’ll be treated equally. And yet they’re requiring their own employees to return to the office, on the premise that presence matters.
“If you are saying I need to be in the office, you are confirming proximity bias,” this professional observed. “It’s like saying our organizations aren’t really able to serve local and global clients.”
If it’s paradoxical to rush people back to the office so they can prove that location doesn’t matter, perhaps it is just as paradoxical that we arrived at this epiphany by gathering together in a room, after traveling vast distances. Gathering together is often what enables this kind of magic, this alchemy, where our brains spark and we have conversations that transform our worldview, our work and our organizations.
Even though I spend much of my time speaking and writing about the ways that organizations can re-balance their work structures to depend on in-person interaction a little less, and value online collaboration a lot more, I still believe deeply in the magic of in-person. I believe in it so deeply that I want to make the most of every magic moment; to do whatever it takes to spark the truest connection and the most powerful thinking…even to the point of wading in to a room full of global travelers, unmasked.
So here I am, writing this newsletter in bed with the help of a pile of painkillers, a course of Paxlovid and the caretaking of my husband/medic (who amazingly remains Covid-free!)
Who pays the price?
It’s an uncomfortable reminder that the magic of in-person always comes at a price. Sometimes it’s paid in the hassle of commuting; sometimes it’s paid in the loss of focused, productive work time where you can say exactly what you accomplished by the end of the day. Often it’s paid unequally: That in-person magic costs more for the person who needs to put complicated care-giving arrangements in place; who has a long and expensive commute; who finds intense interaction more exhausting than invigorating; or who has personal or family health conditions that make in-person gathering a profound health risk.
Sometimes, it’s even paid at the profound cost of contradicting our values: Not just the value of providing equal service regardless of location, but values like respecting employee autonomy, ensuring our workplace is accessible and inclusive, advocating work-life balance or reducing our organizations’ carbon footprint.
There’s no easy way to ease this trade-off, or to resolve the paradox of our contradictory feelings, values and behaviors when it comes to hybrid work. Employers will continue to pull employees back to the office so they can do work that is supposedly global and location-agnostic. Professionals will continue to gather so that we can talk about ways of reducing the in-person pressure. And we will continue to pay a high price for both, in ill-will and in illness.
Costs and consolations
It’s a price that’s often worth paying—or so it seemed to me, when I returned from last week’s keynote overflowing with ideas, inspiration, energy…and as it turns out, viral load. But then I infected both my kids, in what is a too-literal reminder of the fact that the price of in-person is not always paid by those who reap its rewards.
Yet even that lesson has been softened, slightly, by a magic of its own. My kids are now pretty much grown; it’s been well over a decade since I last had the experience of children surrounding me as I sleep, gently nudging me into consciousness. But that’s exactly what happened last night, as the kids climbed into bed on either side of me, looking for maternal comfort in their sick misery.
I felt terrible for making them so sick that they needed me. And also, so grateful to have one last opportunity to be a mom with her babies snuggled on either side.
This post was originally featured in the Thrive at Work newsletter. Subscribe here to be the first to receive updates and insights on the new workplace.