RDS_190501 Handshake ban
We need to feel those handshakes again. Remote working was the lifeline for economies all over, but those one-on-one office interactions and quality time at the desk do matter. Image Credit: Shuttertstock

Those of you who follow my writing will know that the onset of COVID-19 left my family stranded in different countries... and delayed the start of a new life in a new home. We have managed to stay safe and healthy, which is of course the most important thing, but like many families, to say that lockdown has been an inconvenience is putting it lightly.

So, you can imagine my delight when things gradually started to move, and we finally began unpacking boxes in the house we plan to make our home. Moving supposedly counts as one of the most stressful events in a person’s life, but after months of COVID-19-induced frustration, I’ve kind of relished the experience. For weeks, my social circle has been limited to a handful of delivery guys (who I now know by name) - so the tedious tasks involved in moving house have frankly been a welcome change.

And arranging cable being one of them. So, when the Comcast guys came to work their magic a few days ago, I jumped at the chance to engage in conversation. As the team set to work, I got chatting with the supervisor.

How is he dealing with remote life, I wondered. So naturally, I asked him. But before I could finish my sentence, he jumped in. “I can’t wait to get back to the office to be close to my guys,” he said, a touch of hope in his voice.

He explained how he used to spend half his time in the office and half in the field; this “new normal” was getting to him.

Remote ways will eventually jar

With the house all wired up and good to go, Comcast packed up and left, but the conversation stayed with me. Since the arrival of coronavirus, the trend of remote work has skyrocketed, and a multitude of surveys indicate an employee preference for working from home. But I don’t buy it.

The cracks are starting to show, and as the novelty wears off, the unstoppable force that is human nature is starting to shine though.

At first, remote working sounded like a dream come true for many people – no commute, no stiff suit, a boss that could be disconnected at the touch of button. But as we sit isolated and alone in our living rooms, silence descends and a feeling of emptiness sets in.

Where is the office banter? The drinks after work? The ease of leaning across the desk to ask a question, instead of firing off an email and waiting for a response? Where is the structure?

Remote management

And if it’s lonely for rank-and-file employees, it can be even lonelier at the top – and infinitely more stressful. Not only do leaders have their own isolation to contend with, they’re expected to contain and mitigate everyone else’s too. And all the while trying to ensure that people are getting the job done.

Forget remote leadership, at times managers are left feeling that this is not even remotely leadership at all.

Leadership is a living practice that requires human contact in order to flourish. Coronavirus has irreversibly changed some aspects of life, but it will take more than a health pandemic to dismantle the innate human need to interact.

As Aristotle famously said: “Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human…”.

Thousands of years on, the body of research into why human contact is important is virtually bottomless. From building trust and team dynamics, to supporting physical health, the benefits of physical touch and face-to-face interaction are well-documented.

But we don’t need scientific proof – we have experienced it ourselves. We all communicate through a complex language of expressions, gestures and physical touch, and if the lockdown has taught us anything, it’s that all these matter more than we thought.

Sure, deals can be done via video call, but what I wouldn’t give right now for a firm handshake or a friendly pat on the back.

- Tommy Weir is CEO of enaible: AI-powered leadership and author of “Leadership Dubai Style”. Contact him at tsw@tommyweir.com.