Tom Purcell: Longer isolation means less productivity

Published 12:14 am Tuesday, August 18, 2020

COVID-19 is getting old – particularly for employees who’ve been working from home for months.

That’s the finding of a Wall Street Journal article, “Companies Start to Think Remote Work Isn’t So Great After All.”

Early on, when millions stopped commuting and started working from home, many companies saw good results. Work was getting done. Most employees enjoyed it. Companies saw an opportunity to reduce future office overhead costs by making remote work part of their long-term strategy.

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But that was before cracks began to emerge in the work-from-home model.

According to The Journal, initiatives now take longer. Hiring and integrating new staff is harder. Employees aren’t bonding or growing with each other. Efforts to collaborate online are going flat.

One CEO puts his finger on the problem: It’s “vital to have individuals in a room and see physique language and skim indicators that don’t come by means of a display screen.”

He’s exactly correct. Humans are social animals. We’re at our best when we collaborate face to face. Communication theorist Nick Morgan explains why in Forbes:

“(W)e share mirror neurons that allow us to match each other’s emotions unconsciously and immediately. We leak emotions to each other. We anticipate and mirror each other’s movements when we’re in sympathy or agreement with one another – when we’re on the same side. And we can mirror each other’s brain activity when we’re engaged in storytelling and listening – both halves of the communication conundrum.”

As a freelance writer, working from home for years, I find myself climbing the walls many days. Too much home-office isolation makes getting things done harder.

Though online meetings are helpful, I long for face-to-face interaction. The best ideas come from in-person brainstorming – as one person jots ideas on a whiteboard and others shout out concepts. You just can’t do that well in online meetings.

Furthermore, I’ve worked for clients I never met in person. Such relationships are never as rich as those in which I’m able to meet and work with clients in their offices over time.

In any event, as companies rediscover human nature’s limitations – that employees isolated at home aren’t as productive or as engaged with colleagues – they shed light on a growing problem in our society: Increasingly isolated inside our homes, particularly due to the virus, more people are interacting solely through social media and other online platforms.

And these detached means by which we now communicate enable our growing incivility.

This era of smartphones and social media – of nasty tweets and Facebook insults – is making rudeness, reports Psychology Today, “our new normal.”

The magazine cites research, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, that finds technology-enabled anonymity and “a lack of eye-contact” are chief contributors to our growing incivility.

This prolonged virus is getting old, for sure, and our patience is running thin. But I hope we will learn from the lessons it’s teaching us.

I long for a time when pubs are fully operational and we can discuss politics civilly and with open minds over pints of Guinness, with renewed hope that we’ll figure out how to maintain our humanity and civility in our increasingly nutty world when this virus is finally behind us.

Tom Purcell is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist and is syndicated by Cagle Cartoons. Email Tom at