Pandemic made us socially-awkward. It’s time to retrain our brain into socialising again
Many of us have spent so much time away from work colleagues—and staring at our screens—that it’s logical to wonder whether we need to somehow retrain or rewire our brains in order to relearn how to socialize with work colleagues again.
After all, it is a lot harder to go on mute, turn off your camera, or summarize your thoughts through emoji when you are communicating in person. And when you can’t be distracted by your own image on a screen, you are actually forced to pay attention to others, even if your intention is just to understand how you are doing.
Neuroscience suggests that we’ve become socially awkward during this past year and a half and that we need to start working on our social and emotional intelligence again.
First, the good news. Our interpersonal skills are based on years of learning and conditioning, plus an even bigger chunk of personality and character traits, so while we may be a bit out of practice, you can think of the ability to be social and relate to others as riding a bicycle. Our social skills couldn’t be completely erased by a year of lockdown, and even when we are introverted and love working from home. So we should have no trouble reverting to our pre-pandemic levels of sociability. Granted, to some that is hardly a high bar.
Now onto the bad news. Many people were already quite frustrated having to commute, spend time on endless face-to-face meetings, and come to the office mostly because they were forced to as opposed to going in because it helped them do their work more productively. These employees, who are arguably part of the majority of workers who were not engaged at work prior to the pandemic, will have experienced a much better, more efficient, and convenient way of working in the last year and a half.
Since productivity levels will have remained unchanged or even gone up for these workers, it’s unsurprising that the prospect of returning to an office, even if not full time, is experienced as a drag by many. According to a recent EY report, around 52% of workers would quit their jobs if they are not granted more flexibility — and the right to pick where they work — after offices formally reopen.
You can also expect these workers to be in-demand to other employers who will use flexibility as a talent acquisition tactic. Clearly, many people will pick employers that are more willing to adjust to their own preferences, and ditch those who are rigid or old fashioned when it comes to working arrangements.
Hybrid work is the latest carrot dangled to prospective employees, and companies that find ways to make hybrid work and work will gain a considerable advantage in the war for talent. It is also clear that habits are always hard to change. And we have built new enduring habits since the pandemic began.
For instance, people may be more reluctant to dress up today than they were pre-2020, and the already visible trend towards informality has been exacerbated during a year in which many workers (and most within the knowledge economy) combined casual shirts with no pants and no shoes.
Zoom has confirmed that one does not need to be fully dressed in order to be productive, let alone wear formal attire. This doesn’t mean we’re unable to dress up again, or that a significant portion of the workforce will return to the office barefooted or in their underwear. However, it does expose old habits as antiquated and unnatural. We should remember that fashion is ephemeral by definition. Today’s formal is yesterday’s informal, and tomorrow’s normal is today’s abomination.
There is a clear upside here, too. It’s an opportunity to refocus on substance over style and examine what people actually contribute and produce, rather than what they look like. If we have managed to remain productive while working remotely and from home, that’s because we had a great deal of invested social capital with others. The time has come to reinvest in it, or at least look after our investment. This can only happen if we play our part to rehumanize the workplace again.
TEJASWINI PAGADALA is an independent communications consultant. She has previously worked with the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister’s Office as the Communications Officer where she has written English speeches for the CM, managed English media communication from the CMO and handled social media accounts of Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister and the Government.