In 1710, the philosopher and cleric George Berkeley proposed in his most famous work that objects may only exist when they are actually perceived. Einstein, Bohr, Riborg Mann, and Ransom Twiss all followed him with similar ideas, but the concept was always the same. Even I remember, as a defender for an English football team, handling the ball on the goal line but not being penalized as the referee didn’t see it. He looked at me, I looked at him, I quoted Berkeley, and we ate oranges together.
The same concept existed in nearly all the UK companies I’ve worked for, even as a consultant; they always insisted they see me at their uninspiring offices at least three days a week otherwise they seemed to question my existence. Of course, I resisted these lacklustre environments as often as possible, but I pondered why they really needed to have me there in persona.
And now, as we enter an era of almost mandatory virtual employees for the kind of work I was doing, another, darker thought entered my free-from-office-stifled mind as I sipped a morning coffee, stroked the cat, and relaxed, having completed more work in thirty-five minutes than office-dwellers do in thirty-five hours.
Just a few weeks ago, the world's most high-profile sexist, walked out on a press conference with his bucket and spade when pressed by three female reporters who refused to be hushed. He’s a great example of the kind of boss I’ve come up against throughout my UK-based office career. In a previous role, for example, the phrase ‘not a good time of the month to argue with [insert female colleague name here]’ was uttered every month, for all my female colleagues, by a particularly ordinary director.
And so I wondered; if [insert female colleague name here] now works from home, and most of the communication is via email, instant text, or video call, does the sexism ease a little as the intimacy of working face-to-face daily no longer exists? Will the witch-hunts begin to end?
In another company, also in the UK, where racism thrives like ivy on a horse chestnut, an employee said her journey to work on the tube was so busy ‘it was packed like a train to Auschwitz’. An official complaint led to no action at all and the throwaway comment that ‘she was just being silly’. I wondered if racism and anti-semitism like that would still be able to make sense as we become less present in physical form - skin color, hair type, eye shape, face features? Will the conscious associations - which are automatic only in people unwilling to change - be lessened by distance? Can falling trees in forests be black or Jewish or Asian?
In another company in the center of London, age played a profound and hypocritical role in daily business. On one strong and smooth-skinned hand, older age was associated with wisdom, experience, expertise, and a cool head. On the other, shaky, wrinkled and arthritic one, it was laughed at in jokes about sexual stamina, the ability to travel long distances, or simply climb stairs, and the higher probability of forgetfulness and repetition.
With virtual communication now becoming the norm, and the fact that you don’t typically show your hands on video calls, will age begin to have less importance? Could anyone guess the ages of virtual recipients emailing each other about cyber security or creative advertising content or artificial intelligence?
And what of that guy on the second floor, who would always smile when someone made a joke about weight or body shape? I know he was only smiling because he had no choice, his job depended on it. And, so many people had laughed at him over the years for not having our ‘perfectly-aligned social construction of the normal body’ that he’d just got used to it. But now all we’ll ever see is his head and shoulders, so is there hope for him and millions of other ordinary-shaped humans that sizeism might ease some?
We probably won't know the answers to whether isms are on their way out thanks to virtual working for some time. But managers will need now to rely on the trust we place in our colleagues to do the job they were hired for, rather than pre-determining ability and fit based on what they look like.
Trust is the key here I think. Berkeley knew that too. He moved to Rhode Island in 1728, with the promise of government funds for a college, but without his physical presence and his “persuasive energies”, the Prime Minister Robert Walpole “grew steadily more sceptical and lukewarm” and reneged on the offer. Anyone who’s worked remotely before can feel Berkeley’s pain keenly.
And so he moved back to the UK in 1732, and hung a photo of his favorite thinking chair on the stark wall of his little cubicle at the office.