Is social awkwardness the downfall of remote work?

- September 27, 2022 4 MIN READ

The hybrid office comes at a heavy price, argues top recruiter Roxanne Calder, founder and managing director of EST10. Social awkwardness is booming and we’re losing vital human skills that are critical for both doing business and maintaining a compassionate, respectful society.

There has been much ado about robots and AI taking over our jobs. Not to worry, we have been told, the one thing we can rely upon for future employability is our human skills.

Perhaps, once upon a time in 2019, before the world changed, but now I am not so convinced.

The gift of workplace flexibility, be it from home, hybrid, or further afield, comes at a price: the erosion of our beautiful human skills and with it, the birth of social awkwardness.

Our human skills are the ability to relate, understand and connect to each other. We do this through having empathy, compassion, and self-awareness. Other such human skills are problem-solving, creative and enterprise thinking. To cultivate and grow these skills, we need interaction with other humans. We may have taken for granted these skills, assuming they and our job security were everlasting.

As a recruiter of over 25 years, I have seen the genius of our human skills. They make you the winning candidate at a job interview and careers soar. The skills shortage will not ensure your future employability, but human skills will. If not worked on, social awkwardness may be the atrophy of these skills.

The rise of elasticised waistbands

The first notice of increasing social awkwardness was a gradual decline in effort and increased reliance on elasticised waistbands. This is best demonstrated by video conferencing. At first, we loved it, then we coined zoom fatigue, then we quickly got over it. Yet, despite all this and our protests of preferring face-to-face, we persist.

Mostly, it is convenience with a touch of lethargy. The fallout, without exaggeration, is our social skills and courtesies.

If we are lucky, attendees have cameras on, are considerate enough to mute the dog and will contribute occasionally with an emoji clap or thumbs up. Once being presentable from the waist up was acceptable, now hoodies are considered business chic.

Video conferencing is convenient, but so is takeaway food. The ‘easier’ option is not always what is best.

Fight or flight mode ON

Social awkwardness again rears its head with the tendency to avoid conversations deemed even slightly tricky. For example, a request to work hybrid, flexible hours, or a discussion around a salary increase. Instead of being poised and professional and utilising the artful skill of influence, nerves and anxiety mean such conversations now come out as blurted entitlements, awkward and demanding.

Or worse, people simply resign. Anthony Klotz’s Great Resignation speaks of our desire for autonomy in how, when, and where we work. Unfortunately, many employees would rather resign than have any form of conversation on these topics. The thought being, it is easier to ‘find a job offering these benefits than negotiate where I am’. Yet, in the past, such discussions would ordinarily be seen as normal and necessary business dialogue.

Body language fluency is OFF

We are slowly losing our ability to read each other. Reading nonverbal clues is restricted by what your screen can offer, a gaze and a smile. Even then, we look at our own faces more than others. It’s impossible not to! We have little ability to see hands and legs, let alone gauge any of the other messaging learnt over the years.

When in public, do we hug, shake hands or, God forbid, kiss? The start of the handshake disappears into an embarrassed shrug. The awkward moment is already created as we lean forward and the other person abates. There is no longer any spontaneous affection or warmth.

As you enter a lift, faces turn away, and eye contact is averted. Have I inadvertently offended people? All our instincts are in question, leaving us second-guessing how to behave and act.

Keyboard warriors and ghosts

With that, the lack of seeing, feeling, and understanding of impact and consequences. Without real human contact, it appears easier to let people down. A no-show to interviews, even if online, is somewhat the norm. Yet, in a matter of months, the same candidates apply again, with no apparent discomfort or realising the perception created and the inconvenience caused. Ghosting seems to be socially acceptable.

This behaviour makes building trust difficult. Yet, does the lack of intent make it okay? Surely not. Self-awareness acknowledges impact and consequences and with it brings empathy and compassion. These are necessary life skills to be a part of society.

I am not against hybrid or remote work, far from it! It is one of the most liberating solutions for our workforce. It is the future for many workplaces and has endless benefits.

Much research, mainly done with tech companies before COVID-19, shows employees being effective and even happier working in a hybrid setting. But we need to speak openly about its impact on how we interact with each other and our declining sociability.

The one thing that describes our society as evolutionary and caring is our ability to manifest compassion, protect the vulnerable and respect each other. Sending the heart emoji is cute, but fails in comparison to expressing the sentiment with words, actions, and behaviours.

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