Teaming-up at home
- Garth Stevens
Our dependence on technology brought on by Covid-19 makes cognitive and emotional demands that, unaddressed, threaten our mental wellbeing.
Although technology has undoubtedly often advanced living conditions throughout history, this is not an inevitable nor necessarily equitable outcome. New forms of alienation will emerge to co-exist with these advancements. We need to be vigilant of the deleterious effects in the unfolding relationship between new technologies and social life.
The move to online, digital, remote work has become commonplace for many, with platforms like Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Skype now primary sites for organisational engagement.
But rather than epitomising the flexibility of remote working, increased efficiency or freed-up time for better work-life balance in a 24-hour day, anecdotal reports suggest the opposite outcome for many. We hear reports of ’zoom fatigue’, screen-time saturation, and working harder and longer, but less productively.
Few of us consider the extent of cognitive and sensory overload involved in relying on multiple digital platforms to fulfil our work objectives, particularly as we have moved so rapidly from a face-to-face office environment to a virtual office.
Psychology offers some insights into these new forms of alienation and the mental health conditions that can occur as a result. The extent of cognitive overload, emotional labour, and the lack of a punctuated working day, are key to understanding this new mode of remote working.
Online, we have to attend to multiple voices and faces, sometimes independently of each other as they are disembodied through a muted microphone or shuttered camera. Mindful of the online meeting environment, we continually self-surveil and self-regulate, and we are cognisant and situationally aware of our home environments. These online interactions are usually accompanied by multi-tasking on phones and emails, note-taking, mentally crafting the next email, and planning the next meeting.
Beyond this, we are mentally managing the fact that our new virtual offices are located inside a pre-existing environment – our homes – with multiple others who share that space and who have additional demands of us that vary across gender and age. Similarly, our students must now manage new ways of learning, multiple course demands, and home environments that are sometimes not conducive to learning.
The levels of emotional labour to maintain this degree of psychological integrity are profoundly underestimated. In each of our virtual interactions, we no longer have the luxury of reading body language and non-verbal cues, but we have to be mindful of taking turns to talk, and we have to contend with technological glitches that truncate and distort meaning and communication. We have to do much heavier emotional lifting to grapple with the ways in which human interaction itself is being re-shaped.
40-hour work what?
Finally, we should not forget how digital and remote work may inadvertently be reversing one of the labour movement’s biggest gains – the 40-hour working week. Remote, digital working tends to collapse spatial and temporal [time] boundaries. Mornings, afternoons, evenings, weekdays and weekends flow into each other. And in this moment every aspect of our lockdown lives occurs in the same space. In many instances, the normal punctuation of our daily routines no longer exists and we have to consider the threat of this new form of alienation.
In failing to come to terms with the extent of how radically this historical moment has changed our lives, we risk going to great lengths to try and impose our notions of normality on this new digital regime. We do this in an attempt to maintain a degree of continuity, coherence, mastery and control - even if these are illusory!
We have not yet fully understood the need for new rhythms of work in this moment. We should not simply view this digital environment as a new set of platforms, but rather as an entirely new modus operandi of work, teaching and learning.
At its best, technology has enhanced access, engagement and communication, albeit not always equally. Conversely, it can contribute to the worst of a fractured form of labour and a disembodied humanity inside an impending gigabyte economy.
This moment gives us a window into a future that we will have to be much more deliberate about shaping – a future where technology serves humanity. Whether utopian or dystopian, the truth is probably somewhere in-between.
- Garth Stevens is Professor of Psychology in the School of Human & Community Development at Wits, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the University, and President of the Psychological Society of South Africa.
- This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced by Wits Communications and the Research Office.
- Read more in the 10th issue, themed: #Mood how our mental health and wellbeing are impacted by the socio-economic, political, psychological, legal, ethical, cultural and technological interpretations of our world.