The water cooler moment is dead, the age of remote working and our destructive acts of convenience

The beach in Seabrook, near Folkestone, Kent

Every morning, in a Kantian fashion, I like to rise from bed and walk down to the beach. It’s a walk I generally do in solitude to allow myself 40 minutes or so to compose my thoughts, to allow the dust to settle as each thought fights for prominence and importance in my mind, and with a gentle act of selection I file each one into a somewhat ordered list to work through as the day moves along at its own pace all determined by its sequence of events.

If I look back over the years, I have spent my life walking, and most of it, alone. I have always had a lot on my mind it seems and being the biped that I am, that we are, always found a good hike was the perfect way to get the cogs in the brain spinning into motion, the act of cognition. And so, on this glowing snowy morning I decided to brave the blistering winds and walk up to Tescos to buy a loaf of bread and a few other staple foods. To be honest I just wanted another reason to go out. Why I needed a reason I don’t know…

I live in the middle of a hill with the supermarket at the brow. It’s not far, but it’s good for the system, gets the blood moving, wakes you up! Tesco is my go-to store for no other reason than convenience. It’s close and in comparison, relatively cheap compared to other stores, but I am by no means evangelistic about the place.

I have noticed as of late, since Christmas in fact, that there is an air of jubilation, of morale, of cheer in the store. People are happy, shopping currently doesn’t seem to be a dull affair. Lately there is also music playing and people are talking in the aisles akin to the run up to Christmas. And then of course it hit me. This is the only place people in a lockdown can meet and talk. The last area of engagement. People are truly starved of real human interaction and so over the tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers are able finally to converse without a screen between them, minus Zoom, Google Hangouts or Microsoft Teams that enable the interlocutors to digitally natter. 

Who knows perhaps this will catch on and pretty soon there will be a one in one out system, not strictly because of COVID but simply because the need to interact with their fellow bipeds has drawn people to superstores to catch a glimpse of another human and exchange words in the flesh. Maybe there will be flashing lights, the stale smell of perfume too that is often found in nightclubs alongside the dull beat of the neanderthal. Let’s hope there isn’t a dress code enforced like in certain clubs and pubs, when you consider how inflammatory the imposition of wearing a mask for some has become.

And so, with my few bits in my rucksack I headed back out into the snow and decided to walk the long route home through the white fields we now so rarely see in the UK. So uncommon is the occurrence that I can’t help but smile and enjoy the cold weather, knowing it won’t last more than a few days before we return to the British darkness, the heavy climate, the grey damp oppressive lethargy that weighs us down until Spring finally reinvigorates us all.

On my Kantian stroll I noticed, I had heard rumours, but I now had firsthand evidence that SAGA, the holiday company for the quinquagenarian and older was selling its buildings, this one and others. All its staff would now simply work from home remotely. Like a TV, they would essentially be remote controlled by their employer. But would it be ‘simply’? Of course, for many individuals there are benefits, and for the company more, the savings alone will be astronomical. The reduced overheads will be hugely beneficial. But simultaneously, homes have now become more than homes, they have become offices too. For the some, the same four walls they live in, they will now work within. Their four walls of ineluctability. Is that healthy? This of course isn’t just an isolated incident with SAGA, many companies small or large will be following the same path. In short, the small person will be the one who loses out more.

Over the last 15 years I have worked in many offices and from home too. I like a balance of both. I have met many interesting folk as well as many dull company bores, but hey, that’s life. You take the insipid, vacuous and servile with the interesting, out-of-place and radical. I would say I have learnt a lot from many different peeps and it was through the idle chit chat over the proverbial office water cooler. That water cooler moment where one mentions a book, a film or song in conversation. This cultural moment will soon be extinct. Gone with the wind. Buried in the dust.

“Hey, you can go online, on social networks where everybody is sharing everything!” I hear you say in a digitised chorus smeared with emojis.

Maybe, but there is something about the human voice, the human touch, about… the human.

With the combination of work and life at home, the symbiosis of the two will keep one constantly behind a screen. At least the travel to work broke up the life behind a screen. But now we will awake, pick up phone, look into a screen. Eat breakfast, more than likely in front of a screen, a multitude of them. Sit down to work, in front of a screen. Communicate with others, in front of a screen. Check out our social network worth in front of a screen. Be the voyeurs we were born to be, in front of a screen. Buy everything we want, need, desire, life’s desiderata… you guessed it, in front of a screen. Relax at night, in front of a screen. Check social networks one more time before sleep, in front of a screen.

But it’s not so much ‘the things’ we crave, we desire a life of convenience and with that we have imprisoned ourselves. Our high streets are closing down because it is more convenient to buy almost everything online. It’s incredibly hard for us to lament the high streets in our towns with more shops ‘To Let’ than those open when our acts of destructive convenience have partly led to this. But given a large part of the public hypnotically stare into their phones rather than look around them, does it even really matter about the desolate thoroughfares in our towns?

My Kantian walk brings me back to my house, where unavoidably I will sit in front of a computer in my office and attend to my work duties in front of ‘3 screens’, but always in the back of my mind I will be thinking about what I need to buy under a pretext from Tescos so I can interact in face-to-face communication over the fresh veg with a fellow biped listening to the playlist of my local supermarket.

Motta’s novels Celebrity Rape and VIR(US) are available from Amazon.

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