Drowning amongst the many often excellent pieces about the new normal, how to think about pandemics and what this means for business it was only last week that a certain melancholy enveloped me.
Compared with very many people my lockdown has been good. I’ve little to complain about. The business is on track, the team is healthy, working remotely is going well. Closer to home it’s been nice to spend more time than usual with my family, to see them all at both ends of the day and even to have lunch with them. I’ve spent less time travelling.
Yet this last point made me realise I am mourning my lack of mobility — and not just the absence of travel but everything that travel represents to me as an anthropologist working in business. Making trips, at home and abroad, has long been central to my way of life and my professional identity. The label ‘armchair anthropologist’ has nearly always been a slur and not just because it was the method of choice for gentleman scholars and colonial administrators. It suggests that other people’s worlds, thick in meaning, are accessible without leaving home.
It was last week that it really struck me that my familiar way of life and how I earn a living had slipped away almost unnoticed as efforts to compensate through alternative means and technologies became the focus. At the obvious risk of inflating either the importance of what’s passing or its finality, and under-estimating the possibility that it will in time return, the words of the war poet Rupert Brooke in his final days of school seem fitting:
“And then I found the last days of all this slipping by me and with them the faces and places and life I loved, and I without power to stay them. I became for the first time conscious of transcience and parting and a great many other things”.
Without having much fondness for them I miss airports. And, I know it’s not really the right thing to say but I miss flying too. Even in the cheap seats there’s a childlike thrill available to anyone who reflects on what’s actually happening: how fast you are travelling, how high in the sky you are and what an engineering marvel it all is. I even miss peeling back the foil and the semi-frozen, stale bread roll.
I miss collecting a hire car and driving on unfamiliar roads in cities that are new to me. I miss waking up in an unfamiliar rental property in another timezone. I miss struggling to make the coffee machine cooperate as I run through the schedule for the week ahead and get my stuff together before heading out to spend time in the company of strangers.
I love visiting other people’s homes. I miss the opening of the door and that instinctive sense that I’m going to enjoy the next few hours of interaction, and the hope that people will find some meaning and enjoyment in it too. I miss the jet lag hunger that strikes mid-interview, and the hit or miss-ness of the protein bar you packed to stave it off. I miss the stream of disappointing and never-hot-enough coffee proffered by kindly strangers. I miss sharing something of my life, my family and life in Britain.
I miss the inquisitiveness of others and the reminder that understanding strangers is more than a professional disposition but central to the human condition.
I miss the buzz of the phone as our team WhatsApp group alerts me to the impending regrouping back at base and the collective plunge into the unknown waters of ‘what we found out’. I miss that familiar, terrifying yet comforting realisation that it’s all a lot more complicated than we ever thought it might be.
I miss being surrounded by smart team members and clients who can help make sense of it all.
I miss things going wrong and having to think on my feet. A battery that’s discharged itself on the flight. A missing digit on an address.
I miss my calm and unflappable colleagues who can help put things right.
Come evening I miss the competitive discussions about where would be best to eat. I miss saying “Whatever. You choose”, as I artfully offload responsibility. I miss waiting staff telling us what they’re called as we sit down and marvel at their voluminous recitation of how even the simplest things are cooked and served.
I miss the final, plaintiff reminder of their name as they present the bill.
I miss morning runs in uncharted neighbourhoods to clear the fug of Melatonin fuelled sleep and the perky afterglow that accompanies it. I miss long days in the field and feeling exhausted not from an unending sequence of video calls but from actively listening and attending to people.
I miss the tiredness that accompanies unadulterated presence.
I miss the feeling of clarity that starts to show up mid-week. The feeling that there’s a shape or two appearing in the clouds of data wandering across the colour co-ordinated post-it notes at base camp. I miss the occasional feeling of demi-triumph — that we might just be getting somewhere. I also miss the reminder from someone calling out their patch of post-its with a different and conflicting perspective.
I miss the embodied rough and tumble of pattern recognition.
I miss the final evening together — the feeling that clients and consultants began the week as near strangers and on opposing sides of a ‘transaction’ who are now united by an experience and a sense of what it means, and why it matters. I miss the feeling that though we might not yet have truly cracked it we’re so, so much closer than we were.
I miss that one drink too many as we toast a great week.
I miss the homecoming to the office. Unloading cameras, rolled up tear sheets and mounds of post-it notes. I miss reassembling ourselves in a meeting room to pick up where we left off.
I miss fieldwork.
I really miss that first post-fieldwork call with clients who are no longer strangers.
Reflecting on what’s missing is, I hope, more than an exercise in self-indulgence during week ten of forced immobility. As my corner of the business world hurls itself headlong into remote-this and virtual-that I think it’s worth remembering not just what we miss and enjoy about ‘business as usual’ but also why it matters.
There’s a reason why as a profession we’re committed to the idea of being in the presence — and I use that word advisedly — of those we seek to understand. Isaiah Berlin captured this well:
“It is hardly possible to overrate the value… of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar”
Yes, our professional practice is going to change. That’s a given and not in itself a bad thing. There is, as two colleagues elegantly expressed in this piece, plenty to commend remote research practices. But, I suggest, we would all do well to remember not just what we all value about face to face research, as individuals and professionals, but what it enables and why it matters. I don’t want to become an armchair anthropologist in an industry, that having skirted the constellation of Big Data is now set on a crash course for planet Zoom
As we look ahead that’s going to mean revisiting our craft and more than a little inventiveness along the way. And it won’t be just about maintaining the old ways just for the sake of it but because of what they enable and the value they create for our clients, stakeholders and all we serve.
To my mind, that means thinking broadly and creatively about what presence and embodiment enable and how we might regain it in the post-Corona world. For me, that’s a process I’ve kicked started by reflecting on what I am missing.