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Christmas is a reminder that in-person matters  

22 December 2023

Remote working is beneficial to many — but there is value in turning up to the office a few days a week, argues Eve Poole

THIS Christmas, we’re once again mired in a national debate about hybrid working: is your New Year resolution to go back to the office, or is Santa bringing you a better headset for staying at home?

There is something irrevocably in-person about Christmas. God might have been watching us all on Zoom from time immemorial, but, at Christmas, he got off his proverbial cloud to incarnate as a tiny baby, while cattle lowed, angels sang, and visitors arrived with presents. Is there anything we could glean from the Christmas message to be our guiding star on this thorny topic?

On either side, the arguments line up: staying at home can be better for work-life balance, for those who struggle to travel, and for introverts, while offices are better for trainees, for those without suitable space at home, and for extroverts.

Those who debate this don’t tend to talk about power, but, of course, it’s the powerful who can choose which location they prefer; everyone else has to fit in with them. So, if you’re setting the tone, the culture, and the policy where you are, how might you think about it more broadly?

I WOULD like to start with chess. Like twins, chess is one of the go-to topics for academic research, because it’s so easy to parameterise. It’s an obvious subject for AI, too, because many programmers love chess. There is no shortage of research on every kind of chess scenario imaginable, from blitz chess to blindfold chess, and from in-person chess to chess played against a computer.

And, because it’s a sedentary activity, it is highly susceptible to brain-scanning. So, we know in quite a lot of detail what someone is up to when they are playing chess in a wide variety of environments. I wondered whether MRI scans showed the same kind of memory retrieval in humans that we have programmed into chess-playing AI, particularly when a person is playing very fast chess intuitively at speed. TL;DR?

Yes, if you are playing a computer. No, if you are playing a person. This is because, if you’re playing a person, you’re not playing chess, you’re playing them; and that means that your clever brain is not just data-mining internally, it’s trying hard to pick up every signal it can from the other person: their posture, mood, body language, and any unconscious or subconscious piece of data available through human consciousness and intuition. This is because you want to beat that person, not the game.

Unsurprisingly, this is also what researchers have found about Zoom. We’re not tired after a day of online meetings because we’re overstimulated; we’re tired because we’re bored. It turns out that we simply use more of our brains in an in-person environment.

It is too early to tell whether prolonged exposure to online environments on the scale that we’ve recently experienced will have any effect on general brain health, but, at a time when we’re suddenly waking up to the yawning gap that AI may create in terms of learning loss in our young people, being more analogue than digital next year might be an important act of virtue.

It may require some generosity, though, on the part of those who like staying tucked up at home, able to switch colleagues off when they are annoying. So, let me give you my top reasons on why those for whom it’s feasible should try to go in at least a couple of days a week.

FIRST, the selfish reasons. If you’re never in the office, it becomes far easier to make the case for outsourcing you to an even more virtual cost-saving party of some real or artificial kind, particularly if you’ve not been able to build up the kind of in-person relationships that would make decision-makers think twice about upsetting you.

And it’s harder to convince others of your all-round excellence if they only ever see you in set-piece meetings online. That’s the reason we prefer to hire on in-person interview, not just on paperwork, because we trust people more when we’ve met them, and have completed the intuitive full-body scan that can take place only between two conscious humans together in the same room.

Second, the altruistic reasons. Colleagues learn their trade from watching those who are more experienced in action. Encountering leadership only on Zoom is a bit like hoping to learn to ride a bike through a computer simulation.

If AI is set to wipe out a lot of office jobs, career survival and progression will depend on an ability to pick up the nuance in how more senior people read culture and power, how they intervene and make decisions, and how they conduct themselves in the full range of situations. These kinds of behaviour are so very subtle that the best chance of learning them is through old-fashioned in-person apprenticeship and mentoring.

Finally, God gave you a body, and chose to become incarnate in a body like yours. It is a holy vessel. Being made in God’s image is about you in 3D; so, being truly human means using your embodiment to the fullest extent of which you are capable: mind, body, and spirit.

Dr Eve Poole writes on theology, economics, and leadership. Her latest book, Robot Souls: Programming in humanity, is published by Routledge (Books, 3 September).

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