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The importance of human contact against the backdrop of a viral war

Observations from an independent Scrum Caretaker with an eye on humanization of the workplace

The United Nations’ World Health Organization (“WHO”) correctly describes “Covid-19” as the disease caused by the “SARS-CoV-2” virus, a new variant within the Corona family of viruses. A Covid-19 infection typically shows through symptoms of fever combined with respiratory problems — a dry cough, shortness of breath, and (severe) breathing difficulties. As we speak, Covid-19 is exponentially spreading across large parts of the world, infecting frightening numbers of individuals. Although “Corona” actually is the name of the family of viruses, references to the current pandemic outbreak typically are “Corona (something).”

Beyond anything else, my thoughts are in the first place with individuals that are infected, whether they are quarantined in hospital, at home, or elsewhere. And I think of their loved ones and the people that are taking care of them –professionally or privately.

As soon as courses at school in Belgium were officially suspended, my wife and I decided to voluntarily put ourselves and our 3 kids in a lockdown situation. Given our oldest son’s progressive disability we weren’t going to take any risks. And although our decision went beyond the measures formally imposed by our government (at the time), we also believed our decision to be in the true spirit of these measures. Our decision encompassed not receiving visitors other than the professionals helping our son, avoiding all external contacts, and only leaving the house for the utmost urgent matters. Less than a week later Belgium officially went into a ‘lockdown.’

The spreading disease has a huge impact on people’s lives worldwide. My classes and work assignments got canceled (without any consultation). Partnerships I had given priority and exclusivity and other alliances I had invested and believed in much turned out not being about reciprocity at all. Again, I had to restore my personal and professional integrity. At a macro and a micro level I see the world brusquely being forced to a standstill. Beyond the dismay and stress, I try to grasp the opportunity to slow down. To some extent this crisis is a chance to pause the rat race, in which we do get caught up more than we like to admit. I try to grasp the opportunity to reflect, step back, pick up on some writing and reading ambitions that have been on hold for too long, do some gardening, and other highly unproductive activities. I further the development of my tortoise side.

Like so many, I am obviously suffering from some financial and economic setbacks. Although financial survival is important, I try not to let the monetary repercussions get me into short-term thinking and actions. I smell the danger of damage in the long run. I honestly believe in slowing down for now. I obviously cannot push “pause” indefinitely. Like so many, I revert to different ways to keep in touch with people and organizations I work with. There is stuff that I will now do virtually, remote, and distributed rather than in-person. There is much more I will not do virtually, remote, or distributed.

Most, if not all, of my work consists of helping and supporting individuals and groups explore complex challenges. We jointly figure out how Scrum can help them and what acting with agility means, in addressing their complex adaptive problems in their professional environments. Activities like teaching and coaching for that purpose require intense live interaction, dialogue, and deep conversations. My materials, my cases, and my approach are designed exactly for that. I am not in the face mask selling business. I do envision alternative ways of helping people, including remote channels. That however requires development of suitable materials and will not be magically available overnight.

Measures are being imposed on us to limit direct inter-human contact. They serve spreading the increase in infections in time and avoiding our care and health systems from crashing. I embrace them and use them as an invitation to consider the importance of human contact. I only see that importance strongly affirmed, more than ever before.

I am in awe of the people taking care of infected people. I try to turn this period into a time to reflect on the madness of our regular working situations — the rat race. Meanwhile I am perplexed, although not completely surprised, to observe how many people and organizations consistently put the economic losses over the human cost. I see the desperate instructions and desires to keep up productivity and efficiency in a situation where people are unable or prevented from coming to their regular workplace, not to mention that they most likely have other stressing concerns on their mind. What strikes me is this primal tendency to believe that ‘the shown must go on’ as if nothing else matters. Just do some tele-work and all will be fine. Really? Why would we pretend we can (or should) continue as if ‘normal’? Or –even worse– call this situation the ‘new normal,’ thereby pretending this will be the future way of working anyhow? I am appalled to see the continued disrespect for people trying to absorb what is happening to them, their children, their elderly parents or grand-parents, their friends, their relatives, their colleagues.

A storm is sweeping our planet. Is that too difficult to acknowledge? Accept giving up the idea of continuing ‘every day business’ for now. Losses will be incurred. Look beyond today, today’s productivity, and the current crisis. Give people a break, allow them to hit “pause.” Give them room and space now, and they will come back later fully recovered and re-energized. Losses will be incurred. The human cost caused by shifting the rat race from an on-site situation to tele-work today, denying people the opportunity to cope with the stress and tensions, will result into far more grave economic costs once this is over. It will backfire — economically and humanly.

I advise keeping that in mind when faced with all these self-called long-time proponents of distributed and remote ways of working that are suddenly popping up everywhere. Quite a lot are trying to take advantage of the crisis and your fears to increase their commercial position, sales figures or name and fame. Maybe they honestly intend to offer help, like they all obviously claim they do, but they, unintended or not, devaluate in-person human contact while keep people in the familiar productivity stranglehold. I understand how tools, platforms, papers, and more promoting remote work are helpful in this period. On a temporary basis and to some extent! But what is the pressure to keep productivity up to pre-crisis levels good for? I understand how many who are forced into distributed and remote working conditions are trying to make the best from their situation with tools, platforms, and various approaches. They ultimately try to get as close as possible to working in a co-located way. Still, it is no more than a surrogate solution. Even if it comes close, it will never be the same. And it is definitely not the new normal. Don’t allow the current way to turn into a permanent situation if that wasn’t your situation before the crisis.

Don’t allow snake oil merchants to abuse this viral war to spread the virus that human contact is not that important in the end. Don’t allow yourself to be limited to being a cog in a productivity machine. We are human beings. Our identity builds on our contacts, relationships and interactions with other human beings. And those relationships and interactions are richest when happing in-person. More than a cog in someone’s productivity machine, you are a social creature.

I can’t wait to move away from sub-optimal remote communications, go out again, and feel and touch people, shake hands, give a hug, and look my fellow people in the eye for the best collaboration possible. I can’t wait to go out again and enjoy direct human contact.

I wish you all the best. Be safe. Take care, like a humane Scrum Caretaker does.