I read an article the other day about the death of the office friendship. As we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic many employees don’t plan to return to working full time in an office. Some employees will stay in the office, but a lot of employees are considering working flex schedules and some companies have found that they can go fully remote. One consequence is that we may lose our close office friendships.
The article reflected the inherent tension that is referenced in the title of this post. Humans are evolved to live and operate in communities and groups. But increasingly in many parts of the world we are becoming more and more focused on the individual. Our current work situation reflects that. We can now work from home with greater ease and have more freedom and flexibility in our daily individual lives. But we lose the close interactions with other people that the office provides. The hallway run-ins, the break room chat, the pre-meeting banter while we wait for the person running late. These things can all semi-happen through messaging platforms and video calls, but not to the same extent.
In his book Sapiens, written in 2015, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “millions of years of evolution have designed us to live and think as community members. Within a mere two centuries we have become alienated individuals.” Humans evolved in tribes and for millions of years humans experienced the world as part of a small pack. Our reliance and dependence on one another was obvious. Today, however, we may live in huge cities but we don’t always feel that same reliance on others. We can sit inside by ourselves for an entire week, have food delivered to us, and spend our time without others in a way that wasn’t possible before. We can forget our reliance on others and turn inward entirely on ourselves. We can let our office (and other) friendships die.
“The liberation of the individual comes at a cost,” writes Harari, “many of us now bewail the loss of strong families and communities and feel alienated and threatened by the power the impersonal state and market wield over our lives.” While we could work from home, go a whole week without seeing others in person, and live self-contained lives away from other people, we might not be happy. We evolved to have close relationships with a small group of people. We evolved to be part of a community, not isolated individuals. We have our individual desires and our current world validates our individual differences and experiences, but it doesn’t always do a good job of helping us build and maintain social relationships. We have failed to build the institutions we need to truly connect and be part of a community while we simultaneously liberate and celebrate the individual. This is a new challenge for human beings, and will require new inventions, new social norms, and new institutions to enable us to be individuals within a community.