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The Ethics of Going Back to the Office

The last two years have been so turbulent for the entire world that it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to state that life may never be the same again.  (Author: Kevin Layne)


The following article was written by Kevin Layne, BA (Hons), MA.

Kevin R. Layne has over 30 years experience as an IT professional, most recently as a Project Officer (Information Technology) at the Barbados Institute of Management and Productivity (BIMAP). He is the owner of a company called “Eudaimonia”, which specializes in consultancy and training in ethics, as well as in online learning environments. He is also a part time tutor in Ethics and Citizenship at the Barbados Community College and a part time tutor in Philosophy the Cave Hill Campus of the University of the West Indies. Kevin is a PhD student in Philosophy at the UWI Cave Hill and holds an MA in Applied and Professional Ethics from Leeds University in the UK and a BA in Philosophy from UWI Cave Hill.

Introduction

The last two years have been so turbulent for the entire world that it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to state that life may never be the same again. We have been wearing masks, social distancing, and for many organizations, dealing with shutdowns and staff working from home. As the world becomes more vaccinated and we learn to live with the Covid-19 virus, many businesses are reopening and requiring their staff to return to the workplace. While many articles have been written about returning to the physical office, there is one specific issue I have not seen addressed; that is, how are we going to deal with our co-workers once we are back in the workplace.

It would be safe to say that prior to the pandemic many people had, at best, a tenuous relationship with their co-workers. In fact, one of the most common remarks uttered by disgruntled office workers was “I am not here to make friends, I am here to do my job and that is it!”

Of course, there are some co-workers who get along well together and some of them may even be friends. However, there is no escaping the fact that many office workers have a strained relationship with their work colleagues. With the arrival of the pandemic and working from home (where many persons are comfortable operating within their comfort zone) many workers are filled with anxiety at the thought of returning to the office and having to deal with awkward bosses, co-workers and customers, as well as having to navigate the political landscape that is part and parcel of every working environment, particularly when they are required to work in close proximity to their colleagues for a significant portion of the day.

In part one of this article (which may become a series of articles) I want to give some advice to help you navigate this minefield and make the experience of returning to the physical workspace more tolerable.

Socrates and You

Before considering how we deal with others, I believe it is important for us to examine ourselves. The famous Greek philosopher Socrates is quoted as stating that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. But what is Socrates really saying and what is he requiring of us? Unfortunately, too many of us fail to take a hard look at ourselves and question why we think the way we think, or take the actions we take. When life comes at us hard with its many variables and vagaries, we sometimes neglect to examine ourselves and, more importantly, critique ourselves. Much of the time we justify our actions with “just me being me” or a more headstrong “take me as I am or leave me be.”

Socrates is challenging us to inspect ourselves critically, not only to see what we do but also why we act and think as we do. We should ask ourselves these questions:

(i) Are our thoughts and actions conducive to our growth, or are they detrimental to us?

(ii) Are there things holding us back that we can exorcise from our lives?

(iii) What can we do to better ourselves?

For Socrates and other philosophers this was not a one-off exercise but a lifelong process of reflection and re-evaluation.

At this point you would be well within your rights to ask “What does this have to do with me going back into the office?” I would suggest that it has plenty to do with most, if not all of us as individuals. For the most part, we have changed as individuals because of the pandemic. Whether we acknowledge it or not, many of us have been affected physically, mentally, emotionally and socially. We have had to rewire much of who we are to acclimate to our new reality. Our worldview has been reshaped significantly, including how we interact with others. The lack of interaction with anyone outside of our closest circle during the past two years is one of the main causes of our apprehension in going back out to the physical working environment.

This brings the conversation back to why we ought to examine ourselves as Socrates has suggested. We ought to consider the changes that we as individuals have gone through during the various lockdowns and the lack of social interaction during this time, and ask ourselves some serious questions: For example,

• How has this time of isolation affected us?

• How has this time of isolation changed our worldview?

• Has our view of others been negatively impacted?

• How will this negative view affect our interactions with others, including our co-workers?

• What can I do to mitigate this negativity towards others so that it does not impact the way I view myself?

While all the questions are introspective in nature, it is with the last question that this article/essay is concerned and where I will offer my suggestions.

How can I mitigate returning to the physical workspace?

The inspiration for this article came from an unlikely source, my grandmother, who like many single mothers of her generation found it difficult to secure permanent employment in pre-independent Barbados. Those fortunate enough to find permanent employment tended to remain in the same job for a long time or until they retired from working. Because of this situation, workers had to learn to coexist with others regardless of their differences. One of my grandmother’s favourite sayings was “Nobody ain’t running me from my job!”

No doubt tensions sometimes ran high at my grandmother’s place of work. However, because the workers depended on their jobs for survival (and no other jobs were easily obtainable), they all learned to live with each other’s idiosyncrasies. I listened carefully as grandmother recounted the difficult relationships at her workplace and what she did to try to get along with her work colleagues.

What I present today is a distillation of the ideas that she spoke about. Hopefully they can be as helpful to you as they were to her. Basically, the ideas to navigate the return to work come in four broad topic headings: • Recognize the personalities of your fellow employees

• Accept them for who and what they are

• Act accordingly within the working environment

• As far as possible, treat all of them with respect

In the next part of this article, I will be dealing with each of these headings.

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