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Wanted: A sensory workout for our digital age. By Ben Gallagher and Andrew Missingham, co-founders of B+A

We’re writing this after two months of lockdown in the UK. At the start, the idea of doing it for a fortnight seemed huge, but what feels like a mere couple of Zoom calls and a Joe Wicks workout later, we’re already beyond seven weeks. And whilst our European neighbours are beginning to stir, here in England, there’s not yet an end in sight. Yes, the language might have changed a little, from Stay at Home to Stay Alert but the reality is our lockdown is far from over. And the truth is, even then, there isn’t really an end. Like we said a moment ago, this is a new era, so habits we’re forming now are here to stay.

But not only are we forming habits, we’re risking forgetting valuable old ones that exercised senses we currently cannot.

So, like the challenge of muscle-wastage that long-term astronauts suffer outside the eustress of earth’s gravity, what can we do about our “sensory-wastage” as we Zoom through our now weightless digital space?

Because, the signs of the onset of sensory wastage are clear. Whilst we’ve been busy busying ourselves here at B+A HQ, we’re beginning to feel weaker. The energy of initial ’newness’ fades. Conversations are a bit shorter, functional and more direct. Wires are easier to cross. Interactions that bit less rich.

B+A is a business built on listening with all your senses. But in this new (thinner) atmosphere, our senses aren’t being stretched equally. When the repeated first contact with someone intimate has become seeing their pixelated face flash up on a video call, human contact arrives with little context or warning. No heads up on how to have the conversation or where our shared emotional energy might be.

Of course, digital technology is a gift of our age, with the potential to connect and keep us connected, and to enable us to keep working. But, it’s not everything. And like the reframing of “essential workers”, at this time, B+A is thinking a lot about hitherto undervalued “essential contact” that we’re missing. The ability to shake a hand, high five or hug or hold someone.  To immerse yourself into an environment and touch things that you can’t see or hear. To spot the way someone is moving or carrying themselves before you meet them. To be able to feel the nuances in their tone or pitch as their energy levels rise or fall. Even to be able to smell their smell, that makes them familiar to you and evoke feelings in you about them. All this aids understanding, empathy deeper communication and connection.

That said, some are fine with our current mode. The CEO of WordPress, Matt Mullenweg, for years has had a distributed workforce that he’s happy with and committed to. Commenting on standard non-distributed (face-to-face) workplaces, when interviewed recently on Sam Harris’s Making Sense podcast, he said:

Andrew Missingham

“If you were going to co-locate with someone for a third of your life, you’d take that very seriously. But in work, we’re thrust into this physical co-location with a random set of humans. You often don’t have control over the temperature, you’re using facilities in a shared setting, pets might be allowed, but maybe you don’t like that. The food smells, the sound of your colleagues talking, the music. There’s so little controlled.”

We get where you’re coming from, Matt. But we think you’re kind of missing the point. We believe it’s the many, varied sensorial experiences, the discussions, the compromises and repeatedly facing the unfamiliar, that contribute to building our working relationships, build understanding and help us to build shared culture. And not only in the workplace. This diversity of sensory stimulus is the stuff that founds tolerance and deepens humanity.

You can’t control it all. Life in all its sensory richness is too much. And that’s a good thing, surely?

So what do we do in this moment, to make up for our sensory lack?

What are the muscles we need to exercise first?

  1. Build foresight

For starters, we’re working hard at building our foresight. What can we do to find out what might be going on, beyond the screen, that can inform our conversation? What could you ask in advance, what could you start the conversation with, to explore and balance the emotional state? Even before lockdown, in B+A’s Portland studio we often start meetings with an American classic: the “Rose and Thorn” – what is our rose (the thing that has brought beauty to our lives most recently) and what is our thorn (what’s causing us pain)?  It only takes a few minutes, but it level sets the collective emotional energy and helps us empathise with each other in the moment.

  1. Share discovery

Secondly, what can we do to build shared connections and discovery? How can we create collective experiences that can replace being in the same space? Maybe reading the same books to discuss, buying the same food to cook and then cooking together, going on walks at the same time. A friend of Ben’s has a 92-year-old mother who is isolating. She takes her mother for rambles around London on her phone. Her mother sets the direction and uses it as a chance to tell her daughter stories about the places she encounters. It’s a shared discovery.

  1. Encourage vulnerability

Thirdly, we need to be able to be more vulnerable, alone. Expressing our emotions (especially those of pain, hurt or sadness) with our colleagues is hard even when we are together in person. It requires a safe space and a deep trust. Now we need to learn how to spot when somebody needs to let things out and encourage them to do so, and at the same time we need to feel we can be vulnerable, through a screen. Irrespective of real or perceived hierarchy.  

  1. Reimagine shared space

And finally, we need use this time to re-think what a shared space might look like. A space that’s attractive enough so we don’t retreat into digital isolation indefinitely. Because, like the dark addiction of depression, the deeper we fall into it, the hard it will be to emerge. Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together was an early B+A Bookclub read. In it she warns of the mirage of intimacy that technology and social media engender that more often lead to feelings of deep solitude that stunt our emotional lives. Physical proximity is still critical, and we have to imagine new ways for it to occur. For a time when homeworking is an accepted standard, how does your office or studio become multi use? What can you do to help your teams commute without taking crowded public transport? Where can work happen that it never did before? How do you re-design teams to bring varying combinations of people together at different times?

As with much of the new era we are entering, we don’t know what the near or long term looks like. We are adapting on a daily basis. But whilst we are relying on and trusting in our new found digital tools, here at B+A we are mindful that our humanity in all its completeness is key to how we do what we do.

So, take time to find ways to workout our full, human, humane faculties. Lest we forget.


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