The Not So Selfish Gene

together at workBy Julian Philips
SVP Global Workplace Solutions at AVI-SPL

The seminal but often hastily misunderstood work by Dr. Richard Dawkins, “The Selfish Gene” argues that it is humble genes and not organisms, let alone species that dictate evolutionary progress, and that we as human beings are merely vassals as genes seek their own immortality.

Scientists around the world desperately scrambling for answers to COVID-19 will likely attest that the virus is a vehicle for its genetics and that survival and reproduction, as highlighted by Dawkins, are the principles that direct the pandemic’s behavior: constantly attempting mutation to avoid destruction and accelerating its own reproduction through alarming rates of transmission. To that end, the human species behaves exactly the same as the virus, our genetic codes imprinted with “live long and prosper.”

At some point (hopefully soon), we will have effective vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, but remember, although the virus might expire, its genes will find another host, and therefore, we must be prepared for future battles. As for humanity, and as heartless as this might sound, the 200,000 plus lives that have tragically been lost to contagion, pales against the 24 million increase in the global population so far in 2020. In other words, homo sapiens’ genes have developed highly effective strategies in survival and reproduction, especially when confronted by significant danger.

Although it might be hard to accept that human nature is, as Tennyson noted “red in tooth and claw,” think about some of the base survival tactics we have all deployed in recent times; hoarding toilet paper and tonic water is not going to save our lives, but it is overt behavior in protecting our way of life, and despite all logic, our instincts got the better of us. Likewise, although I currently don’t plan to contribute, there are predictions that by winter we will see the emergence of the first “Baby Zoomers,” children born out of increased opportunity, boredom, lack of condoms or perhaps the increased dependence on alcohol during our extended isolationism. The bottom line: We were born to survive; we survive to reproduce.

Now, before you give up reading any further and conclude what many already know about this author, let me get to the point and explain what on earth this has to do with the workplace, technology and the meaning of life.

Well here’s the thing. We are currently inundated with “post Covid re-entry new normal survival” plans and in almost every case, the overall conclusion is that “life will never be the same again.” In many respects, I agree. The architects and interiors designers are talking about space separation and flow, the furniture folks are building partitions and screens, the techies are excited by video, virtualization and touchless interfaces. Combined, we have some of the most brilliant minds in their fields remotely collaborating on how we get back to work and what work might look like in the future.

A lot of these ideas make perfect sense. In fact, they made perfect sense before COVID; we just didn’t prioritize them, because we were too busy being busy and doing it the way we had always done it. Let’s be honest, there has been incredible waste and dysfunction in all aspects of the workplace historically and we have all tended to hide in and protect our silos of self-interest — call it Dawkinsian Survivalism. If there is one thing we can all do now, it’s bust out of our silos, listen, respect each other and work together for better solutions to our problems rather than trying to solve them all on our own. Is our job done then?

Well, this is where I have an issue with some of the “new normal” thought leadership: The premise that the future of work is defined by “six feet of separation.” As many millions have now discovered, you can actually work from home and get stuff done and this video thing really works and is quite fun! So why would I need to go into an office at all now? I certainly don’t want to commute two hours every day to be separated from and not interact with my colleagues, when we are only 2 feet apart on my PC monitor safe and snug at home.

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So here is the rest of the Dawkins story. It would appear that the “selfish gene” is not so selfish after all. Although it remains true that survival and reproduction are ultimately the intended outcomes, our genes are being carried by a highly intelligent and adaptable species that realizes that mutual dependency and cooperation is a much more effective strategy than “every man and woman for themselves”; in other words, collaboration is hardwired into our DNA.

We gather at sports stadiums, movie theaters, restaurants and salons, not because we need to watch sports and movies, eat food and pamper ourselves (I concede that one), we can do that at home. We do so because we need, we yearn, we live for human connection. The very thought of going back to work in a sterile distanced and regulated bubble strikes at the very core of who we are. And if that’s going to be the case, we might as well accept that we will never again jostle each other for 6 inches of space at a live concert and share that unique experience with our children. It’s not going to happen.

The workplace of the future is all about human gathering and connection, it’s not about getting stuff done. Our spaces need to encourage togetherness, sharing, diversity and learning. Our technology needs to amplify voices, unlock creativity and support teamwork. Commuting to our special places of work will be less frequent for sure, but when we do go, it should be an experience that inspires, motivates and enriches us all and grows the value and relevance of our businesses.

We will overcome COVID-19, we will return to work and yes, we will be better prepared for if, more likely, when a new virus emerges. But neither will there be, nor can there be, physical or metaphorical barriers imposed for anything longer than a few months. If you are not convinced by that argument, imagine what would happen if a vaccine was announced tomorrow and freely available to everyone in the world within the next 12 weeks, would we design to six feet of separation then?

Finally, and hopefully most importantly: We talk about the “new normal,” but can I argue for an “old normal?” Can you remember a time when we cared for each other more than we have done so over the last decade when we were not so polarized in our political belief and so greedy in our pursuit of material wealth and privilege? Well, for those not old enough to remember, what have you witnessed over the last few months? We have celebrated and applauded the selfless acts of doctors, nurses, caregivers, delivery drivers and minimally waged grocery store workers. We are, of course, a “highly intelligent and adaptable species” that has realized that “mutual dependency and cooperation” is a much more effective strategy than “every man and woman for themselves.” So when we do return to work, let’s remind ourselves that we are not that selfish after all and that a little understanding, love and kindness for our fellow human beings goes a long way to help our own survival and prosperity in the future.