Why WFH is unsustainable

A couple of weekends back I decided to re-read Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. Rather than digging into my kindle for the regular version (which I’d read in 2015), I decided to read the graphic novel instead.

I’d purchased a copy of it a few months back, and a month ago, my daughter had finished reading it (it was only after she finished reading that I realised the extent of the sex and violence in the book. anyways).

Since I was re-reading, there was nothing particularly new. It was just a refresher of everything I’d read and enjoyed back in 2015. And one of the things I read was something highly pertinent to what I’d been thinking about the preceding Friday – on gossip.

One of the key points that Harari makes in Sapiens is that what makes us sapiens sapiens is our ability to gossip. Many other animals communicate, but most of their communication is “necessary”. “Oh look, there’s a lion”, or “there is a dead elephant near the lake” types.

Homo sapiens is unique in that most of our conversation is, fundamentally speaking, rather unnecessary stuff. It is basically “gossip”. That we gossip, however, means that we evolved to have a far richer vocabulary. We communicate and bond a lot more. And we are able to create “shared fictions” that means it is far easier for us to cooperate with strangers. And that lets us do more. Then again – it all started with gossip.

This, I realised, is why I find working from home rather isolating. It’s been over a year since I got back to full time employment. There have been two waves of covid-19 after that. This has meant I’ve hardly been to office in this time. Yes, there have been spells when I’ve travelled, or spent a week at office, but they have been few and far in between.

Apart from collaboration with my team, work has been fine. However, what I realise I miss is the general “bonding” that you would come to expect when you work for a company. The problem is with remote work.

While chat (we use Google Chat; other companies use Slack or DBabble of Microsoft Teams or Discord) is good enough for most “quick communication”, the big problem is that everything you say is necessarily in writing. Yes, you can delete or modify, some messengers have disappearing messages and all that.

Yet, because you need to put everything in writing, you say less than you otherwise would. Most importantly, you think twice before you gossip. It takes a long time for pairs of people to build sufficient mutual trust to be able to gossip (and when I think of it, most of this kind of trust has developed through offline interactions). Even if I trust you, I’ll think maybe one and a half times before putting gossip in writing.

So prolonged period of remote work means work gets robbed of the core human element – gossip. And extending what Harari says in sapiens, when you gossip less, you believe in fewer shared fictions (though by definition all of you in your company believe in the fiction of the limited liability corporation). And you cooperate less.

I can’t wait to get back to office (planning in 2 weeks or so), and (hopefully) start gossiping again. It won’t be easy since so far I’ve largely been remote. However, if we can get a sustained period of office work going, we should be able to gossip and bond and be a little more human.

Gossip Propagation Models

More than ten years ago, back when I was at IIT Madras, I considered myself to be a clearinghouse of gossip. Every evening after dinner I would walk across to Sri Gurunath Patisserie, and plonk myself at one of the tables there with a Rs. 5 Nescafe instant coffee. And there I would meet people. Sometimes we would discuss ideas (while these discussions were rare, they were most fulfilling). Other times we would discuss events. Most of the time, and in conversations that would be entertaining if not fulfilling, we discussed people.

Constant participation in such discussions made sure that any gossip generated anywhere on campus would reach me, and to fill time in subsequent similar conversations I would propagate them. I soon got to know about random details of random people on campus who I hardly cared about. Such information was important purely because someone else might find it interesting. Apart from the joy of learning such gossip, however, I didn’t get remunerated for my services as clearinghouse.

I was thinking about this topic earlier today while reading this studmax post that the wife has written about gossip distribution models. In it she writes:

This confirmed my earlier hypothesis that gossip follows a power law distribution – very few people hold all the enormous hoards of information while the large majority of people have almost negligible information. Gossip primarily follows a hub and spoke model (eg. when someone shares inappropriate pictures of others on a whatsapp group) and in some rare cases especially in private circles (best friends, etc.), it’s point to point.

 

For starters, if you plot the amount of gossip that is propagated by different people (if a particular quantum of gossip is propagated to two different people, we will count it twice), it is very well possible that it follows a power law distribution. This well follows from the now well-known result that degree distribution in real-world social networks follows a power law distribution. On top of this if you assume that some people are much more likely to propagate quantums of gossip they know to other people, and that such propensity for propagation is usually correlated with the person’s “degree” (number of connections), the above result is not hard to show.

The next question is on the way gossip actually propagates. The wife looks at the possibilities through two discrete models – hub-and-spoke and peer-to-peer. In the hub-and-spoke models, gossip is likely to spread along the spokes. Let us assume that the high-degree people are the hubs (intuitive), and according to this model, these people collect gossip from spokes (low degree people) and transmit it to others. In this model, gossip seldom propagates directly between two low-degree people.

At the other end is the peer-to-peer model where the likelihood of gossip spreading along an edge (connection between two people) is independent of the nature of the nodes at the end of the edge. In this kind of a model, gossip is equally likely to flow across any edge. However, if you overlay the (scale free/ power law) network structure over this model, then it will start appearing to be like a hub and spoke model!

In reality, neither of these models is strictly true since we also need to consider each person’s propensity to propagate gossip. There are some people who are extremely “sadhu” and politically correct, who think it is morally wrong to propagate unsubstantiated stories. They are sinks as far as any gossip is concerned. The amount of gossip that reaches them is also lower because their friends know that they’re not interested in either knowing or propagating it. On the other hand you have people (like I used to be) who have a higher propensity of propagating gossip. This also results in their receiving more gossip, and they end up propagating more.

So does gossip propagation follow the hub-and-spoke model or peer-to-peer model? The answer is “somewhere in between”, and a function of the correlation between the likelihood of a node propagating gossip and the degree of the node. If the two are uncorrelated (not unreasonable), then the flow will be closer to peer-to-peer (though degree distribution being a power law makes it appear as if it is hub-and-spoke). If there is very high positive correlation between likelihood of propagation and node degree, the model is very close to hub-and-spoke, since the likelihood of gossip flowing between low degree nodes in such a case is very very low, and thus most of the gossip flow happens through one of the hubs. And if the correlation between likelihood of propagation and node degree is low (negative), then it is likely to lead to a flow that is definitely peer-to-peer.

I plan to set up some simulations to actually study the above possibilities and further model how gossip flows!