Not Remotely

Not Remotely


Leonard Zwelling

It has become increasingly obvious to me that I could no longer work in academic medicine as a physician, researcher, or administrator given the new rules in place.

First, there’s the work-life balance rule. The rule is that such a thing as work-life balance exists. When I was working, I never heard of such a thing. You worked until the job was done and then you could do other things. Period. When I was in patient care, that often meant 18-hour days and then the nights. For professionals with fiduciary obligations to institutions and to others, like patients, those obligations came first. If you want work-life balance, get a nine-to-five job and you can have it. If you are a professional of any kind, you can expect to have to give more to the job than eight hours and to have the job haunt you even when you are not in the office.

And that brings us to the next rule I couldn’t follow. Remote working. The rule is allowing such a thing, which might not be at all healthy (see article by Dr. Jordan D. Metzl from The New York Times on March 17.)

Remote working is good for astronauts, meteorologists at the South Pole, anthropologists in the Amazon, and deep- sea divers. Most of the rest of us have a place at which we work—or we used to. Since the Covid pandemic, people have gotten used to working from home and communicating via Zoom. This is a wholly ineffective manner for humans to communicate with one another. We do better when we can see and hear and observe the people with whom we are interacting with nothing but air between us. Remote working is not really working. It’s phoning it in.

Let’s be honest, thanks to modern vaccines and a bit of herd immunity, I suspect, Covid, while still with us, is not the threat it was in 2020. We are going to have to learn to live with it, while trying to protect the most vulnerable, the sick and the elderly. I am not at all sure that masks make a difference, but I am pretty sure the ones that they pass out at the doors of MD Anderson and which half the people wear under their noses are not the answer.

Given that, it’s time to get back to the office. People need to interact with other people directly to be maximally productive unless the people are artists or writers. I absolutely could not imagine doing my job as a vice president over Zoom without the faculty having free access to me and my co-workers and for us to be able to speak directly to them. Zoom rhymes with gloom, doom, and tomb, but not with work.

Furthermore, there must be huge tracts of unoccupied office buildings in America that stand silent while the people who are supposed to be there, work in their bathrobes—maybe. Maybe they work; maybe they wear bathrobes. How the supervisors of America keep track of those they oversee is beyond me and I see the breakdown in the basic clinical processes as I couldn’t even get to my care team at Anderson because the team wasn’t answering MyChart emails and the nurse was working remotely. How the heck can a nurse work remotely and still be a nurse?

As far as I can tell, the Good Ship Mendelsohn Building at mid-campus is a ghost town as that’s an administration building and the administrators are all at home.

I suggest that we professionals worry less about work-life balance and concentrate on the work. And everybody should be going back to the office whether they like it or not. If you want to find out who is really working, have them drop into work once in a while.

The new work place is not right for the old-timers. It’s one thing for everyone to communicate with email that can largely be ignored and viewed as a surrogate for real contact. It’s another to sit at home deprived of human interaction and social norms and assume this will not have an adverse effect on mental health, physical health, and productivity.

It’s good for everyone that I retired. This brave new world is not for me.

Did you know? Dr. Zwelling’s new book “Conflict of Interest” becomes available Spring 2023. Check for the latest on this book and information on how you can purchase a copy.

2 thoughts on “Not Remotely”

  1. I agree that face-to-face communication and working side-by-side in the same space is most likely the best way to live and work.
    Remote work and Zoom meetings, however, are here to stay. The challenge is balancing them with any working group. Business schools and leadership academies are challenged to figure out this new paradigm.
    Finally, I could not agree with you more about staying until the task is complete. The shift mentality for physicians is not always best for continuity of care or for learning. Fortunately I still still see some young colleagues with dedication to stick with the task until it’s completed.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *