Seeing the Unseen: A New Lens on Visibility at Work

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During a recent trip to company headquarters, I arrived much more aware of the surfaces I might encounter than before COVID-19: the turnstile at reception, door and faucet handles, elevator buttons, lunch trays, my keyboard and desk. Given the invisibility of viruses, I was anxious about what I couldn’t see. Still, I was confident that safety protocols had been taken extremely seriously, because a good many other people had worked to make all these surfaces shiny, clean, and fresh.

These essential workers continued to perform these important and oftentimes risky jobs throughout the pandemic, even as “knowledge workers” generally did their jobs from the comfort of home. These shadow workers do the important stuff behind the scenes that many of us who have been working remotely throughout the pandemic take for granted in our relatively frictionless social worlds — until the system breaks down. We expect that the items we’ve ordered online will arrive on time because by and large they do; when they don’t, we become irritated. We wonder in frustration why the school bus routes have suddenly changed. We lose our way when our Wi-Fi signal is weak.

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