I've been fortunate to have worked with lots of smart, fun people, and I thought of them all last week when I saw Boris Johnson give an online speech at his Conservative Party's annual virtual conference.
There he stood with puffing hands and a whiff of hair as he grumbled about having to speak to a camera in a lifeless London studio instead of the noisy hall in Birmingham that would have been the venue without Covid. 19th
But don't be afraid. Everyone would be back to normal soon, he said. "Hairdressers no longer look like they're handling radioactive isotopes," and we don't have to "greet each other by touching the elbows like some giant national version of the birdie dance."
The UK Prime Minister has always understood how much we value a leader who is not afraid of jokes. Few rulers match his unwavering lust for a zinger.
But as I watched his speech with its uncomfortable, heavy silence, in which the laughter of the crowd might have been, I felt a pang of loss. It was a reminder that the pandemic stole a fundamental ingredient from politics and normal work life: humor.
It's not that Work Day from home is completely lacking in humor and joy. As I type, a friend involved in a boring online conference posted a tweet about a baby who is bored of sleep which made me laugh out loud. (You must see it with the sound on.)
People at work say they enjoy morning team calls. Apparently, some FT Slack channels are borderline hysterical.
I don't doubt a word of it, but I also think those isolated bags of online fun can't keep up with the way jokes frolic in an office full of people.
Take the Sydney newspaper, which I once worked for. If we'd all been typing from home, we wouldn't have heard what happened when the penthouse editor was shown a photo of a passenger plane making an emergency landing after part of its roof fell like a sardine can lid in mid-flight had withdrawn. "Oh," he said. "So this is what economy looks like." Nor would we have heard the same man mutter the day the newsroom filled with the cry of a crying baby, "Where is Herod when you need him?"
You can say that's a good thing. But the point is, a punch line has a lot more punch when it's heard by many people at the same time. This is impossible when the audience is divided into hundreds of workers' homes far away.
Is that important? Considering the number of executives I keep meeting worrying about how quickly remote workers can lose their sense of connection with their company – especially younger employees and newcomers. Humor has to be part of the answer.
For years, researchers have reported that when used well, humor can reduce conflict, promote creativity, improve communication and, above all, increase employee loyalty.
Seriously, a new book by two Stanford University professors called Humor, offers some recent, albeit disturbing, evidence to support these findings.
Data from 166 countries show that the moment we join the workforce, we experience an amazing loss of humor that we only regain after we retire. The frequency with which we laugh or smile every day decreases from the time we reach 23.
Apparently, it takes the average 40-year-old 10 weeks to laugh as much as a 4-year-old in a single day (up to 300 times). However, a sense of humor is far more useful to the 40-year-old.
A staggering 98 percent of executives prefer employees who can laugh, surveys show, and 84 percent believe those with a sense of humor do better.
Fortunately, research also shows that you don't have to be "funny" to benefit from it. Apparently, it is more important to signal that you are having fun, for example by smiling or laughing at jokes.
For some of us, that's just as good. The writers have an online quiz that evaluates what kind of humor you have. Once I did, I rushed downstairs to find my other half. "I just tested my sense of humor," I told him. "Fine," he said. "Did you find one?"