Working Home Alone – Together
How video conferencing is changing the working world
For the most part, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a story of loss: loss of jobs, loss of consumer demand, and above all, horrendous loss of life. But there is at least one bright side: We now know that modern communications technology is good enough to keep important parts of the economy going even when people can’t physically work together.
“We have just run a giant science experiment with at least a half-billion people [that asked]: Can commerce exist and continue via video?’” observes Steve Blank, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur based in Pescadero, California. “And the answer is, hell, yeah!”
Blank says certain kinds of calls work well enough via Zoom and similar technologies that the screen can serve as a reasonable substitute for an in-person meeting. “One of the things that I discovered is that it’s insane to have a first business meeting in person,” he says. After the pandemic is over, he expects he will continue to substitute more online video calls for initial meetings. Even if video is only 80% as good as meeting in person, cutting out the travel time will make it possible to speak to many more people in a day.
Deeper and more complex discussions, however, may be more difficult to take online. Sir Cary Cooper, 50th Anniversary Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Manchester Business School, University of Manchester, says one of the big challenges is not so much the meeting as the important incidental chats outside the meeting – “the water cooler effect.” You can take a break at a virtual meeting, Cooper points out, “but how do you replicate [an exchange like], ‘Oh, I don’t really agree with Frank, what do you think?’ ‘I think it’s a rubbish idea’?”
There are other limitations to technology. Cooper and other organizational experts say that with only a limited view of facial expressions and body language, and little way to feel whether you are speaking to five people or 500, the social dynamics of video conferences can be very tiring. Over time, technology may be able to correct for this problem; Blank says a number of startups are working on training artificial intelligence to read people’s emotions. In the short run, however, psychologists and networking experts see challenging times ahead as we struggle to communicate pixel-to-pixel.
Video can make other things a little too clear for comfort. Julia Hobsbawm, a British social networking expert, notes that video can also make it more difficult to hide than it is in a conventional meeting. “You are oddly more visible in certain video meetings than you might have been doodling at the back of the room in a real one,” she says.
Or not: some women find that although video conferencing may be new, older frustrations about not being heard have not died out. A recent survey by Catalyst, a U.S. nonprofit focused on making the workplace friendlier to women, found that women were more likely to feel ignored by a coworker at a virtual meeting than men (21% vs. 15%). Hobsbawm, however, thinks that the challenges posed by virtual communication are not specific to any one demographic. “Zoom is a problem for anyone forced to work from home who has a shared space, or poor Internet, or inadequate computers, or disruptions such as children, or all sorts of time compression issues,” she says.
Whether you like video conferences may also depend on how comfortable you are sharing your personal life with your colleagues, according to Andrew Brodsky, an Assistant Professor of Management at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. Brodsky, who studies workplace communication, says people who like to keep their personal life separate may be having a harder time with video conferencing than people who don’t.
For integrators, mixing personal and working life is a source of job satisfaction. Segmenters, on the other hand, prefer to keep the personal and the professional very separate, according to Brodsky. For instance, segmenters don’t really like it if their employer sponsors an onsite daycare – they enjoy their job more if their preschooler is not right next door.
COMING SOON TO A SCREEN NEAR YOU
When the pandemic is finally over, some observers believe that the rise of video conferencing will lead to permanent changes in how we work, with uncertain consequences. One survey of 25,000 telecommuting U.S. workers conducted by IBM in May found that 75% would like to continue to have the option to work from home sometimes, and 54% would like to do it all the time.
If we do end up working at home more than before the pandemic, as seems likely, it could lead to a number of other social changes as well:
- As more employees are given the option to go back to the office, the political and managerial challenges of remote work may increase. When everyone is working from home, a Facetime video call doesn’t have to compete with face time in the office. But one of the biggest post-COVID management challenges, Brodsky says, will likely be how to manage a mix of people working from home and from the office without making the remote workers second-class citizens. “It’s often hard to objectively evaluate performance,” he says. Managers often look for clues, such as people sitting for long stretches at their desk, as a sign of productivity, according to Brodsky, giving commuting colleagues a built-in lead.
- If Silicon Valley entrepreneur Blank is right that video conferencing is a “good enough” way for business-to-business representatives to talk to potential customers, the $350-plus billion U.S. business travel market could be hurt. Such a development may be good for the environment but not for the hospitality and transportation industries, which rely on business travelers as an important source of profit. Pre-COVID, business travelers bought 12% of all airplane tickets but represented 75% of airline profits, according to a report by Trondent Development Corp.
- Video conferencing could also destabilize some of those road warriors’ more popular destinations. Blank speculates, for example, that if Sequoia and other venture capital firms start making virtual deals that lead them to write more checks to startups that aren’t anywhere near Sand Hill Road, Silicon Valley might become less of a tech capital than it is now.
At the same time, video conferencing will also bring into sharper focus many problems with which business has already struggled for some time. Hobsbawm believes that videoconferences present “a close-up mirror of a corporate world which was dysfunctional beforehand.”
“In the end, I think the problems with Zoom will be the problems of corporate life which existed before and which have surfaced: Inequalities of power, of voice, coupled with inadequacy of management,” she says.
Unfortunately, although video calls have enhanced the quality of long-distance communication in all kinds of ways—at the touch of a button, Zoom can even smooth wrinkles, Hollywood-style — the tougher conversations are still our job. Although the technology is getting better and better, there is still no substitute for a smart, sensitive manager.