March 6, 2021
Years of pathologising offices should have prepared us for the patholigisation of virtual spaces. It seems like months since anybody has come out with that tired old rant about open plan. Certain vociferous and obsessive authors on the subject have had to find some other outlet for whatever their real problem is. Still, it’s not hard right now to find similar stuff about the toxicity of virtual meetings and especially those hosted by poor old Zoom, who get the blame for everything.
Just as with the open plan, there needs to be a conversation about the problems associated with virtual collaboration and what to do about them. So, maybe the current wave of Zoom bating is a necessary step on the road ahead.
Some of the criticism seems valid enough, especially the study from Stanford academics explaining why we find the constant use of virtual meetings so exhausting. Other articles look at the ways tech firms are seeking to replicate some of the serendipity of physical interactions in their products. This is a direct response to the fears that many firms have – including the likes of Google – about maintaining their culture for remote workers.
It is relationships, not merely acts of collaboration, that create trust
That may not be the whole picture though, according to this analysis from Matt Clancy which suggests we may be over-emphasising the value of constant collaboration and under-estimating the importance of meeting.
His argument is backed up by this piece in the Harvard Business Review,
…Meetings are important, of course, but not more so than human moments, because it is relationships, not merely acts of collaboration, that create trust between coworkers. Studies have long shown that frequent in-person interactions lead to commitment, support, and cooperation among people on teams. That’s why many tech companies that boast about being 100% online still have an office. Even those that have no physical space emphasize that teams should meet face-to-face on a regular basis…
As Perry Timms argues here, our real knowledge of other people is endlessly layered and shifting in a way that defies simple explanations.
Other problems related to tech enabled communication are still emerging and many of them are related to poor working cultures and complex or toxic human behaviour, just as they are in offices. Other people are often the problem, not the platform.
Presenteeism is still alive and kicking, of course, now manifested as back-to-back Zoom meetings, seven screen laptops and two more hours work a day rather than being at a desk at 7am. So too, is the impulse for certain managers to micro-manage.
More worryingly, tech mediated relationships at work are starting to take on some of the characteristics of those we typically see on social media, according to this piece in The New York Times.
…Office conversation at some companies is starting to look as unruly as conversation on the internet. That’s because office conversation now is internet conversation. Many companies have been working online for nearly a year, with plans to continue well into 2021. And just as people are bolder behind keyboards on Twitter, they are bolder behind keyboards on workplace messaging platforms like Microsoft Teams and Slack — with all the good and all the bad, but with a lot more legal liability…
“At the beginning of the pandemic, everyone patted themselves on their back, like: ‘Oh, look, productivity has not fallen. We’ve transitioned to digital. We’ve done things we were seeking to do — streamline processes, move things online, decentralize decision making.’ But they were forgetting about culture,” said Jennifer Howard-Grenville, a professor in organization studies at the University of Cambridge. “Now the reality of that has hit.”…
In a similar vein, this piece in the Harvard Business Review looks at the falling levels of trust and empathy between remote workers, their employers and each other.
The underlying problem is explored in a Pew Study which canvassed the views of experts in the fields of technology, communications and social change. It concludes that we aren’t ready biologically or socially for some of the changes we are already experiencing, never mind what is to come.
Humans … are required to function with paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and god-like technology
…As these experts pondered what was happening in mid-2020 and the likely changes ahead, they used words like “inflection point,” “punctuated equilibrium,” “unthinkable scale,” “exponential process,” “massive disruption” and “unprecedented challenge.” They wrote about changes that could reconfigure fundamental realities such as people’s physical “presence” with others and people’s conceptions of trust and truth.
They wondered, too, if humans can cope effectively with such far-reaching changes, given that they are required to function with “paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and god-like technology,” in the words of biologist E.O. Wilson…
It bears repeating that all of these conversations are taking place in very strange times. Even so, what is to come will be different to what went before and we shouldn’t assume we already have answers.
The much talked about idea of hybrid working – which appears to be the bastard offspring of flexible work and shift work – looks promising in many ways but has dangers we have yet to resolve, according to Pilita Clark who reminds us not everybody is in the same boat or wants the same things and that could trip firms up and change people’s behaviour.
…new data shows more than 30 per cent of workers either never want to work at home, or only want to do it rarely, or for just one day a week. Still, at least these workers have a choice. A lot of people have jobs requiring them to move things or drive to places, despite the greater risk of infection, while their office colleagues stay at home.
“They are really pissed off,” says Bloom [the author of the study cited], and their managers don’t know what to do.
One answer seems obvious: pay them more. Some companies might do this, but market forces suggest many others will not. Lower skilled jobs have been among those hit hardest in the pandemic. The bargaining power of those who hold them is weak.
In other words, the workers most likely to lose their jobs are the same as those unable to enjoy the perks of working from home.
We need this constant reminder that many people – perhaps the majority – don’t have the same choices as those most talked about. Even many remote workers in the tech world earn less than the living wage, and we risk creating a new form of serfdom according to this interview with the economist Robert Skidelsky. (The subject is also explored in the latest issue of IN Magazine.)
Image: A still from the movie Playtime starring Jacques Tati
Mark is the publisher of Workplace Insight, IN magazine, Works magazine and is the European Director of Work&Place journal. He has worked in the office design and management sector for over thirty years as a journalist, marketing professional, editor and consultant.