Why Being Virtually There Is Virtually There

If you work in a factory or somewhere else that requires you to touch things or people, the COVID shutdowns and social distancing have clearly been a difficult situation to overcome.

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https://knowyourmeme.com/photos/1816760-zoom

But it seems that the past few months have also been very trying for many people who worked in office settings before COVID set in. The Brady Bunch meme captured this well. However, to me, that’s something which is less a reflection of reality than a lack of imagination and experience.

I’m in the minority of folks who have worked remotely for more than ten years. By now, I’ve forgotten some of the initial hiccups in doing that. Also, the software, hardware and bandwidth have gotten so much better that the experience is dramatically better than when I started.

So, I’m a little flummoxed by some of what I hear from remote working newbies. First off, of course, is the complaint that people can’t touch and hug their co-workers anymore. Haven’t they been to training about inappropriate touching and how some of these physical interactions can come off as harassment? Even if these folks were in the office, I doubt they would really be going around making physical contact with co-workers.

Then there is the complaint about the how much can be missed in communication when conversations are limited to text messages and emails. That complaint is correct. But why is there an assumption that communication is limited to text. If you had a meeting in a conference room or went to someone’s office for a talk, why can’t you do the same thing via videoconference?

(My own experience is that remote work requires video to be successful because of the importance of non-text elements of human communication. That’s why I’m assuming that the virtual communication is often via video.)

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http://www.officemuseum.com/photo_gallery_1900s_ii.htm

In the office you could drop by. Users of Zoom and similar programs are often expected to schedule meetings, but that’s not a requirement. You can turn on Zoom and, just like in an office, others could connect to you when you want. They’ll see if your busy. And, if you’re a really important person, you can set up a waiting room and let them in when you’re ready.

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https://www.revolverobotics.com/blog/page/19/

There is even a 21st century version of the 19th century partner desks, although it’s not new. An example is the always-on Kubi, pictured to the left, that has been around for a few years. Perch, another startup, summarized the idea in this video a few years back.

Foursquare started using a video portal connecting their engineering teams on the two coasts eight years ago. (A few months ago before COVID, a deal was reached to merge Foursquare with Factual.)

By the way, the physical office was no utopia of employee interaction. A variety of studies, most famously the Allen Curve, a very large reduction in interaction if employees were even relatively short physical distances from each other. With video, all your co-workers are just a click away. While your interactions with the colleague at the next desk may be less (if you want), your interactions with lots of other colleagues on other floors can happen a lot more easily.

And then, despite evidence of increased productivity and employee happiness with remote work, there is the statement that it decreases innovation and collaboration.

Influential articles, like Workspaces That Move People in the October 2014 issue of the Harvard Business Review, declared that “chance encounters and interactions between knowledge workers improve performance.”

In the physical world, many companies interpreted this as a mandate for open office plans that removed doors and closed offices. So how did that work out?

According to a later article — The Truth About Open Offices — in the November–December 2019 issue of the Harvard Business Review reported that, “when the firms switched to open offices, face-to-face interactions fell by 70%”. (More detail can be found in Royal Society journal article of July 2018 on “The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration”.

The late Steve Jobs forcefully pushed the idea of serendipity through casual, random encounters of employees. That idea was one of the design principles of the new Apple headquarters. Now with COVID-driven remote work, some writers, like Tiernan Ray in ZDNET on June 24, 2020, are asking “Steve Jobs said Silicon Valley needs serendipity, but is it even possible in a Zoom world?”.

There is nothing inherently in video conferencing that diminishes serendipitous meetings. Indeed, in the non-business world, there are websites that exist solely to connect strangers together completely at random, like Chatroulette and Omegle.

Without going into the problems those sites have had with inappropriate behavior, the same idea could be used in a different way to periodically connect via video conferencing two employees who otherwise haven’t met recently or at all. Nor does that have to be completely random. A company doing this could also use some analytics to determine which employees might be interested in talking with other employees that they haven’t connected with recently. That would ensure serendipity globally, not just limited to the people who work in the same building.

It’s not that video conferencing is perfect, but there is still an underappreciation of how many virtual equivalents there are of typical office activities — and even less appreciation for some of the benefits of virtual connections compared to physical offices.

To me, the issue is one of a lag that I’ve seen before with technology. I’ve called this horseless carriage thinking. Sociologists call it a cultural lag. As Ashley Crossman has written, this is “what happens in a social system when the ideals that regulate life do not keep pace with other changes which are often — but not always — technological.”

Some people don’t yet realize and aren’t quite comfortable with what they can do. For most, time and experience will educate them.

© 2020 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Written by

Senior Fellow, Intelligent Community Forum; Columbia University Faculty. Former Director, Cisco IBSG Public Sector & CIO Westchester County, NY

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