On Virtual Meetings and Remote Working

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

There’s an article on Wikipedia about ‘Video-telephony’, which appears not have been updated for several years, and certainly not since COVID. It outlines the long and tortuous history of attempts to introduce the technology into our working lives, concluding that while the technological obstacles had been all but overcome, there remained significant barriers to its greater use. These include the lack of eye contact, “appearance-consciousness” and poor connection quality.

All of those remain just as problematic after March 2020 as they did before. Consider how the attention of a person in a virtual meeting is divided. On screen can be seen the faces not only of the speaker but of the other participants.

That’s odd for a start – in real life it would be rude not to look in the direction of the speaker, but here we are free to gaze at whichever of the attendees the most eye-catching, happy in the knowledge that our own camera won’t be able to tell the difference.

We suffer from “appearance-consciousness” because we are constantly faced with a mirror, and the temptation to admire ourselves or to measure how exactly we can regulate our facial expressions to our desired ‘look’ at any given moment is a hard habit to break.

So why don’t we simply turn off the image of ourselves? Well, because that would leave us incredibly vulnerable to forgetting that we can be seen. We need that constant reminder of our own visibility to others because we’re not used to being alone in a room but on show before others.

We’re conditioned to behave in a certain way when we sense others around us, even if we’re not the focus of attention. The unavoidable judgment of those around us and the potential for their body language to signal displeasure with what we’re doing is a powerful deterrent to picking your nose in a real meeting. But when our perception of being visible to others is generated not by their physical presence but by a small, blurry picture of them gazing in our general direction, we are prone to forgetting that they are there at all.

Talking of distraction, let’s consider how our attention in a virtual meeting is split. Between the audiovisuals and the chat – since when has it been normal to have to digest large amounts of text while simultaneously speaking or listening? Our brains aren’t designed to do this! “I’ll just have a quick look at the…………………………………chat” – we’ve all heard people say, their attention now entirely removed from what they were just saying and 100% given over to what Janet in accounts has just written about it, and what Josh from HR thinks about what Janet has just written about it.

Not to mention any private chat windows that the user has open. Not to mention their email notifications which keep popping up during the meeting and which are oh-so-easy just to glance at…because who’s going to know? Not to mention their browser with 15 tabs open ranging from news to that flight they have been meaning to book.

And that’s only the things on the same screen as the meeting. Next to their laptop they have their phone, and if you keep your hand out of sight it’s entirely possible to check those WhatsApps while seemingly still looking at the screen. Some of them are probably from other people in the meeting.

Meeting in person eliminates nearly all these distractions – we claim a right to a far higher percentage of people’s overall attention when they are in the same physical space. Why, in a virtual meeting they reserve the right to make themselves invisible and soundless, for a start. Imagine if one of you colleagues in a real meeting was able to step into a windowless, soundless box mid-way through the meeting (actually, maybe this isn’t such a bad idea…).

Another huge distraction is the fact that every attendee is in a different physical environment. No longer is there a sense that, if nothing else, the participants have in common the joys and frustrations, stray noises and variable quality biscuits as the other people in the room. We lose the multiple points of connection that come with physical presence – the journey there, the weather, the sights and sounds and smells. Instead of sharing these things we isolate them – we blur or change our background to spare the blushes of our colleagues having to see our physical surroundings (excepting those possessed of handsome bookcases); we mute ourselves to avoid a competing mass of sound-scapes. For something designed to bring us closer together, we spend a lot of time silencing or hiding ourselves. Indeed, we are positively encouraged to reveal only the version of ourselves offered by the ‘touch up my appearance’ feature. Having a bad day? Turn your camera off – nobody wants to see you crying. Real life has become an inconvenient distraction from a shiny smooth virtual environment. Will it be long before we switch over to an avatar and meet in the metaverse, and abandon our real selves and real surroundings entirely?

Whilst the technology may have come on, virtual meetings still can’t replicate the natural turn-taking of an actual conversation. Without the clues provided by eye contact and body language, we abandon the normal rules and instead everyone gives a mini presentation each time they speak. The speaker behaves as though on a podium rather than around a table. If you’re in any doubt about this, why do you think there’s a ‘raise my hand’ feature? We are all guests at each others’ performances – because the system has been designed around enabling one person at a time to be clearly seen and heard. That means we speak for longer, admit no interruptions or asides, and engage less with the audience (no jokes or informality here remember – this is my ‘go’, not yours – I don’t care what your witty aside is). The number of people devotedly, fully listening to them is a fraction of the total attendees. Have you ever been to one of those conferences where nobody listens to the speaker because they’re all busy preparing their own presentations? Well that’s every virtual meeting, ever. “Thanks………for that” says the chair…”I’m just going to check the…………………..chat”. Nobody is paying attention. All over the world today, governments, companies and charities are taking decisions based on not listening to what their colleagues are saying. Plus, the ease of adding attendees to virtual meetings is that everyone gets to have their say, but that same ease means that they can also be safely ignored.

And think your connection is reliable? I bet it isn’t as reliable as seeing and hearing someone across a table. When was the last time the person physically opposite you froze and stopped speaking for 45 seconds? Unless you’re a stroke doctor.

That it took a pandemic – a time when many of us were forbidden from leaving our houses – to get us to start using virtual meetings, says much about their likeability. Are we now suffering from a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, whereby we have fallen in love with these tools as a coping mechanism to address the fact that many of us are now trapped using them?

Technology is advancing and soon there will be no technical objections left against virtual presence. But that mis-identifies the problem – it isn’t the ‘glitchyness’ of the virtual office that’s the issue; it’s the fact that it exists at all. It’s the digital equivalent of those products which claim to offer all the nutrition the body needs in one easily consumed beige coloured drink – the reason we don’t adopt them isn’t because we think they are nutritionally deficient, it’s because we’re fustily attached to the complicated business of selecting, preparing and eating our food. We’re not interested in something that fulfils the core function of nourishing our bodies but which lacks any of the pleasurable trimmings.

That it took a pandemic – a time when many of us were forbidden from leaving our houses – to get us to start using virtual meetings, says much about their likeability.

Likewise, in meeting virtually, we’re trying to turn the messy, awkward business of human interaction into an easy to consume beige sludge. We think we can have the office but without all the inconveniences of having to live within commuting distance of it, travel there, maintain and furnish it, and tolerate those human foibles of our colleagues which remain hidden during virtual meetings. How much easier simply to live anywhere and conduct all business from a desk in your back bedroom? What freedom, what flexibility, to throw off the outdated carapace of office life for a fully flexible, virtual workspace?

That word ‘flexible’ comes up a lot. Sometimes what is meant is the seemless integration of work and home life. “I work flexibly” means that I have my laptop on the same table from which I eat my dinner, and wear the same slippers during the working day as I have on in the evenings when I’m watching NetFlix (also from the same screen). “I work flexibly” means I no longer shut-down my emails – I am free to glance at them, perchance respond, when I wake up at 3am. It means I am able to do the washing and empty the dishwasher between meetings, just as I’m able to take a quick Zoom call while I’m on the treadmill at the gym, or during my child’s birthday party. I can work even when I’m feeling poorly, because so long as I’m well enough to smile and occasionally un-mute, nobody will know the difference.

Isn’t what we really mean by ‘flexibility’ simply the convenience of not having to leave the house? And if so, are we sure that it’s worth the price of erasing all barriers between our personal and professional selves and allowing our workplace to invade our home?

Think your connection is reliable? I bet it isn’t as reliable as seeing and hearing someone across a table. When was the last time the person physically opposite you froze and stopped speaking for 45 seconds (unless you’re a stroke doctor)?

Besides all these downsides of virtual presence, let’s consider the other things we risk losing. What about the office itself? Does it not matter that, in some imperfect way, our office buildings embody the spirit of our organisations? Are they not a focal point, not just for the doing of work but for an underlying ideal? Isn’t that why foreign ministries around the world are typically grand buildings? And why architects or academics are rarely housed in portacabins? The International Maritime Organisation in London has a huge carving of the front of a ship embedded in its facade, for goodness sake! Workplaces model the institutions they represent, and help to shape those working inside around a common ideal. Even if your office is far from perfect, I’ll bet that the ideas, conversations, strategies designed inside are better than those you come up with in your back bedroom, surrrounded by piles of washing. Buildings matter. As Winston Churchill put it: “We shape our buildings, and then they shape us”.

What about hybrid working? Everyone comes in some days and works from home other days? Maybe, but if anyone who needs to join a meeting is at home, then those in the office will still need to join virtually too. Hybrid working just means virtual meetings from the office; that’s not the same as office working. And if there’s one thing that’s bound to drive workers back to their spare bedrooms, it’s the dispiriting experience of sitting in a half-empty office.

Will we go back to our workplaces? We have a choice. We can make remote working a permanent feature of professional life. That looks pretty bleak to me. A life of forced smiles and stultifying formality, of jumpy connections, of straining your eyes to see a tiny presentation amid a sea of faces. Of backache and unfitness as the reasons to leave your desk – still less the house – diminish. Of never knowing whether the person you’re looking at is as serene as their fake background or forcing out a smile amid a day full of sorrow. Of a new career meaning little other than a new Zoom account. It must look even bleaker to those trying to make their way in a new job – nobody ever over-heard an insightful conversation on Zoom. Nobody ever bumped into an acquaintance on Microsoft Teams. Sometimes what we learn just by being around others is far more valuable than any meeting.

I have hope. The reason we continued irrationally working in office before the pandemic; the reason we stubbornly insist on inhabiting an inconvenient real world rather than a smoothed out virtual universe is because it’s ten times more rewarding and a hundred times more fun. We may not always be able to explain why, but the thousand tiny things that make up a real-life workplace; the crisp morning air as you wait for the train, the daily nod at the man who runs the coffee stall, the flirtacious look as you get out of the lift, the overheard joke – all of these combine to make the difference between a happy professional life and a drone-like existence in an environment so banal and familiar, so stultifyingly predictable and scripted, so profoundly lacking in humour, normal human emotion and messy, inconvenient, dangerous, reality that it becomes an intolerable prison.

Will we choose real life – or will we be like the Talosians in Star Trek and say: “She has an illusion and you have reality. May you find your way as pleasant”?

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