While there are plenty of other videoconferencing applications out there, it’s Zoom, like Hoover, that has so emphatically entered the language that it’s been promoted from noun to verb. Hence the title (and the third in my triptych of EM Forster puns, for which I apologise). But videoconferencing in general is my theme.
Against the grim backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, there has at least been the reassurance that we can stay in touch with family, friends and colleagues through this medium. And we can do so safely: ‘Zooming’, as a primary enabler for social distancing, is a powerful prophylactic.
It’s a technology for our time, then: lockdown necessity the mother of video conferencing invention. But there’s much speculation about whether it’ll survive at current levels into post-lockdown, or whether the physical office will exert the same irresistible draw on the workforce that it has in the past.
History is replete with examples of technologies changing the way we think and behave, breaking over society in waves of ‘creative destruction’. Steam reshaped the urban/rural balance of the workforce; the railways changed people’s concepts of time and space; the internal combustion engine realised new personal freedoms; digital gave us access to information and services that drive our minute-by-minute behaviours. Videoconferencing may not be quite in this league, and is in any case a subset of digital, but its moment in the limelight must, surely, have changed some of the fundamentals.
You could argue that, no, it hasn’t. At one level, a videoconference is just like any meeting, with the same agenda-driven structures and processes managed by a chairperson. Superficially, it’s just a geographically dispersed version of the thing we’re all used to and with which most people have a love-hate relationship. The alphas still have the opportunity to dominate, with less assertive people consigned to unseen corners of the virtual realm in the same way they might previously have struggled to capture the chair’s eye from the far end of the table.
But at another level, some things have changed substantially.
Aspects of the physical meeting, for example, have been removed in the virtual format. The full suite of body language – with all its signals on how the meeting is going – isn’t possible. Nor are the clusters of micro-meetings that take place in the margins of a physical meeting both before and after: the small, water cooler-type groupings in which quite a lot of business, not necessarily relating to the meeting itself, gets done. And it’s not possible to break bread together – important, because this is one of the most profound of social interactions, and a tried and trusted means of loosening the rigidity of formal business transactions.
These factors themselves prompt responses. Body language informalises in the virtual world, breaking down some of the barriers that can make physical meetings hard going. The ability to raise a virtual hand makes it easier for the more junior members of the meeting to get into the conversation. The absence of micro-meetings can be replaced by side-channels such as messaging or even phone conversations – videoconferencing might just have reminded us that there is such a thing as a phone, something that the onward march of other technology and office practices has obscured, and that calling someone is often the best way of getting an immediate response.
Virtual meetings, unshackled from the confines of physical space, have shown themselves to be facilitators of much greater participation, with the potential to invite in more reasonable challenge. While increased numbers can present a choreography issue for the chair, the chat bar enables more people to participate. The valve closing down diversity of thought is at least opened a little, and maybe a lot. It’s even possible to break bread virtually, or at least share a glass of something, though the benefits to interpersonal relationships are inevitably weaker.
Perhaps most surprisingly, videoconferencing has shown itself capable of humanising the workplace. We see into people’s homes – or at least the bits of their homes they’re happy for a wider audience to see – and some of the human connection lost by not being able to chat at the tea point is regained by seeing colleagues in their domestic setting. In the real workplace, you imagine the home life your colleagues tell you about; in a videoconference, you see it, particularly when a cat or family member strays into view.
And at the individual level, the work-life balance that videoconferencing has enabled is potentially transformational. Incentives to presenteeism vanish. When you switch the computer off at the end of the day, you’re already at home, not struggling on crowded public transport. You might now have reserves of energy that were previously expended in surviving the commute. You might eat and sleep better.
In the end, all this comes down to leadership. Leaders should want the best for their organisations, which means wanting the best for their people. There are too many gains from the recent experience to revert to where we were before. Video conferencing has been around for a while, but was often underutilised because many organisations were stuck in their office-bound ways. Leaders will want to find the optimum balance between the social reinforcement that occurs in the physical workplace and the efficiency upsides from homeworking.
‘Creative destruction’ occurs when the earlier approach has run out of road and something new and better comes along to supplant it. The physical, office-based meeting isn’t quite redundant, but in the future, it could become increasingly so.
Now’s the time, then, to learn from our lockdown experience, and build the virtual meeting into the heart of everything we do.