When work relationships migrate to virtual spaces, connection and authenticity take a new form
In the wake of forced social distancing as the widespread response to curtail the spread of the Coronavirus, Zoom and other video conferencing solutions are life savers for businesses, enabling effective work from home.
For many businesses, remote work is pretty standard. But for some, physical presence in the office is the norm, either because there is no other way to run the business, or because the organizational DNA prescribes on-site work. These companies have suddenly been forced to shift to work-from-home mode.
3+ weeks into a newly established routine of back-to-back Zoom meetings, I’ve noticed that virtual meetings revise the terms of intimacy in the workplace. They change the way people communicate and share. In some ways, they limit authentic interaction. In others, they enable new ways of connection. Video meetings conceal some information yet reveal new facts.
Since intimacy and connection are such strong drivers of collaboration, I find it interesting to zoom on in on the way Zoom affects work relationships.
The curve of mood is flattened, repeated check-ins increase
Meetings held in a physical room offer a lot of implicit information that’s extremely useful for the keen observer. Is the person managing the discussion tense or relaxed? Who’s sitting next to whom? Does carefree chatter prelude the demo or is it a heavy silence that commands the room?
Zoom meetings largely lack natural interpersonal dynamics. They feel less like a collective and more like a collection of individuals. Absent cues of body language and with the pace of conversation regimented by the unnatural flow of video meetings, mood is muted and hard to decipher.
In fact, individuals’ moods are equally elusive. It’s really hard to intuit what your peer is going through via your laptop lens. This inaccessibility triggers multiple check-ins about how we feel. Meetings kick off with a slew of “how’s everyone doing” and “what’s the mood on the ground”. This is due largely to the current crisis, but is also required lacking the ability to pick up on this information without asking directly.
The loss of spontaneity and the delight of an encounter
A random encounter in the hallway, a casual chat before a meeting, a spur-of-the-moment lunch — all gone now. Most interactions we have these days are planned and scheduled. There are so many amazing things about the neatly planned workday: meetings start exactly on time. Slots in between meetings are uninterrupted by casual pats on the shoulder and “I just dropped by to check in with you”. But the loss of spontaneous interaction hampers intimacy.
Maybe this loss is offset with the delight and elation in seeing on screen a colleague you haven’t met for some time. I sense a real excitement over what we had taken for granted until not so long ago: running into someone you work with in the office. This joy is real — this is a true connection.
Five o’clock shadow as early as 10 am
What you wear is meaningless and has absolutely no bearing on perception or impression. Fashion as self expression means little without an audience. Needless to say, what you don’t wear is equally meaningless. Heels, suits, ties, makeup…. (bras?) — gone.
The little that is visible is more shabby than casual — a haggard t-shirt or a five o’clock shadow as early as 10 am. Yes, we no longer bring our full physique to work, but we do bring a more authentic and less groomed version of ourselves to conversations, forging, again, a different, maybe more real connection.
The body is out of the equation — hope for more diversity?
Since anything below the shoulders is out of sight on Zoom, when a colleague made a casual comment about her upcoming due date, we were almost surprised. Right, so-and-so is pregnant! Of course! We totally forgot all about this. It may be that this woman misses the care and concern her work friends would have expressed had they been able to meet her in person in these past few weeks.
But, this got me thinking: If a larger portion of companies conduct their ongoing business from home, could this have a positive effect on inclusiveness and diversity in the workplace? When a swelling belly — or a wheelchair for that matter — are not visible, these conditions can no longer infiltrate the conversation, however subconsciously they do now.
The best superpower: invisibility
Invisibility is such a highly coveted superpower, and Zoom grants it freely with a click. Zoom gives you the liberty to do things that are completely unacceptable in real-life, non-virtual meetings. Here are a few things you can do invisibly:
- Stare at yourself for hours on end (I had no idea this is what I look like when I talk).
- Stare at your colleagues and they’ll never know (now that this is out in the open, perhaps the no-makeup strategy should be reconsidered).
- Text and email with liberty during a meeting (it’s not wise, but it is possible and it would be impolite in public — don’t forget to go on mute if you’re typing).
- Literally go invisible. You can disable the video option at any time, and Zoom etiquette allows you to do so unannounced and with no explanation. Magic.
Your home is where your heart is — and your boss
Your home is on camera offering a glimpse into hitherto unknown facets of your life. This can be illuminating: one colleague has beautiful artwork revealing her interest in painting. Another has a surprisingly neat and stylish living room. A third works in a perennially unmade bed. Not to mention people’s kids and pets suddenly peeping in with need and cuteness. Video conferencing from your home offers a richer and more intimate view of the people you work with.
Only one person can talk — but simultaneous off-the-radar convos flourish
In large forum meetings taking place in the office, eruptions of spontaneous conversations are not unheard of. This can never happen on Zoom. Everyone has to wait their turn to speak, and commenting in hushed tones is impossible.
Multiple conversations do take place under the radar though. Texting and emailing during the meeting are not conducive to your focus, but they definitely do bridge over lost intimacy. A funny comment may elicit a private joke, or a controversial decision may trigger disappointment that can be shared and maybe soothed in private with a friend.
With the loss of conditions that enable face-to-face, non-virtual, three dimensional forums, it would be wise for managers, HR specialists, and anyone who cares, to reach out individually, over Whatsapp, on the phone, or in any way that works, to foster one of the strongest drivers of business — friendship.