Updated: Oct 6, 2020
As our response to covid-19 continues, many professional workplaces are transitioning more activities online. These changes have not been universally popular, to say the least. One such change is more online video calls.
The downsides seem obvious: a lack of face-to-face contact, the potential for technical issues to dampen the flow of communications, and perhaps a feeling of inauthenticity about our dealings. Online video calls can also seem to be more draining (particularly for introverts), there’s a whole new set of do’s and don’ts to master; and studies have shown that slight delays when we see people’s reactions (due to the technology), can make us feel anxious about whether our messages are being well received, and communicated effectively.
In short, virtually all – if not in fact all of us – want normal to return; and video calls seem to be an inadequate substitute for how we feel designed to communicate and interact. However, there are several advantages to zoom (or other such online video) calls with regards to our work stress, productivity, and well-being. These are different to those offered in another recent article, on HBR.
Quickly Arranged Meetings. However much we dislike meetings, surely one of the hardest things about them is finding time for everyone involved to be in a given location, often times well dressed, amidst ongoing commitments. With online video calls, it’s been remarkable how quickly meetings have been able to be put together, with people either in their office, at home, or elsewhere (often times outside these past few months!). Of course, this might lead to more meetings in some cases, but…
Most People Don’t Want to Drag Meetings Out. There seems to be a culture developing of not only adaptation to online meetings, but a shared acceptance and acknowledgment that we are all sick of them. I’ve found this to (often) result in shorter, punchier, and more get-to-the-point conversations. I would say that although the number of meetings I have partaken in has increased, the time spent in meetings has reduced. Sure, my previous point can be abused, with more meetings arranged because they can be done so quite quickly, but I’m getting the impression that this is falling second place to the unspoken desire many of us have to get the thing done and over with - effectively, of course.
Lower Expectations of Formality of Appearance. While I’m not advocating showing up to an online meeting in your running gear, there seems to be less formality expected in terms of how we dress, than when we were meeting face-to-face. I’ve even noticed a shared sense of wanting to look respectable, but not having to over do it – after all, most of us are all in the same boat right now regarding meeting online. I would even suggest that an overt effort to over-do formal dress for an online meeting is counter-cultural to this point. While I believe this reduced need for formality to be more salient to internal meetings, many meetings with external stakeholders also seem to have taken a similar direction. The same level of formality in terms of dress sense is just not expected.
Easier to Multitask. It is difficult to do two or more things simultaneously; so multitasking is perhaps more about how quickly we can juggle moving between multiple tasks. One exception to this is the ability to get other work done while you’re listening to someone speaking in an online meeting – as long as you are able to listen actively, and participate fully. The positioning of cameras on most laptops helps! So perhaps for the first time, or certainly more so than ever before, meeting time can be used in multiple ways.
Stronger Bonds between Colleagues and Friends. This final point might sound hard to believe, but hear me out. The shared sense of this method of response to the current situation is giving us all one more thing in common with each other – it’s new, we are finding our way forward, and most of us aren’t experts. That can bring humility and authenticity to what – as I pointed out at the beginning – might seem like an inauthentic means to communicate. I have also found myself better able to blur the lines between work and non-work-related conversation with my colleagues, which has helped to build camaraderie. Furthermore, I have caught up with more former colleagues, and old friends, than ever before – in a way far more expressive, sincere, and authentic than via short written social media messages. This change in culture we are experiencing around online video communication is part of the reason for it – perhaps along with greater intentionality about our communication, and who we communicate with, because of reduced face-to-face opportunities.
We are looking at the world through a cracked lens right now. I want normal back, just as I’m sure you do; and it’s hard to predict how much these communication shifts will reverse as and when we gets close to normality again. But in the spirit of making the best of now, I hope these pointers are helpful.
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In the meantime, I have developed a work stress self-assessment tool which brings together research and practicality to help you pinpoint root causes of your stress, and what to do about them. You can download this assessment here. My website, easeworkstress.com, also contains other posts, a podcast episode about my work in this field, as well as ideas and services for individuals and organizations.
Marcus Fila, Ph.D., is an organizational analyst and industrial/organizational psychologist. He is an associate professor of management at Hope College; and a researcher, speaker, and consultant on work stress. Download his free Work Stress Self-Assessment Tool.