I was a fan at the time. Today, not as much.
The relatively seamless move to working virtually got lots of business leaders thinking it could become a long-term arrangement. They envisioned more productive employees and lower overhead costs—less need for office space, reduced utility expenses, and so on.
But many months later, these same leaders are having second thoughts. Productivity is down. Videoconferencing generates more fatigue. The imaginative energy that comes from people sitting around a table, or sharing coffee, or just connecting for a few seconds in a hallway, is dimming. JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon says remote working is quashing “creative combustion.”
As leaders worry about damage to performance and workplace culture, tips and tricks to counter the decline are showing up online. While I’m confident the working world will find the balance, I’m not convinced the answer lies outside of face-to-face, in-person communication. I miss that kind of interaction, and I'm concerned our organizations are losing something without it.
I regularly do workshops on strategic communication. Recently I did a workshop for an entirely remote audience—I was in my home office, and they were scattered across the state. The setup was such that I couldn’t even see their faces. While I got some good feedback, I must admit it was an awful experience. In my workshop, I spend a good deal of time underscoring the vital need for communication to be interactive, two-way, a dialogue. There was none of that here. I couldn’t engage the audience, or at least see if I was engaging them. Some of this was how the sponsor set up the event, but much was due to the lack of real human interaction.
Zoom and other video platforms—Microsoft Teams, Skype, GoToMeeting, etc.—provide a way to interact, but talking with an image on a computer screen isn’t the same as talking with them in person. The connection is fundamentally different. The relationship isn’t the same.
That's not to say communicators can't adapt. We must, especially since working from home is likely to remain a fixture for businesses long after the pandemic.
Even so, clicking on a Zoom link is never going to replace real, interactive communication with another person who is physically present. When COVID-19 eventually fades and the need for remote communication declines, communicators will need to advocate for a reasonable return to face-to-face interaction. The payoff is stronger relationships, renewed creativity and productivity, and a reinvigorated culture where people interact and move forward together.
The virtual workplace is here to stay, but we need not—indeed, should not—assume communication approaches must blindly follow.