Regardless of when a vaccine is found or how we get our societies back to normal, millions of people around the world are taking part in an unprecedented experiment, and there is no going back. The social experiment that we are conducting will change not only how we live and interact with one and other but also how we work. Whether you work in Fortune 500 company, as part of a big team, or you are a consultant that works project to project, change is coming quickly.
Overnight, it appears that all of us have been forced to embrace the ubiquitous conference call for everything from kids’ karate lessons to multi-million-dollar financing meetings. To the casual observer it could appear that video conferencing took over the world overnight, but this is a technology that has been waiting in the wings for a long time! Do you know that the first video conference technology dates to the audio wires of the 1870s and Bell Lab’s ‘video phone’ from 1927? From the Jetsons to Dick Tracy, popular culture has tried to visualize what video calls would look like and what efficiencies they would bring to our communication methodologies.
– But is this the new normal?
– Are we forever going to spend endless hours in front of our screens and completely work in a remote and virtual environment?
– How will businesses, and work, evolve to cope with the challenges we face today?
– What will be the next normal?
Benefits of the ‘next’ normal (and thankfully there are a lot!)
The idea that we are going to travel for hours, just to meet a customer for an hour, seems so 2019 now. Not only can we dramatically reduce our stress, pollution and associated respiratory problems, but what could the average American – who drives 54 hours per week for work stuck in traffic – do with this time?
A cleaner environment
According to some estimates, if everyone in the United States worked remotely half of the time, it could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 51 million metric tons a year. It is fascinating to see pictures of cities around the world, the canals of Venice, smog over Delhi and clearer skies over cities like Los Angeles and Beijing due to the reduction of traffic. Of course, when people return to work, the roads may fill up again, especially if people fear getting the virus on public transit.
Study after study have shown that remote workers can be more productive. Anywhere from 4% to over 18% increase in productivity can be attained and early numbers during the COVID-19 lockdown suggest that or more. In addition, remote employees tend to spend more time on core work and fewer hours on communication compared to their office-based peers.
Not only will consumers save due to reduction in travel and lower energy costs, but many enterprises will also save money due to not only reduction in real estate costs but increases in employee satisfaction and lower churn of staff. Global giants and small enterprises alike are announcing daily major reductions in corporate real estate and changes to their remote work policies.
Better work-life balance
As a globe-trotting executive, will it be easier to find that elusive work-life balance as a remote worker? The idea of getting on important work calls with the senior leadership whilst managing your kids’ online classroom portal, who are also working in the same home office, does not seem that far-fetched anymore. During one particularly tense leadership call, my ten-year-old daughter interrupted me to find out ‘What is gross margin…. And why is it so gross??’. This is not something I would have imagined a few months ago – but seems perfectly normal now!
Letting employees work from home can help keep them safe from communicable diseases (and not just Covid-19). This can also reduce over costs, healthcare expenses and lead to greater job satisfaction.
But wait, there are problems as well!
There is a reason why conference calls didn’t take over the world decades ago.
Is it really a video call if no one is sharing their video? My experiences are that we all get on a call, just to turn off video and just talk over one and another. I get it, we don’t need to share our cluttered home offices, annoyed spouses complaining in the background and pets trying to get attention. But at the same time, video calling is offering us this promise of being connected to individuals, which won’t occur when we just revert to the dial-in number scenarios of the past. So, we must ask the question, if no one wants to turn on their video has anything changed? Do we really care about the video part of video conferencing?
Video calls are more tiring than real life
Is it just me or am I more drained after a day of staring at the screen, jumping from one call to another? Turns out that according to published research, on a video call your brain must work harder to interpret non-verbal cues like body language and tone of voice. We need pay more attention to get the same result, which means that you burn more energy. Add in the strange type of dissonance that most people feel when trying to communicate on these calls, the awkward pauses and difficulty in expressing your idea visually, leading to greater exhaustion and feeling of separation.
Hard to focus
It’s not just me! It appears that focusing and giving attention on a video conference is more difficult than in person meetings. The latest research shows that talking hands-free on a cell phone impairs driving whereas talking to a physical person in a car does not. University of Utah professors found that conference calls slowed driver’s reaction times and increased their risk of crashing due to an effect known as inattention blindness. Does this mean that we are all just ‘drunk driving’ through our video conference calls?
– Is it really a new medium, or more of the same?
– Are we really getting our point across or are we struggling more and more to do the same thing?
– If you were to solve a complex problem, would you rather meet on a conference call or meet face to face?
The simple answer to many is that we need to meet face to face (or find better solutions to bridge it when we simply can’t). Forget the social interaction, relationship building and the evolution of our species that demands face to face interaction – but the multi-dimensional nature of face to face conversations are not going to be replaced by clunky video conference technology that really hasn’t changed much in decades.
“For context, like many, I’m about two months into #WFH. I don’t know about you, but something is missing, even though I’ve loved my experience working remotely and finding that my coworkers and I are collaborating quite nicely with our good ol’ instant-messaging platform and Zoom. So, what’s lacking? I want to say I’m missing the collaboration “experience.” …… What do we want “an experience” to be? How do we bring a community element and human nature to all these tech innovations?”, Leah McCann at rAVe pubs, May 2020.
The Hybrid Solution
The reality is, the ‘new’ or even ‘next’ normal is not sustainable for a lot of people and a lot of tasks that we professionals face daily. Not every conversation and problem can be parceled into a video conference call and not all complex problem can be solved in the allotted hour so we can jump into something else. Many researchers are already warning us that problem solving and creativity will suffer when teams are isolated from one another.
For us to reap the rewards of transitioning to remote work, without suffering from the consequences, we need to find a new balance. This balance must take into account the need for social interactions, create an environment where engagement between remote workers is cultivated, and a whole new set of hardware and software solutions that allows remote teams to not only engage with each other but be creative as if they were in the same room.
What will the office environment look like in this new future?
Ideally, we want to transition away from long commutes and pointless travel, and work from home as much as possible. We are going to have to deal with staggered openings, where only a percentage of the workforce can be on premises at any given time, and social distancing is maintained. We will want flexible spaces that can be used for many different purposes and can be re-configured easily. A lot of companies will reduce their real estate footprint, or maybe create more, smaller satellite spaces. Satellite spaces that could be used in the ‘office as a hotel’ model, where remote teams can come in ad-hoc and use the space when necessary. Small, core teams, will connect with a larger remote group and be able to work efficiently. Implementing easy to use Interactive Whiteboards that allow users to connect to their content, and act as a hub for other in-room peripherals like conference phones and projectors will allow teams to easily re-configure space as required.
Forget the home office, we need to transition to the ‘Home Boardroom’
Home offices have as many negative connotations as positive. Essential for some, impossible and ‘overrated’ for others. Recently, a CEO of a small business expressed concerns that every sales manager was attending important customer calls wearing the same jersey and using lack of travel as a convenient excuse for not closing business. Maintaining professionalism and figuring out ways to communicate will be critical for the home office worker. What new furniture is required for this Home Boardroom? Implementing small interactive white boards, third person room cameras that allow one to stand up in front of the virtual audience and do formal presentations to create the same engagement as if they were face to face will be critical.
We also need to reinvent our concept of a remote meeting
Our existing video conferencing tools have not changed in decades. Every platform is identical in capabilities, with maybe a tweak here and there for usability. None of them offer anything more than simple screen sharing and camera sharing. If we are going to foster remote team culture that result in efficiencies, we will need software that allows anyone to express their vision, visualize their ideas, and allow them to be as creative remotely as if they were face to face in the same room.
People have been talking about the digital transformation in our workplace for years, but no organization has successfully figured out how to execute. Our partnership with Ricoh gives us an amazing opportunity to integrate the next generation vision of our Reactiv SUITE software with a great solution provider like Ricoh. As a Canadian company, we are eager to help Ricoh Canada lead the way and transform the way Canadians will communicate and share.
Learn more about how to better adapt with improved collaboration practices to not only support their people in the ‘new normal’ but to compete and grow at the same time.