One of the recurring themes of this pandemic has been the relative ease with which many of us have made the seamless transition to working from home. Zoom and Teams are our friends and big questionmarks hang over a broader return to the workplace. There’s been far less said about the impacts on individuals, and how we best look after the people who are looking after the work.
In our latest guest blog, Luan de Burgh shares his thoughts on the human cost of the digital switch.
In 1986 something happened to television in the UK. It went from being a regulated daily dose, interspersed with frequent ‘trade test cards’ to being a 24 hour broadcasting affair. Around the same time parents would frequently rebuke children for soaking up all that extra TV with the beration- come-warning that they would end up with “square eyes.”
That old chestnut of a phrase has started resonating again during this lockdown period as efforts to pursue some sort of business as usual has involved the arrival of Zoom et al into our daily lives. While my eyes have not yet turned square, they certainly feel as if they are stiffening up around the edges.
Now we have got over the initial unfamiliarity of online conferencing en masse and mic control gaffes the computer screen is increasingly becoming the source of a new ailment – ‘digital fatigue’. Unlike in previous pandemics, technology has allowed us to hide away behind closed doors and yet still feel as if we are connected to the world outside them albeit in a very un-human dimension.
Is online the future?
The upsides are obvious, leading to musings that this could be the future for many businesses - cutting out the need for unnecessary travel and physical office spaces - but after nearly three months of staring at a screen the downsides are beginning to become more evident. As time draws on one starts to realise how de-sensitized and de-stimulating this form of face to face interaction actually is. Yes, it’s fine for the odd meeting, but when your day becomes filled with only virtual encounters the limitations begin to bite. Indeed there is the real danger that, amazing though it is that we can see one another in real time through our various devices, the lack of actual human to human contact is only serving to reinforce how alone we are.
Communicating in a virtual world is not unlike trying to have a conversation by email instead of using the phone. There’s a two dimensional element that fails to reveal the whole picture. I have written about the importance of body language and what becomes evident as we scramble to become optimised Zoomers, Teamsters, Bluejeansers, Cisco kids etc, is the absence of these extra communication signals that we subconsciously feed off as we scan the room for signs of affirmation, encouragement or dissent.
A video meeting, with many participants, tends to jam those signals – is that grimace now appearing in the top left square in response to something I’ve said or a reaction to an off screen incident in the domestic setting (the dog’s escaped again and is harassing the delivery driver)? Likewise, one can never be sure whether one is holding the attention of the (virtual) room or keeping them captive. As with any meeting there are good and bad orators and, as there’s nowhere to hide, video only serves to emphasise the bad.
It all adds up to digital fatigue
After the big virtual meeting comes the inevitable follow up virtual meeting – fewer participants but often just as taxing and then the next virtual meeting to plan another virtual meeting and so it goes on. After the virtual meetings comes the socialising, lockdown style. We may be in isolation, but it doesn’t have to be hibernation. We can still ‘meet up’ with friends for drinks, have sparkling conversation (rarely getting further than lockdown anecdotes) and maybe enjoy another quiz. We have the perfect tool for the job! Just when you thought it was safe to turn it off, out comes Zoom once more. Again, here too communication is being reduced. Friends with whom we would happily spend a whole evening have a limited time slot in our attention on screen.
While there has been much talk of the ‘new normal’ – into which these virtual spaces are seen as natural fits – I am not so convinced. Call me digitally fatigued or just plain old sociable, but these past few months have illustrated just how much we miss actual human contact and person to person interaction in our daily lives.
If I’m correct and I genuinely believe that I am, and there is a future beyond the new normal, I believe we will discover a new appreciation for the much-maligned meeting. I keep coming back to the words of Benjamin Zephaniah: “People will always need people.”