What a year we have had. Being locked in our homes with nothing but a screen into the outside world. It has definitely been a challenge.
As a Melburnian, having had one of the hardest and longest lockdown periods in the world, I can safely say that being stuck within 5km radius of my home is not pleasant. But I also know there have been some real benefits of being at home, specifically working from home.
I’m not the first to say that being forced to work from home over the last few months has been both time and cost-efficient in some aspects. I have particularly loved the convenience of jumping on a call to get something done instead of having to commute to work every day. Additionally, having the capability to speak to multiple people in different parts of the world all in one day is significantly more efficient. COVID has given us the opportunity to be productive without so much running around.
Benefits < Costs
But, I would argue there are many more disadvantages than advantages of our current working arrangements.
While avoiding the commute has saved people money and increased sleep-in time, going into the workplace has its benefits. One example, there are fewer interruptions in a work environment away from children, pets and other distractions. Additionally, having the physical separation between work and home helps the mental disconnection and relaxation after work hours.
Another benefit of working from home was getting to use fun, new and exciting tools. Video conferencing technologies enabled convenient and efficient communication with various people all over the organisation. Speaking to multiple people from all different parts of the world in one day is extremely efficient, but over time this becomes an uninspired and tedious experience.
Is the 3D experience worth it?
Additionally, there’s this thing called ‘Zoom fatigue’ that comes with excessive daily video calls. For those who haven’t heard of this, it’s when our brains feel more tired because we are subconsciously working much harder to try and read facial expressions and body language through the screen. Other examples of technologies that organisations have become more reliant on include online collaboration tools like Slack, Jira and Miro. They have flawless usability and great features but there is a feeling of satisfaction that only comes from being physically present during those brainstorming sessions.
Where does 2D fall short?
Working from home is easier, less time consuming and cheaper. Additionally, the technology at our disposal satisfies most, if not all, our working needs. The only downfall is we have to settle for the on-screen interaction. This is what I call the “2D experience”. But I would argue that it’s not just that, there is more that we are missing out on.
On top of the distractions, zoom fatigue, virtual brainstorming and boring calls, I would argue there is something more missing from the 2D experience; learning.
The in-person interaction, what I call the 3D experience, provides humans with an unparalleled opportunity to learn, engage and connect to their work and their colleagues. Communication channels, such as email-only, allows for the widespread delivery of instruction. Direct messaging, like slack, allows for open fast communication of information. Video conferencing allows us to hear vocal information and see faces. While these platforms are able to deliver the message, how it gets across is a different story.
Humans are not robots, to be inspired and engaged with the work we are doing we need more than just straight forward text, voices and faces delivering the information. The 3D face-to-face experience provides more than that. The physical feelings, smells, energy and movement in a face-to-face setting are recognised by the subconscious to create a holistic and memorable experience.
In a physical meeting, you’re not worried about talking over someone, there’s no lag and there is definitely no ‘zoom fatigue’ at the end of a 3-hour brainstorm meeting. At a physical conference, you can feel the energy of the speakers when they are presenting, you can chat with the other attendees and you can get up and participate in engaging activities. When travelling to meet key stakeholders of your organisation in different countries, it’s an immersive experience of their culture, you better understand their needs and you bring back a whole repertoire of knowledge that is incomparable to anything you would have gauged from a 2-hour video chat.
All these factors together create a memorable experience that inspires learning, sparks creativity and develops real connections that I believe will ultimately result in better work outcomes.
A technology problem human problem?
Humans are biological creatures, and we need other biological creatures in our proximity to connect, experience and create. While the technology we have available to connect with people all over the world is incredible, it is no replacement for face-to-face interaction. Until technology reaches the capacity to emulate the depth of experience of felt with physical proximity I propose an alternative.
There is no question that video calling is convenient, fast and efficient. Instead of spending a lot of money and time commuting to work and travelling overseas, video calling is an option. It should not, however, be the norm. I believe in balance, and in this case a balance needs to be struck between 2D and 3D experiences. As employees, leaders and organisations we should start thinking about the optimal balance and how it can best serve employees and the organisation.
For a start, and what I have been thinking a lot about recently, is how can we make long-distance travelling cheaper and just as convenient as video calling to remove some of the barriers and concerns travellers might have when they get back to corporate travelling. I really believe that human to human interactions are still the future, and we need these experiences to be easy, convenient and encouraged.