Humans are social animals. Your virtual team meetings just will not cut it. Sorry.
How social? Well, very social… but in a fickle way.
If you have time, you can undertake this experiment. Grab a piece of paper and write on it the names of all the people in your life that mean something special to you. We’re talking about individuals that if you heard that they had died it would be devastating news. It might take some time, but I doubt, if you are completely honest, that you will get above 200-250 names. Even if you don’t write the list of names and you just do it in your head, I bet few of you think of the person you sat next to in Junior School or the next door neighbour you had two moves ago. Many of you won’t include the names of the people you worked alongside three or four jobs ago, even if you worked closely with them for years.
There’s even a name for this. It’s called Dunbar’s Number. (He puts your figure at 150, but I’m assuming that you are extra-specially sociable.)
Now think about the distancing of the past few months. The anti-social distancing, if you like. Even if you consider yourself an introvert, like your own company and have quietly relished not having to interact with your work colleagues outside of a Zoom call, chances are that you are missing out on the benefits of working in a team in a multitude of ways and the bonds that hold your workplace together have become weaker.
You might not think so. From conversations we have had, many people are doing back-to-back virtual calls, but the ubiquitous video call is no substitute for actual face-to-face conversation in the real world. We have all grown up subconsciously “reading” each other for meaning - from tiny little cues and micro-expressions, from where you look, how often you blink, crinkles around the eyes… even the position of your feet. Aside from the distractions of the room that you are in, the lure of “just checking my emails while I listen”, and the very human tendency to check out how you look in the small image in the corner of the screen, rather than make “eye contact” - camera contact - with the person to whom you are talking (come on, own up, we’ve all done it…) it’s just not the same.
We’ve been talking to a lot of our contacts recently about the growth of this virtual culture. Many of them admit to either not joining online conferences or joining and having it on “in the background”. Again, this is learnt behaviour – we have all grown up with a similar attitude to our televisions. We can easily zone-in and zone-out of the news, or a film, or a documentary and your brain will readily swap the buffer of the TV screen for that of your computer.
Moving on from the challenges of the medium (and “Zoom culture” is a true medium, in that it is neither rare nor well done!), working in your own home office mini-silo is disruptive and deleterious to creativity. In a radio interview on the Emma Barnett Show on BBC Radio 5 Live on September 22nd 2020, Carolyn Fairburn, Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry spoke of the damage long-term isolation can do to creativity and innovation – you can’t plan the future of your business sitting on your sofa.
This brings us to a kind of impasse. On one hand, while the virus is out of control people do not want to meet, but the technology that obviates travel and face-to-face meetings isn’t always fit for purpose, particularly when you want to come up with new ways of working in the future that are better than those of the past. Our contention is that if you want to be more creative, find ways to interact creatively.
Office interactions are varied; stimuli are subtle and prevalent; unexpected things happen that pique your interest and spark ideas and conversations. They are not a TV show with a face on a screen that talks and shows slides for an hour. If you wouldn’t watch it on your TV at home, why should anyone engage with it on your computer?
And before you think you’ve cracked it, the answer is not another Zoom quiz. Engaging people is not discovering that they don’t know the title of the first song played on Radio 1 or that they can’t name the sixteen regional offices operated by your firm. It’s harder than that.
We’re still sick of boring meetings, and we still think you should be too. Especially if you’re attending from your sofa.
If you need help shaking things up, check out our suite of team building exercises for your virtual and face-to-face meetings here.
We’re all TV personalities now.
In fact, the latest stage of human evolution is the rise of the two-dimensional, not-visible-from-the-chest-down, straight-on stare. Since March in the UK, no one has interacted with anyone who doesn’t gawp back at them. There’s no escaping it, and even television commercials feature very little apart from shonkily shot Zoom call and phone camera footage. It’s like watching a Lars von Trier film with no budget and a headache.
Before I go any further, here’s a warning. If anyone makes any more comments about not wearing trousers, or wearing pyjamas, or doing calls in their slippers, I will hunt you down and break your windows – real and computer. It stopped being funny about twenty minutes before the first person mentioned it… but it does raise a valid point that, circuitously, takes me back to my original premise: you’re probably not as good at remote engagement as you think you are.
Let me explain. About a million years ago, or so it seems, people would gather in large rooms and be told stuff by other people. The stuff that they told people wasn’t always that exciting, or interesting, but, magically, if you put the key words about the stuff on a big screen behind you, that made it all right. Or so they thought.
The other thing that was important was context. Lots of context. Tell the people, most of whom who know the context anyway, why something has to happen, or why something has to change for at least the first fifteen minutes of your allotted time. Save about five minutes near the end to tell them how it would happen, or have a panel and pretend to answer questions from the audience in a reassuring way that would Make Everything Clear™.
Of course the beauty of this convention on meeting and sharing information was that you could use AnyoneCanDoIt v5.0, so Frank, Susan or Kevin* could get up and deliver the message and nobody would get upset if it was a bit boring because, well, it’s what happens. In any case, we all had the secret weapon of the Conference Switch Off, where, by eating the boiled sweets on the table, taking swigs of water and adopting a neutral expression you could pretend to be taking it in.
Then that thing happened. Suddenly the meeting was in your home, and AnyoneCanDoIt v6.0 (TV Studio Anchor) had been released and downloaded. Now the talking heads are literally that, they don’t move about, they don’t have profiles and they can fill your screen with pie charts and tables and four-box models. Thankfully though, they can’t always tell when you check Facebook or your emails so that’s all right. You have to buy your own boiled sweets, but that’s a small price to pay.
The point is – and I promise I’ll get there in the end, but, as we’ve established, you can’t have enough context – just because you can talk to a camera like you’re talking to an actual person don’t think that will automatically tick all the boxes marked engaging and interesting. As much thought – no, more thought – needs to go into how you keep people’s attention on screen than in a live environment. Next time you’re in a Zoom or WebEx conference call, ask yourself “would I watch this if it was on telly, or would I turn over and watch Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman instead?” Unfortunately, with Zoom, like PowerPoint, a great technological tool has been appropriated and misused by the masses.
It is my firm belief that there will be no return to the annual jamboree conference in Seattle or Vienna or York in the same way that you remember it anytime soon. Because we could be living with outbreaks of a virus - in the same way that people used to live with outbreaks of measles or tuberculosis - for the next decade, in our mostly safe, risk-averse culture, served as it is by constantly improving technology, not everyone will want to assemble in huge numbers somewhere remote and/or exotic.
Instead we will see smaller groups, sharing their experience with colleagues around the country or the world. The risk is, that without a thoughtful, professional set-up, with access to the best kit and the technological know-how to get the most out of it, if you stick Frank, Susan or Kevin* in front of a camera you might end up with a hybrid conference experience that comes somewhere between a community access television channel and a 1980s Open University programme about the effects of stellar mass on a quantum environment. And over a ten-year period, that’s plenty of time for that type of dull to become the norm, the benchmark, the standard for remote engagement.
The world will soon be full of people offering solutions and options to address this need. Choose wisely. Frank, Susan and Kevin* in front of a green screen just isn’t going to cut it.
*Apologies to Franks, Susans and Kevins everywhere. Other names are available.
"Put simply, entropy is a measure of disorder, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics states that all closed systems tend to maximise entropy. Reversing this ever-increasing tendency toward disorder requires the input of energy. That's why housekeeping is so tiresome. Left on its own, your house would get dusty, spiders would move in, and eventually, it would fall apart. However, the energy put into preventing disorder in one place simultaneously increases it somewhere else. Overall, the entropy of the universe always increases." (realclearscience.com)
Full disclosure time. I’m fed up of all this.
The spiders have moved in everywhere and the effort of getting them to leave means that the magazines are all over the floor and the pile of unwashed coffee cups won’t get dealt with until someone draws up a rota and that person can’t draw up the rota because the pencils need sharpening.
This is not an insight into my work or home life. It’s what it feels like trying to pick up the pieces of “normal” business interaction. Everywhere we see the signs of people trying to restore some post-lockdown function. In the UK the pubs are re-opening, restaurants are adapting to enable them to start serving people again and businesses are starting to make noises about re-engaging people who have been furloughed. But it feels so slow, so full of effort… and every effort to start something like normal function again means that something else isn’t being done. Overall, the entropy of the universe always increases.
Unfortunately, there are a million and one things that add to the entropy. There’s so much that needs doing to get everybody back to work, so much work to do on re-starting all the plans and projects that existed before, and then there are the ones that need doing now to help everybody through the transition. And then there will be the pause that the annual summer holiday season brings to everything…
Why am I talking about this? Why is it an issue? Well, as someone whose business is based on delivering events, conferences, team days and learning sessions to organisations, I am impatient to see things return as soon as possible. I know that it will take time for this to happen, but at present, I have a horrible feeling that wheels are spinning, but precious little progress is being made.
So, what can we do about this? I am reminded of the instruction I once heard about tidying your house. Don’t try to tidy the whole house at once. You have a finite amount of energy and after expending all of it on trying to do everything at once you will be exhausted and most likely downhearted that you haven’t succeeded. Instead, tidy one drawer, or one surface, and when you’ve done it, celebrate your achievement. Then do it again tomorrow. Rinse and repeat, and together we will get our houses in order.
So, however many weeks we are into lockdown… how have your plans gone?
Did you learn to play the mandolin, or bake ornate cakes, or weave your own baskets or learn Sanskrit?
No? Me neither. Do you know what? You’ll get over it.
Truth be told, you probably didn’t care enough about any of the things that you could have learnt in your enforced sequestration to actually do anything about them. It was an opportunity, but, in the long run, the new skills you could have acquired just wouldn’t have made sufficient a difference to your life for the effort that learning them would have entailed.
However, there is one more chance that this situation has given you and it’s one that I guarantee you will care about and that you might come to regret bitterly if you don’t act on it.
It’s the chance to rip up all the things you hated about work and replace them with something that is better. Something that isn’t rooted in outdated thoughts, mechanisms, org structures and practices.
Dramatic? Yes? Worth considering? Certainly. Too scary for most people to embrace? Probably.
Don’t under-estimate this thought. You will probably never get a chance like this again. It is a genuine, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and as people start to make tentative plans to return to more conventional working routines there is a small window where you can either return to a version of what existed before, or take stock and decide what was of value and what aspects can be adapted, modified or completely dumped to make how your business operates better for everyone. Let’s face it, you will spend more time at work than you would ever have spent playing the mandolin anyway.
At Colour; Noun, one of our lockdown offers has been giving people the chance to assess the change that the pandemic has brought to their lives through the lens of other changes that they have experienced, using the monomyth theory outlined by Joseph Campbell that underpins all stories across times and cultures. We like it a lot, and will gladly take you through it, but the central premise is this:
Failure is the destiny of those who cling onto the past and who do not learn to adapt.
Don’t forget, this has been a world-wide phenomenon. This isn’t the challenge of a merger, or a rival launching a new product, or a new technological development to which you have to respond. For the first time in 75 years the smooth running of commerce, travel, trade, meetings and interactions has hit the pause button. If there was ever a time to experiment it is now.
The references to “war” that have accompanied the ravages of this virus are as hackneyed and trite as they are prevalent, but in this instance, there is a parallel that is worth drawing.
Consider the changes that came about after the First World War (votes for women, the demise of the servant class, the establishment of new nations, the Labour movement) and the Second World War (the collapse of the British Empire, the technological and manufacturing rise of Japan and Germany, the establishment of the Welfare State in Britain and the “never-had-it-so-good” growth of consumer capitalism as war production shifted to making washing machines, cars, refrigerators and vacuum cleaners in the UK and the US).
I’ll say it again. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to re-evaluate what you do and how you do it. Don’t go back to a version of what you had before. Think big. Dream bigger. Don’t limit your horizons and fall victim to the limiting beliefs that are enshrined in the stock response to a suggestion to change that is “yes… but…”
Things have been not-quite-right in business for as long as I can remember. We’ve worked with dozens of companies that have tried to address that and squeak another couple of percentage points on their annual Great Place To Work Employee Satisfaction Survey.
I reckon you have about six months to consider what you could do and start making the changes that will last, and that will, ultimately, bring you more joy than being able to play the mandolin.