In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, organisations have had a sudden need to keep large numbers of people from gathering in workplaces, forcing many companies, who clung fiercely to physical office space, to quickly implement a fully remote working model—overnight. Pre-pandemic, just 1.7 million of the UK workforce worked remotely half of the time or more. Now, it is estimated that over 20 million people are working remotely, forcing companies to test all prior thinking on WFH practices.
Those who can work from home have had to learn an entirely new lexicon, new technology and new video communication skills. Terms like Zoom, Skype, Teams and Meet have become part of our daily business conversations as both nouns and verbs.
A recent report from The Brookings Institute noted that this is not the first time employers have been forced to adopt a remote work model to keep business operations running. The report touched on events like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and how many organisations experimented with wide scale telework until it was clear the threat had been alleviated. Even if it was not a permanent shift, many organisations realised that they needed to have work-from-home protocols in place as part of business continuity plans.
The history of telecommuting, in fact, extends back decades. In the early 1970s, a focus on clean air, coupled with the oil embargo and commuter gridlock, pushed telecommuting into the spotlight. But adoption sputtered.
Now, with more sophisticated technology, the ability to work from home has evolved dramatically. Video conferencing has emerged as a critical tool that has allowed organisations to smoothly transition to fully remote workplaces—avoiding lost productivity and protecting employee health, while helping employees maintain and build relationships.
With the fallout of the pandemic to linger for months, even years, there is even greater emphasis on building permanent remote work infrastructure that may involve the abandoning of expensive corporate real estate holdings. If working from home is the future of work for many people, then we should start casting a critical eye toward the connectivity and productivity tools like video conferencing that will increasingly become a part of our working lives. Especially now, as many organisations are wondering if they will be able to get their employees to return to the office.
The video conference revolution presents great opportunities but also some important challenges. Let’s look at the good, the bad and the awkward:
Video conferencing can help alleviate the feeling that we’re isolated from, or cut off from, our organisations while we’re working at home. For those who thrive in the structured environment of an office setting and derive energy and are recharged by face-to-face social interactions, there was an understandable feeling of loss. Video conferencing provides needed contact with co-workers.
Increasingly, we see that video conferencing can be as productive, or even more productive, than in-person meetings. No more searching for the erasable markers or flip chart papers, no more wasting time setting up projectors or monitors, no double booking of conference rooms. Even with its well-documented bugs and glitches, video conferencing allows seamless document or computer desktop sharing, and lets members work collaboratively on a project in real-time.
Many individuals who work from home report fewer office distractions and increased productivity. In fact, a survey conducted by Flexjobs found that only 7% of workers say they are most productive in an office. The key is to find a dedicated space to work that is quiet and free of interruptions.
Now, managers are shifting the way they measure employee productivity, looking at “output” or what is being produced versus how much time is spent in an office.
We should be concerned that—as a shiny, new technology toy—the video meeting may be overused for conversations or interactions that may not require a full-blown video interaction. If too many of these meetings are scheduled, or too many people who don’t need to be online are drawn into a video conference, it has the potential to slow down or even erode productivity.
Video calls also require people who were used to telephone conference calls to adopt new habits. In the old conference call days, it was not unusual for most of us to continue typing emails, watch videos on our computers or even eat a meal. With a video connection, many of those things can become significant distractions and a source of frustration.
As we can see by the number of comedic spoofs of the video conference revolution, we’re all still learning the proper etiquette for video calls. Tales of people picking their noses, taking their laptops into the bathroom, shoddy personal grooming or appearing in less-than-optimal attire are everywhere.
In some instances, the problem stems from appearing in inappropriate locations within the home. Messy spaces do not necessarily convey the appropriate message to managers or co-workers. Heaps of unfolded laundry, last night’s take-out dinner boxes or your Xbox controller should not become the backdrop for a business-oriented video call.
Clearly, we’re still getting used to the idea that a video call can, in many ways, reveal our true selves. At least, the true selves that we are at home.
There are a few simple things that we can all do to ensure we have productive video calls:
Tips for employees
- Turn your video camera on. Let people see you during the meeting. This helps to keep everyone engaged and focused.
- Find a quiet place to connect and close tabs and apps that might be distracting. It’s important to reduce distractions.
- Try not to be too informal. For example, avoid eating while you’re on camera. A cup of coffee or water is acceptable, but eating a sandwich can be a needless distraction.
- Run a full test of the video conferencing solution so that you can properly sign into a meeting on time, and trouble shoot your computer’s camera (including the angle) and microphone.
- Consider using noise-cancelling headphones with a built-in microphone. They’ll cut down on collateral noise from your home office and create a better experience for everyone in the meeting.
Tips for managers
- The first tip for managers is the same as it is for individual participants: make sure everyone on your team has their camera on. Vanity aside, there is much to be gained by being able to see your team during a meeting. You’ll be able to pick up on non-verbal, visual cues, like facial expressions, that convey important information.
- Make sure you are fully in control of the agenda and purpose of the meeting. If you don’t have focus and clarity around why you’ve called everyone together, you may find people drifting towards other work or non-work activities. Remember, they are staring into a computer screen that could have multiple windows open.
- Take a bit of time to let people connect and interact on a personal basis. A business meeting is not a cocktail party, so you need to control the amount of socialising. But remember as well that for many of your people, this could be the only major source of contact with the outside world.
- Consider scheduled one-on-one video calls with individual team members to strengthen relationships. In the pre-pandemic days, one-on-one meetings are often scheduled and then cancelled as other events overtake them. Keep your appointments to connect directly to each member of your team and use it as an opportunity for coaching or mentoring.
The pandemic has changed the world of work in many profound ways. And some of these changes may be permanent. Until we know when we’re all returning to an office setting, it benefits us to embrace the new environment and become experts in the fine art of video communication.