Shares in Zoom plummeted the day Pfizer announced last November that its Covid-19 vaccine was 90 per cent effective. Investors were clearly worried that pandemic-fatigued workers would soon be banging down office doors to get back in.
Don’t cancel your monthly subscription just yet though. Vaccine or not, once we are out of lockdown most people who can work from home want to continue doing so – just not all the time, according to a recent Central Statistics Office survey. More than six in 10 would like a mix of home and office.
So, what have we learned about remote communication during the pandemic?
First, the practicalities: position your camera at eye level: bolt-lock the door during a job interview; invest in an ethernet cable to combat dodgy WiFi; do not indulge in offensive comments when still signed into a meeting.
But the real challenge in 2021 is to move past the basics and figure out how to make your professional interactions productive, respectful and yes, sometimes even meaningful.
So, where to start?
Remember the same rules apply on Zoom as in every human communication: it's about the other person – listening and paying attention to them.
Yet even pre-pandemic, this was often ignored. We look at our phones while talking to colleagues. Or worse – Ruadhán MacCormaic's book, The Supreme Court, presents the case of a nameless judge who put The Irish Times crossword secretly into his notebook, hidden from the barristers arguing in front of him. They were convinced he was making notes of their key points.
The 2020 equivalent was the “Stop Video” button. A senior sales executive in a tech company speaks for many when she says, “nothing’s more soul-destroying than speaking to a black box with a name in it”.
The fact is that some participants in remote meetings, without physically turning off their camera, nonetheless fail to do that basic essential communication: reacting to the other human being.
Passivity is the easy option but it’s not the best one: a strong case can be made for the “more, not less” kind of engagement online. And in real life too.
“Early on in the pandemic, the importance of communicating more – not less – became very clear,” says Tara Lougheed, HR director at law firm Eversheds Sutherland. Lougheed encourages it in a brief twice-weekly check-in with her team. “I need to see that everyone’s ok. If I’m sitting there with a cup of tea and they can see me too, they might be less afraid to say ‘I’m all Zoomed out’ or ‘today’s not great’.”
Since March, the understanding of a mutual responsibility – on the organiser and on the participant – to communicate clearly has blurred. Zoom meetings are scheduled, but not always given a purpose, not always prepared for. And sometimes conducted with a technology-driven dearth of empathy that can be hell, if you're the presenter. "When you can't eyeball someone for an answer and everyone stays silent, it's excruciating," says one manager.
That needs to be challenged, in virtual meetings and when we return to real-life ones.
As does the pointless proliferation of meetings in many companies. “Most have no real point,” says one public service employee. “And the real problem is that they take up so much time, we sometimes only get to other work in the evening.”
Aisling Kavanagh, a partner in Deloitte UK, has a simple approach. If there is no clear purpose, forget it. "Pick up the phone or email. Set time limits of 45 minutes on meetings with 15 minutes in between so people can take a breath."
This is essential when we consider a stand-out feature of remote meetings is the opportunity they present for people to behave badly: replying to emails; texting; scrolling Twitter; completing online shopping orders; answering calls; laughing with their work-from-home pal at the other end of the kitchen table; smoking.
Companies report all of these behaviours, plus a complicating one: Failure to challenge them.
“I know I should say that it’s not acceptable to disappear without explanation for 10 minutes,” one financial services manager admitted. “But even when I’m theoretically chairing, I’ve never handled it well and one of our people does it all the time. Problem is that the first time, you don’t want to make a big deal when the person comes back, in case they’re sick or something. The second time, you hesitate. Third time, it’s resentfully accepted by everybody. Nobody likes it, but it’s now a given.”
In 2021, a no-excuses approach needs to be taken to meetings, Zoom and real, with the chair – and others – calling out distracting or disrespectful behaviours.
"It shouldn't need to be said," says Aisling Kavanagh, "but it's incredibly rude to do anything that distracts you from focusing on another person in a meeting or one-to-one conversation. They should be getting your undivided attention for that time."
Choose Do Not Disturb on your computer; put your phone on aeroplane mode. People are acutely aware when your focus has drifted from them to the glow on your desk you think they haven’t noticed.
More than ever, it’s vital to be in tune with the other person’s world. That means listening – the most important, and underrated, communication skill there is.
One woman working in financial services says she will look for a new job when the economy picks up. “I feel let down since we started working from home. IT checks in to make sure our tech systems are running smoothly, but nobody’s been in touch to ask and actually listen to how we – the humans – are doing.”
When we look to communicating better in 2021, one of the lessons we need to learn is that noting a gap in communication, but failing to fill that gap, is a missed opportunity. And not just on the part of management. Individuals may need to act on their own.
“Watercooler or lift moments are really important pieces we’re still missing and need to recreate,” says Lougheed.
Long before the vaccine frees us to make real connections, we can – and should – find ways to discuss things offline, liven up a meeting with a laugh and respond in a real way to the person on-screen.
We can – and should – take the initiative and set up a WhatsApp group for our team or a buddy system with the new person for a “pens down” coffee break. You might even consider an old-fashioned voice call from time to time.
It’s impossible to look ahead into 2021 without considering mental health. “Separation of work and home is essential,” says Lougheed. “You need to be dogmatic about it.” Build “recovery time” time into your day, she suggests. A clearly defined break where you step away from your workspace and do something different.
And if you’re unsure about the rules? Just ask, says a senior sales manager in a tech company.“You don’t have to go running in the dark at 6.30am because it’s outside traditional office hours,” she says. “Go at 11am if that suits better. Just tell us you won’t be available for that hour.”
The way to cope in 2021 is to remember the rules of communication are the same online as they are in the room. The other person matters. Listening matters. And in the end, it’s often about something as ostensibly simple as asking “how are you?” – and meaning it.