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Who're you looking at?

I am a huge fan of the COVID-19 induced shift towards remote working.

Two of the main benefits for me have been:

  1. Less time wasted commuting and travelling to meetings.
  2. The ability to meet with anyone with equal ease regardless of physical location.

However, I also understand that remote working might not suit everyone.

Some people have complained of 'Zoom fatigue'. Others struggle with unsuitable home-based workspaces and inadequate child care arrangements. Still others simply miss the buzz and camaraderie of being in a physical office.

I argued in How do you solve a problem like remote working? that the opportunity we now face is not that everyone can work remotely. Nor is it that we'll eventually be able to get everyone back into the office. Rather, it is to recognise that different people have different preferences. Different people are better suited to different environments. Some people are more productive when remote, others are more productive in the office. Once we recognise that, we can take steps to accommodate a broader, more flexible range of working styles and arrangements. And we will benefit from the diversity that affords.

We have a lot of experience with in-office work. As a result, the pros and cons are quite well understood.

But we understand remote work less well. We simply have less experience of it. And to best secure the benefits described above, we need to understand the pros and cons of remote working better.

I've heard many explanations of why some people struggle with remote working. One person told me it was because we couldn't smell and feel over video conference. I am not sure if they were mean smelling and touching a shared physical space, or each other (!) but either way, I am not convinced by that as an explanation.

I've also heard it said that some people find it stressful that they themselves appear on the screen when video conferencing. I am not sure why that should be stressful, but you can, in any event, disable that in most video conferencing systems.

A more likely explanation is that we miss out on some of the non-verbal cues when video conferencing.
I confess that at first, I dismissed this as an explanation. After all, I can see participants facial expressions and body language quite clearly.

But then I realised there is one element of body language I cannot see on a group video conference. I can't see who the other participants are looking at. I can see if they are looking at the camera or not. But I can't necessarily see if they are looking at the screen or not (the screen and camera may be physically separated). More importantly, I can't see which of the faces on the screen they are looking at.

Who people are looking at is very important. It shows where their intention is. It can show if you're paying attention to the speaker or ignoring them. People tend to look (physically) to the person with the greatest perceived authority. But we lose those cues in a group video conference.

On the positive side, this can help to break down traditional authority. To create a more egalitarian environment where people are valued more for their contribution than for their position. Meeting facilitators have been trying to achieve this for at least as long as I have been in the workplace! In that sense, remote working could be an even greater step forward than I had previously appreciated.

On the other hand, perhaps it is exactly that loss of positional power which has many people feeling uncomfortable with remote work in the first place!

What do you think? Please let me know in the comments.

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