“The room is full, unable to login”. That message spoiled the potential fun of a virtual seminar I was hoping to attend tonight. With the whole world trying to video conference from the kitchen table or a the attic the systems are squeaking and puffing to carry the load. My timeline on LinkedIn and Facebook are filled with people presenting tips and howto’s on online collaboration. And, of course, pushing their favorite tools and apps. Well, let’s zoom in my blue jeans to my hangout to get teams working.
I do not really want to discuss the best communication and video conference solution. As mentioned above, there are already plenty useful suggestions around by experts in the field. What I find interesting is how difficult it really is for many organizations to actually switch gears and work effectively. Sure, most companies have now accepted the possibility of working from home. Their IT departments have enabled video conference services and allowed for online virtual meetings. That technology is working (mostly). So, where in pre-Corona days your days were filled with meetings, they are now filled with online meetings. Online meetings are much more intense than regular meetings. You have to focus on a much smaller area (the screen) and work harder to keep the background noises and the non-office views out of mind.
When your organizations is mostly running on all kinds of meetings it will likely have a mostly oral culture. Most of the decisions are made in meetings and are communicated through meetings. An action to perform is only a phone call away. Or you walk to the team and tell them what is expected. You probably will have all kinds of e-mails floating around and Intranet-pages full of stuff. That is all in the background. When people text it is really to ask if someone is available to have a chat. It comes down that in order to get stuff done you need to talk a lot.
When you are forced to work from home or any other kind of long distance location than this oral culture start to become a bit problematic. When doing video calls with more than 3 participants continuous talking will become very annoying very soon. And having several of those virtual meetings in a day is exhausting. No work will get done this way. Communicating from a distance seriously hinders non-verbal communication. It will be harder to assess if the other person really understands and agrees what needs to be done. To compensate people will keep on explaining what needs to happen until they get the right signal from the other that it is understood. A signal that is not coming because the camera is not picking it up. In other words, they will talk even more.
Flow of information
What is needed when working from a distance is a more text-based culture. Working from home asks for writing and reading skills over talking and listening skills. When an online meeting is well prepared with a proper shared agenda, with meeting notes and action points and with briefings that contain all the useful information, that meeting will be more effective, take less time and allow all to participate fully. And will be less exhausting. It demands that each participant has read all the available material and has shared questions and discussions points. When e-mail is used right, it can be a very useful tool to communicate decisions as well as the explanation why the decision was taken. And there are many tools around that will help with setting up workflows, so you get your tasks with all the necessary information attached. Maybe companies should spent more energy on the flow of information than on video conference capabilities when their staff is forced to work from home.
Besides spending energy on becoming more text-based there is another decision companies can take to make working from home more effective. Most people have a day-rhythm where a better capability to focus will alternate with a stronger feel for connections and creativity. For most office workers the best time to focus and concentrate is in the morning. After lunch it will become harder to focus and easier to connect and interact. Knowing this companies can help by creating a day schedule where their staff can be free of distraction in the morning to focus on getting tasks done. In the afternoon companies can schedule online meetings, allowing for time for participants to read the information and prepare. The mail server can have a rule that stops delivering mail between 10 in the morning and 1 in the afternoon. And from 2 the meetings will start.
Effective working from a distance
Some people are stating that in the post-Corona world we will keep on working from home. Well, for more companies working from home or another location away will have become more acceptable. That might be so. Under the current circumstances it is by far the better option. Personally I think that after the novelty has worn off that companies will start to question the effectiveness. And I hope they will investigate what makes working form a distance effective and preferred over coming into the office to talk.