The impact on our communication style
It has been nearly a month since the UK moved towards the next step in easing lockdown. I have started going back into the office for one day a week, excited yet slightly anxious about meeting people face-to-face. In making this step I reflected on how the past year had affected my way of working, in particular my communication style. We missed a lot of non-verbal communication cues the past year and we will have to gradually pay attention to them once again.
In other words, I will never forget how to ride a bike, but I slightly struggled those first few meters.
Virtual communication becoming our new normal
Working from home (WFH) has a lot of benefits. Meetings go well virtually, we mostly work more efficiently, are now comfortable with all the necessary technology and let’s not forget the time in the day we have recouped from not having to board busy tubes or trains for our commute. From an employer perspective, a study of three million workers from Harvard Business School in September showed that people worked longer hours, sent more emails and attended more meetings than pre-pandemic.
On the other side of the coin is the term “Zoom fatigue” that became a phenomenon in 2020. According to The Intelligence Podcast from The Economist, this has caused us to adapt our communication style. This new style can be weird and inefficient. Apart from the technical limitations I personally experienced, it can be anticlimactic if you are telling a joke in a video call and the internet drops out. I was surprised to hear about the effects on our brain of working from home for a long period of time.
Researchers at Stanford described the science behind Zoom fatigue, with the main issues being:
- In one-on-one conversations on Zoom, it equals a person standing 50 cm apart in real life, if you measure their face on a screen, the brain reserves this proximity for either conflict or intimacy, not for work relationships.
- When you are on the receiving end of the long amount of eye contact in a video call, it can feel like everyone is constantly staring at you and you may feel unable to relax.
- People nod very dramatically compensating for non-verbal cues.
- People speak 15% louder in video calls than in person.
- Some people are spending a lot of time looking at themselves which could have a negative effect on self-esteem.
Coming back to the bike analogy (sorry but I am Dutch) it is like we are having to cycle uphill in the highest gear every day. Exhausting.
Connecting in the real world
I had forgotten about the power of face-to-face conversations in the workplace and what collaborative work could do for creativity. Especially in group situations, being in front of one another saves time in discussions. Furthermore, it is inspiring as we build on ideas with a group of people in the room with different roles and from various backgrounds, and learning from one another is easier when working together in the same space.
The social by-products of going to the office are baked into the physical spaces we inhabit, according to The Atlantic. Being in the same environment as others – it does not have to be in the office, or in a meeting room – and brief moments of socialising in the kitchen, during lunch or over a drink after work have a huge impact on our output.
By reading each other’s personalities, it’s easier to build and maintain relationships. The Atlantic describes how there is so much unspoken that you absorb by being in the same environment. It is key in driving structured learning, collaboration and encouraging work relationships – enabling a more connected way of working.
Hybrid for the future
As we are easing our way out of our natural habitats called home, we have to get used to being in the same room again with colleagues and read non-verbal cues. On a personal level, let’s book brainstorming sessions, creativity hours, have kitchen chats and go for lunch or a drink to build and maintain relationships.
At an employer level, the office will have to facilitate a new way of working. Harvard Business Review’s study describes the Hybrid office of Tomorrow as a “socially engaging culture space” with three elements to consider:
- Designed for human moments – includes design elements to encourage social interactions of many types. This enables formal and informal interactions that will boost creativity and build trust
- Customised by technology – certain automation or software allow for a great mix between those working from home and being in the office
- Encourage connections – allowing people to socialise and connect with colleagues
It will be a journey to find the perfect balance in our communication style as we begin to balance working from home and the office, so please forgive the odd colleague for talking to you up close and very loudly.
Fayard, A., Weeks, J. and Khan, M. (2021). Designing the Hybrid Office [online] Harvard Business Review. Available at: https://hbr.org/2021/03/designing-the-hybrid-office
Mull, A. (2020). Generation Work-From-Home May Never Recover [online] The Atlantic. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/10/career-costs-working-from-home/615472/
The Economist (2021). Carbon date: Biden’s climate summit [podcast] The Intelligence. Available at: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/carbon-date-bidens-climate-summit/id1449631195?i=1000518314561