Zoom is one of those words like ‘tweet’ which has abruptly acquired a second life. Tweet used to be about birdsong; zooming used to be for cars. But post-pandemic, we find that we all from time to time – and possibly more than we’d like – Zoom. Of course, as other competitors have rushed into the video call market we might also Teams or Google Meet – but Zoom is the word which has become synonymous with a sea change in how we work.
I remember at the outset of the pandemic having a call with the architect and designer Thomas Heatherwick. ‘I am so sick of flat half-people,’ he sighed. From the perspective of the journalist the old form of interview – a personal encounter in 3D – is beginning to feel almost antiquated. Why let a journalist into your house if you can keep them at a computerised distance?
For the rest of us, it has created a range of effects in the workplace which are still remarkably new. People have now gone back to the office – but only to some extent, and hybrid-working appears to be the post-Covid consensus for most industries.
So where exactly are we when it comes to Zoom – and what should young job-seekers and employees know about Zoom before they dip their toe into the world of work? Finito mentor Sophia Petrides tells me that for many people there is a sense of equality about Zoom which makes for a more comfortable working environment for employees: “Nowadays, conducting Zoom meetings is second nature. However, it has certainly helped a lot of people to feel psychologically safer sitting behind a screen rather than being physically in a meeting room,” she says. “As one CEO commented, during COVID his employees were able to be more open about their fears and anxieties during their weekly Zoom meetings, and this made it easier for him and his management team to provide the right level of support. We are more relaxed when we are behind a screen, and often more human because you see us alone in our office, not performing in front of the rest of the team.”
That sounds broadly positive. I recall an early pandemic interview for this very magazine with Sir Martin Sorrell. Sorrell, sat in some vast mansion in north London, and me in my garden flat in Camberwell seemed to experience a sense of camaraderie, which was down to the strangeness of the times, but also to the technology.
But Petrides also points out that there are drawbacks to the Zoom experience too. “On the negative side, body language, tone of voice, eye-contact tells a story about a person and on Zoom that can be lost. We’re all paler, more generic versions of our personalities when we’re shrunken into a 200-pixel wide teams window. We don’t get the buzz or the interpersonal sparks of human contact. We don’t laugh so easily or connect as well.”
This is plainly true – body language tells us much about a person and this is to some extent truncated on the screen, where we gawp uniformly at the image before us, perhaps occasionally looking in alarm at our own self-image in that tiny box in the corner.
Kate Glick, another Finito mentor, to some extent shares Petrides’ ambivalence. I ask her whether Zoom alters or reinforces typical power structures in the workplace. “I’ve got conflicting views about the question,” she explains. “It can be intimidating to be the youngest person contributing to a large online Zoom where you don’t necessarily get immediate feedback about how well your comment has been received. I find online meetings tend to follow the format of a series of statements rather than the flow of a conversation.”
Glick is also concerned about the way in which online video calls detract from body language. “Research shows that around 80-90 per cent of our communication relies on non-verbal and body language and some of this communication can be missed in online meetings. It’s more difficult to engage everyone on zoom, whereas in person, you are more likely to get a feeling from someone that they would like to contribute but they are unsure whether their voice is valid.”
But Glick also sees possibilities for young employees in the brave new Zoom world. “However, for some young people, being on Zoom can improve their confidence when contributing to meetings – and seeing your boss on the same sized screen as everyone else, perhaps is less intimidating than sitting at the end of a large board room table! It also depends on the nature of the meeting and the values of the business itself.”
So perhaps a company’s policy in relation to Zoom is a good question for the job-hunter to ask at interview. Any information on that score is a revealing indicator about the nature of the business you might be applying for. “Some businesses value an ‘ideas meritocracy’ where everyone is encouraged to participate, whereas others follow a strict hierarchical structure,” Glick continues. ‘For example, I have coached individuals working in the NHS, where internal meetings follow a strict hierarchy based on grade, you don’t contribute to meetings if you are a lower grade than your colleagues. Interesting research at Stanford University during lockdown showed that more ideas are generated when meeting in person, whereas online meetings hinder ‘creative collaboration’. But when choosing ideas, they found no difference between online or in person meetings. As hybrid working is here to stay, it’s worth watching and listening carefully to gauge your firm’s etiquette, and if you’re not sure whether you should contribute to a meeting, just ask!”
I ask the revered psychologist Dr Paul Hokemeyer about the psychological aspects of this, and he gives a characteristically interesting reply. “Being effective in a Zoom meeting is a nascent art that we are only just developing. For starters, we need to learn how to keep our attention to the meeting at hand, manage our concerns about how we look and sound on screen, the information being conveyed by our background, our wardrobe and grooming as well as the wardrobe and grooming of others, who speaks and when, who is in charge and who is off screen checking their email or getting their children to stop eating the Nutella with crisps. In this regard, power dynamics, specifically those relating to who is in charge have become obscured. It’s much harder to hold the attention of a group in a Zoom meeting than it is in an in-person meeting.”
There’s a fair amount to unpack here, but it’s deeply insightful. In a sense, by opening up the home to our working lives, we gain glimpses of one another’s lives which we never had pre-pandemic: a sense of people’s taste in interior design or the art on the wall behind them; and even, especially if you have raucous children, a sense of the rhythm of their domestic lives. In a sense the private self is admitted to the public sphere.
Jan Gerber, the CEO of Paracelsus Recovery argues that this has little impact on existing power structures, and instead notes the little tics of meeting behaviour which online calls brings out. “It depends on the size of the crowd and the purpose of a meeting how in-person and Zoom meetings differ. Large Zoom meetings tend to make people check out, i.e. not pay attention. On mute, one can surf the web or write emails whilst the meeting is going on. This is much more difficult in in-person meetings. It’s easier to hide unnoticed in a zoom meeting; making it easier for shy or introverted attendees to stay low, but it also robs them of the opportunity to shine as they’re less likely called for comment than in a room where the meeting leader can make eye contact with everyone in the room.”
So given the more or less universal ambivalence of our experts on the question of Zoom, what approach should managers and CEOs take when it comes to the question of Zoom calls?
Gerber tells me: “If possible, hold in-person meetings. If some people are off-site, have the present attendees gather in a conference room and others join by Zoom, but not everybody joining via Zoom from their desks. Again, a meeting has much more value than the information exchanged or content created during a meeting. Staff members are much more likely to stand behind a common purpose when physically present.”
Petrides agrees: “I always recommend a mix of face to face and virtual meetings. In fact, combining them can be very effective – a weekly remote team meeting to set the plan for the week works well, a weekly face to face review has a social quality that builds teams and a sense of progress. And dialling-in remote people to spontaneous face-to-face office meetings adds a sense of inclusion for people working remotely. I like to remind everyone that these are the tools now, remote, digital, messaging, it’s all part of the mix – but so are pencils, pens, whiteboards, and watercoolers for a chat. Use them all and you’ll do great. Variety is the spice of life – and workplace productivity.”
Hear, hear. And it’s worth remembering that in 2023, as weary as we might be of Heatherwick’s ‘flat half-people’ that these developments are still extremely recent – which makes them all the more worth considering.