How Coronavirus is re-shaping the way we think about personal space

By Pelican director Cheryl Bennett

In March, 200 million used video conferencing app Zoom every day, up from about 10 million per day in December. Meanwhile, Microsoft Teams now has more than 44 million daily users, generating over 900 million meeting and calling minutes.

This, for now, is our new normal. The traditional handshake replaced by a ‘join this meeting’ notification.

As we’re quickly discovering, there are plenty of advantages to video conferencing:

  • Efficiency and productivity; more productive staff not spending time on the road
  • Cost saving; less travel expenditure
  • Environmentally beneficial; something the companies can claim as part of their CSR programme.

So why have so few companies taken advantage of this facility until they’ve been left with no other choice?

Perils of replacing physical interaction with digital interaction

As quickly as we are becoming accustomed to the technicalities of online meetings, just as quickly are the pitfalls becoming apparent:

  • It’s easy to miss the verbal cues we normally hear and consequently we talk over each other at times. The resulting conversation is stilted and awkward.
  • There seems to be an unwritten rule to get through the agenda and move on without taking comfort breaks or chatting about other things, such as family life, which helps build rapport.
  • Meetings can be interrupted or break down entirely due to the screens freezing or blurring, or poor sound quality.
  • There can be issues with language: dialects, speed and pace, not to mention volume control which mean we miss key information.

Perhaps most importantly, face-to-face we instinctively read changes in body language; someone shifting in their chair or wringing their hands. We automatically listen for breathing cues, read eye movements and subtle facial expressions. All these unconscious perceptions, which can dramatically change the course of the dialogue, are so much harder to see via conference calling.

Where do we go from here?

For now, meetings have to take place online where possible, so just as with ‘real life’ meetings, certain etiquettes should be observed:

  • Have a pre-agreed agenda
  • Ensure you have good connectivity
  • Think about your setting; choose a quiet room and blur your background if possible
  • Keep the mic switched off if someone else is giving a speech
  • Remove possible distractions
  • Make sure it’s an essential meeting (ie, can the issue be handled more quickly via email or a phone call?)
  • Avoid talking over each other by using the chat function to ask questions

If people get used to conducting online meetings in this way there’s no reason they can’t be a productive way to do business in the future. However, there will always be certain situations when ‘face-to-face’ is just better:

  • When relationships need to be built
  • When discussion and consideration need to happen and time must be allowed for this.

What will meetings look like when lock down is lifted?

Whilst the handshake – one of our most symbolic business practices – may have been permanently tarnished, it’s clear that some meetings are simply less effective online. So although the lock down has proven to many that remote working is possible, it’s unlikely to completely replace face-to-face meetings.

Fundamentally we are social animals; we work and live in groups and very few of us like being alone for too long. Social distancing is having a detrimental effect on those of us who need social interaction. In fact, for some people it’s one of the main drivers for coming to work.

We are therefore likely to reach a happy medium; using our new-found confidence with video conferencing to work remotely when it makes sense from a practical or productivity point of view, but retaining traditional working practices with a renewed appreciation of social contact with clients and colleagues.

Pelican Communications is a specialist in the environment & CSRfoodpackaging & logistics and trade association sectors and offers a range of services such as strategy, design, content creation, public relations and people developmentContact us for marketing and communications expertise.

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