Whether we used them out of necessity or simply because they were convenient, we have all quickly learnt how to use collaboration tools and video-conferencing systems. Confirmation comes from data gathered by an American company specialised in digital experience management, Aternity, who have compiled a league table showing growth in three-figures. Looking at the adoption and use of these solutions between February 17 and June 14, this picture emerges: Teams saw an increase of +894%, followed by Zoom at +677% and Cisco Webex at 451%.
Thanks to the widespread use of smart working, for many workers these digital solutions became the last remnants of an office life that already feels light-years away. But it wasn’t just where we worked that changed. Teamwork, exchanges of opinions, meetings, interviews and more besides have all taken place through a screen: you on one side and your counterpart on the other. Both staring into the webcam as if you were looking into each other’s eyes – of course, against a carefully selected backdrop. Each one ready to have their say but taking care to mute the microphone so that the shouts of the children playing in the living room do not turn into the company’s latest slogan. Eager to see and hear each other and feel a little less alone, but at the same time bothered by the bells ringing in the background. At the end of the day, this virtual communication was hard work rather than a new, sustainable way of managing our work-life balance.
“When we communicate, even non-verbally, we are not simply exchanging information. What takes place is a compromise between a variety of intentions, emotions and meta-languages in a continuous, elementary flow that can only be partially replicated through software,” claims Pier Giovanni Bresciani, president of SIPLO (Italian Association of Work and Organizational Psychology). It comes as no surprise then that after the initial enthusiasm, many people found managing communication had become more complex, whatever business they were in.
From student-tutor to employee-employer relationships, technology has overcome constraints and physical distance, but it does not allow us to placate “the intrinsic conflict in communication itself.” This is even more difficult if we think of all the different ways we stay in touch with each other: email, messages, WhatsApp, webinars and so on. “Each one requires a very different intellectual effort, whereas in face to face communications the techniques we use tend to blend together, so much so that they are often below the threshold of our awareness,” Bresciani adds. Is this simply a question of digital divide then? Only partly it seems. “Top quality digital devices and the best possible skills are not enough to overcome the structural problems of human cognizance and communication,” Bresciani maintains.
What is needed is a focus on how work is designed so that it integrates the new ways we connect with an organisation, or group or with an individual person.
On the other hand, each one of us also needs to make a special effort. Let’s take the example of the webinars that dotter the digital diaries of many businesspeople. “It’s as if you were a follower,” Bresciani explains, “you can decide if and when you interact, with whom, and whether verbally or in written form. You can also decide to do other things at the same time, or say, watch the recording of the webinar in delayed mode. In a professional context, each of these options requires us to reflect on just what our roles are, and we need to be able to adapt our activity based on the reasons why we are taking part in the webinar.”
During more complex activities requiring more intense conversations involving a larger number of people, phenomena appear like divergent thinking (a process at the heart of creativity, stimulated by interpersonal communicative conflict) and group think (when the desire for harmony leads to – potentially poor - decision making by the group, which can be prevented or exacerbated depending on how the call is managed). During a face to face conversation, these phenomena can easily be identified and managed thanks to the natural feedback that passes between two speakers, even when it is non-verbal. In other words, this is anything but banal. “We should not consider remote communication to be less complete than face to face, but it does require quite some meta-communication skills for it to work effectively. That said, those who cope best are people with better self-analysis, critical and meta-communication skills, who manage to apply those skills effectively, with an economy of intellect and emotional intelligence that enable them to carry out an activity that is not only productive but also existentially positive,” Bresciani concludes.