Lounging in a hammock on the balcony, laptop and a cup of cappuccino within arm’s reach; birdsong standing in for chattering colleagues and a fresh breeze replacing the musty office air … That’s more or less what creatives used to imagine working from home would be like. Then the coronavirus crisis arrived and stomped all over that romantic ideal. The reality of working from home looks more like this: screaming kids, no toilet paper and looming deadlines interspersed with virtual meetings to discuss “next steps” with colleagues before the hapless creative ventures forth in search of new ideas – and toilet paper – alone.
Is the digitalisation of work reaching its limits?
Working from home has become a lifeline in these pandemic-stricken times. German companies that have spent the past years regarding the digitalisation of work with suspicion and dragging their feet on putting it into practice have been given a long-overdue shove towards the implementation by the crisis. Working from home, commonly referred to as home working or home office, became the go-to business operating mode practically overnight. And would you look at that – it’s working! But is the general jubilation from companies justified? Is remote work really a sustainable long-term solution, and can digital communication replace face-to-face interaction?
A STUDY FROM CURTIN UNIVERSITY IN AUSTRALIA claims that, depending on the circumstances, virtual teams may even be more efficient than traditional, office-based ones. However, one prerequisite for this is regular feedback to compensate for the lack of personal interaction. Virtual cooperation also falls short when it comes to tasks that require more intensive communication between team members. These include tasks that are non-routine, complex or do not result in a clear answer, as well as tasks that need to be completed urgently. In such cases, teams where direct communication is possible are at an advantage.
Digital communication channels are unable to convey all of the intended information, which often leads to misunderstandings. Who hasn’t spent time trying to figure out someone else’s intention or tone in an awkward email? Exchanging ideas in person is faster and more efficient, partly because you can immediately see how your conversation partner reacts to what is being said. Words make up only 7 per cent of human communication: the rest is covered by body language, facial expressions and gestures, vocal pitch and volume. All these factors make it easier to correctly interpret someone’s statements and meaning.
Video calls that allow participants to see one another more closely replicate face-to-face communication. Even so, it still throws up barriers to the exchange of information. Communication under these conditions is not spontaneous and unstructured, but is instead constrained by the specific purpose for which the meeting was called. The format is designed to share information efficiently, with little scope for spontaneous or personal interaction.
Technologies such as VR, MR and AR promise virtual communication that’s even closer to real life. With the help of the mixed-reality app Spatial, for example, users can already attend meetings as holograms and use their avatars to interact with one another. It’s a good alternative when meeting in person isn’t possible. Unfortunately, though, the unwieldy VR goggles that users need to wear mean these solutions are not suitable for longer or unplanned interactions.
Do we really need face-to-face interaction?
People aren’t robots that simply take in and spit out information – they’re social creatures. They need personal interaction in order to obtain meaningful feedback and feel an affinity with others, to share emotions and discover different perspectives and ideas that allow them to learn and grow. And they need it in order to be inspired by others.
That’s why it’s not surprising that a third of employees questioned in a recent ONLINE SURVEY BY THE UNIVERSITY OF KONSTANZ reported feeling socially isolated when working from home. The co-working phenomenon further demonstrates that interpersonal contact is a fundamental requirement in our working lives. Many freelancers, who could theoretically work anywhere in the world, still find value in a fixed desk and interaction with other people in an office. Glimpses into unfamiliar fields, spontaneous discussions, informal chats by the coffee machine, collective joys and disappointments – they are all elements of a healthy work environment.
There’s a reason that large companies such as IBM, Microsoft, Yahoo and SAP, which originally introduced home working in the 90s, had by 2019 given up on the arrangement or settled on a hybrid model that includes times when employees are physically present in the office. As SAP’s head of HR, Cawa Younosi, put it to the HANDELSBLATT newspaper last year: “We don’t want 100 per cent flexible working. It’s damaging to our team cohesion if employees never come into the office.”
Creative but lonely?
The limits of digital communication are becoming apparent in the marketing sector, too – perhaps especially so. While marketing is in a large part made up of routine tasks, it is at its core about complex, creative solutions developed by interdisciplinary teams. While Mad Men may have popularised the stereotype of solitary creatives pulling an endless stream of revolutionary ideas out of thin air, it’s an outdated view of the industry. Today, designers, concept developers, copywriters and strategists work side by side to achieve the best result possible. It’s not enough for team members to submit individual pieces of the puzzle from their balcony hammocks and then fit those pieces together; obtaining a good result requires a collaborative group effort with face-to-face communication and mutual inspiration. In other words, you need real interaction to turn creative sparks into a bonfire.
Regardless: the coronavirus crisis has given us the opportunity to trial long-term home working. It has allowed us to identify what virtual communication is capable of – and where it falls short. If it weren’t for the pandemic, we would most likely still envisage home working as an ideal work environment free of interruptions. But as we now know, there are worse things than being together.