Talking screen heads

Does remote work, keeping distance to other people and communicating with a variety of digital work tools improve human productivity?

Photo by husband (family album)

Media is full of reports and stories about enthusiasts, people bursting with excitement: Finally! Something positive has come out of this awful societal lockdown time and COVID virus pandemic that refuses to shimmer down. Modes of working have been updated to the digital era. The invasion of tele-meetings and remote work has been fast, strongly boosted by the pandemic. No need to travel to the workplace to interact with other people. Many wish to continue in this working mode also in the future.

If video streaming doesn’t get hiccups, one can even talk with heads on screens with faces. It is trendy to forecast that this mode of interacting in working life has come to stay. The fight against the current COVID pandemic has made it necessary for people to avoid one another and stay cooped up at home. Humans adapt, why revert to the old?

Fast growing keep-your-distance business

The number of companies in Keep your distance from fellow man -business is rapidly growing. Services and products (to name a few) include easy-to-assemble home office furniture, renting remote office space, virtual office and other place sharing digital platforms. There is a jungle of gadgets and office work apps claimed to increase productivity for sale or to rent. Stylists give advice on how to look your best on the video screen.

Different AR/VR enhanced solutions for providing an immersive experience of natural human communication include virtual handshakes, elbow rubbing, eye contact, getting better readings of facial expressions and voice tones. Videoclips of (many still futuristic) examples are popping up like spring flowers. Some might consider them more as weeds slowly suffocating natural human interaction.

“It is so much easier to concentrate and avoid distractions from one’s work buddies”, many people happily say, and continue: “One gets so much more done”. Especially office workers can free themselves from direct interaction with other people. There are bitter voices stating that so called knowledge workers, at all levels of the workplace food chain, are privileged people for having this opportunity to distance themselves from other humans. Is this possibility really worthy of envy?

The home office cocoon is a shield against human interruptions. Many consider people at work, who want to have an informal discussion, the culprits of productivity problems. Does one really get more things done alone or is it an illusion of increased productivity? What if the person reaching out had a solution to a mutual problem or a good idea worth pursuing? Could the interruption actually have saved time put into the work task?

Curb your enthusiasm – in speed-teaming-mode things progress in slow mode

In Finnish we have a saying “jäitä hattuun”. Direct translation is, “Put some ice into your hat”. Curb your enthusiasm before you go overboard with effusive praise of just talking with screens or faces on screens. Why am I, a Digi-enthusiast being the devil’s advocate?

In Charlie Chaplin’s classic film Modern Times (1936) machine drives man. In my mind I can easily imagine myself in a rather similar state by simply replacing all the industrial machine gadgets with different types of information technology screens and interfaces. I can relate to having a sense of rushing around. I try to keep up with switching from one platform to another, from one remote meeting to another. Cognitively and mentally, I need to shift from one topic to another on the run. The need to dig up from my memory names, faces and roles of people that tune into the next meeting is also challenging. Mix-ups occur. Someone is missing from the call; another thinks the topic of the meeting is something different. So, time is spent getting everyone on the map. In speed-teaming-mode things tend to progress in slow mode.

Data trash highjacking human attention

I have mixed feelings about the (probably) not-so-distant future in which virtual glasses are sitting on my nose bridge or I wear a helmet providing experiences of augmented and/or virtual reality to meetings and discussions with other people. In my mind’s eye I see hands appearing, signaling that people in the meeting are queuing for their turn to speak up. I can also imagine a situation where several people are trying to have a say at the same time. I am straining to make sense out of a cacophony of human voices. Perhaps some words, emoticons or objects are popping up and floating in the scenery. They are soon replaced by new ones. What will all of this do to my ability to concentrate, actually be present in a way that ensures I am seeing and hearing important things? How to ensure that data trash (appearing by mistake, due to a hiccup in the system) that has no value to the ongoing discussions doesn’t highjack attendees’ attention and disrupt their train of thought? A cluttered meeting space jeopardizes thinking, planning and working productively together.

I am thrilled about many advances different technologies have made. I still remember how, in the 1990’s, I had to climb to the top of a hill near our summer place to get a reasonable signal in order to email short documents with my first smartphones attached to my heavy, 1st generation movable PC. Now I can choose from work/home office PCs, a mini-pocket office and many other mobile device alternatives. I find myself sometimes talking to my watch. I have also been in an embarrassing situation while giving a talk at an event: Though I had put my handy on silent mode, my computer, tablet and watch started beeping an incoming call during the presentation.

The important human factor

During my career extending over forty years I have participated and/or been the leader of work projects small and large. Gaining understanding on factors affecting human performance and behavior has always been a part of my work. I have had the privilege to experience working cultures in hospitals, universities, research institutes, small and big companies. Working modes have ranged from face-to-face, ad hoc discussions and meetings tightly timed and scheduled, to the more traditional phone calls or talking at odd hours via my computer or phone screen with people scattered around the globe. This has given me the opportunity to observe first-hand in what type of settings people are at their creative best.

Here are my learnings:
The budding ideas that eventually lead to actual research or other types of development projects were nearly always first spoken aloud in unofficial gatherings where people happened to meet. Creativity by demand pales in comparison. The seeds of ideas started to grow into actual projects, more often than seldom, from the chance meeting of a few people. Gathering around a printer, nowadays a multifunction machine, has always been a really good place to talk and exchange ideas. A printer in an open space attracted people.

The icebreaker was often the man-machine communication problem, a repeating cause of shared frustration. My struggle with the stubborn un-cooperative “multi-skill” printing machine captured the attention of passers-by. Soon a small group of people was helping me to figure out what was wrong this time. While at it, we often exchanged news on what type of projects each of us worked on. Nearly always areas of interesting and fruitful co-operation possibilities were identified. Also, the first idea seeds of new projects were planted into our minds in these chance encounters. Waiting for the multifunction machine to comply brought forth also the opportunity for talent head hunting and expanding human networks.

Embrace afternoon “let’s have a chat” -breaks

Recreation days have been important for getting to know one’s work buddies a little better. With food and some drinks talking flowed freely on a wide range of topics, from family, hobbies, every-day things, societal issues to work. All topics can lead to ideas with connections to work. One of my best and most successful projects was outlined on a paper napkin in a bar on a ship! Having lunch together at work not only feeds the body but also the mind. This and that -talk is invigorating and mind-tickling. Ideas pop up, come and go. Some mature into actions. Tightly scheduled and minute-to-minute orchestrated meetings, overpacked with topics, do not leave space for ideas and creativity to bloom.

An audio-video remote meeting with a variable amount of face pictures of attendees on the screen is a pale substitute for a same place and time meeting of the minds. In group meetings people in front of their own screens try to figure out who is actually speaking and how do I myself participate. Will raising the little hand on my screen alert the person trying to keep the meeting going? Too often one hears: “Sorry, I had something to comment/add a while ago, but now the discussion has already moved on.” I find myself thinking that the comment or idea that was now missed may have been an important one.

How many have tuned in but are actually doing something else? “Sorry, my time is up, I have to join another e-meeting. Let’s continue with email, take this offline, share documents on team’s meeting site…. When do you guys have time for the next session? Send a calendar invitation.” The calendars of people are usually full booked for weeks. So, the momentum to create is lost.

A sure way to kill group creativity

Pitching and discussing new ideas or sharing thoughts on how to build a project or solve a problem are activities in which the quality of group thinking suffers from time restriction. The remote working mode and screen jumping from team meeting to another is an effective way to kill creativity. In my experience with a one-hour time slot you just get started; if you are lucky and people have worked with each other earlier. If the goal is to bring together people that might have an interest in the topic and complementary know how, the who I am, what I have done and why I think I have been invited to attend part is often a time gobbler tampering discussion on the actual topic. Just when people have warmed up and their minds are reaching the mode where thoughts on how an idea could be realized start to emerge the meeting ends. What a punch in the face of creativity. It would have been important to share one’s thoughts with others right away. But time is up. Quite a belly landing!

Ideas seldom mature further solely within one’s own mind. Spontaneous discussions are invaluable. Emotions transferred via a screen are filtered into lukewarm ones. Especially those that inspire, like enthusiasm, an important driving force needed to create something new. On the other hand, skepticism may overrule in the faces-on-screen -discussion mode.

Where is the TBD room?

When listening to hype talk on the bliss of remote work and human interaction largely via telecommunication, I often think of an experience from my first week at Nokia in November 2014: I was learning the ropes and getting to know my work mates. In the open office space, at my workstation, I was surfing the intranet meeting room directory. I was hunting for the room TBD. I found many interesting info pages. I quickly scanned the titles and punched TBD into the search box. Pages on working culture and how things are done gave zero hits for TBD. Meeting time was fast approaching.

Especially when trying to solve a problem, I am in the habit of talking to myself. This time I voiced my dilemma aloud: “How do I find the info on the location of this TBD room? It most definitely at Nokia is not short for Traumatic Brain Disease (that first came into my neurologist’s mind). “Oh, that means To Be Determined”, informed the person at the neighboring workstation. “Who are you meeting?”. After hearing the name, he continued: “He is sitting just over there, why don’t you go over there and ask him?” I did. “Hi, good to see you, let’s take an ad hoc room or go to the coffee area, where you can meet other people also”.

Pick the right working mode

Remote work works when I have, at hand, a task that requires my full attention and concentration. A good example is writing or digesting information that I later will implement into practice and make available to others. However, the content of the document I am writing always improves through discussions with other people. Here a tele-meeting works. Otherwise, I have always enjoyed and embraced chance (ad hoc) meetings. They have spiced up my days. Spending time at the coffee area or at other shared spaces people visit from time to time has been the best way to connect with old acquaintances and new ones. Let’s face it: communicating via screens filters away many important ingredients of human interaction.

It is ludicrous, comical and whimsical to call a digital meeting of faces-on-screens a campfire of human interaction. Although, an analog to fire can be found: Digital tools, as fire, are good servants, but shouldn’t be given the upper hand (boss role). Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that in the future productivity, work performance quality and creativity can be guaranteed or even (significantly) improved by mainly using digital work tools. The wisdom lies in picking the right mode of human interaction from the palette of communication solutions.

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