There is much to ponder about prolonged and enforced remote working. Or rather, a seemingly endless period of enforced working where we live. There was a fair deal of enthusiasm in the early months, as organisations realised what could be achieved, in times of necessity, via Zoom and Teams and similar tools. Not only did the wheels not come off, they actually turned surprisingly smoothly. At that time though, we were pondering a three to six month horizon before the new normal melted back into the old.
Times have changed and the horizon can now seem distant, flat and featureless. Remote working enthusiasm is starting to wane as the longer term consequences come into focus. This NPR piece has some interesting angles on these emerging features and the risks to productivity. One, under the surface, is that senior leaders are in the same boat as their staff for once. It may be a better appointed boat with more deck space but they are tethered to the same, endless screen working experience as the rest of us. It’s wearing thin for them too, as their meeting content and participants dissolve into each other on each hour and half hour as the days pass.
It seems also that Zoomy meetings are becoming secondary media in the working day. Like the radio or a podcast, we are tuning in to them whilst we do other things we need to find time for: making lunch; going to the loo and taking in Amazon parcels. The online meeting is something that might only reward partial attention in a day full of unselected screen time. These aren’t aren’t meetings we have chosen to join or are required to be active in, they are information broadcasts in the working day. We are the audience, not participants. As calendar gaps are plugged with invites, we need time to refuel, for biology and to answer the door.
Meetings have always been like this, of course. So many are held for narrowcast communications purposes and to satisfy the organiser that they have happened. In the office context, we were physically captive to this. Moving from meeting room to meeting room offered a brief slice of respite (even changing chairs offered variety). Back to back meetings from home don’t allow that fleeting escape – same chair, same screen same headphones. It can be a meeting production line. And production lines risk creating an alienated workforce
Things are not going to get easier quickly in this respect but perhaps our behaviour can ease the strain on our time and attention. If we think about these broadcast meetings as exactly that we might find them working better, perhaps. One thing that good radio and podcast producers do well is respect the time and attention of their audience. They know other activities are important and valid and design around them. They don’t expect the audience to listen all day every day. Phone-in shows seem to work well too – not everyone has to speak for a meaningful debate to emerge.
Maybe some meetings could borrow these production values where communication is the primary goal? Then it might be acceptable to make toast during a meeting if you have no other time to eat. I wonder…Can a meeting be like a radio programme and still play the same role without pricking the egos of the hosts? Will people find time to listen to recorded communications in work time without needing to be ‘present’? Maybe the podcast format has a role here as a deliberate secondary medium for the working lunch.