Director of Eurescom
In the early days of the internet our expectations were limited – even Tim Berners-Lee considered his invention of the World Wide Web as just something “to allow information sharing within internationally dispersed teams, and the dissemination of information by support groups”. Since the international fear of COVID-19 has taken effect, we expect the internet to be the saving grace for humanity. In fact our dependency on our online connectivity is such that in 2016 the UN declared, in a non-binding resolution, that “the same rights people have offline must also be protected online”. But now that we really need it, are we ready to move our lives online?
Many companies considered themselves suitable for “remote” working or ready supporters of “home office” scenarios so that when the lockdown rules were inflicted on many European states, they felt capable of continuing their work in a seamless way. However, as we are quickly learning, remote working has its disadvantages as well as its advantages, and I am really not sure which will win out in the long term.
The great debate
We have all heard that the advantages of home working are the flexibility, the lack of office distractions, no commuting and a better life-work balance. However, each of those points can rapidly become a negative, as the lack of a routine affects our will power to keep pushing out completed tasks, questions to our office colleagues can take days to answer rather than the two minutes “head-around-the door” approach we know and love. Home distractions can quickly replace office distractions, and the isolation can even prompt boredom. The point is that it is not easy to replace a good working environment with an equally good virtual one.
Despite the case for remote working not being proven (yet?), we should be more aware of the bigger impacts of the COVID-19 changes. We have dramatically reduced the amount of travel we do, and this is showing us now how many of the meetings and travels we did were actually necessary. I fully expect that, in many fields, there will be a permanent reduction in travels, and the internet-based meeting services will continue to play a greater role in our collaborative commercial lives. It is not a surprise that the stock value of Zoom Video Communications has jumped to be greater than the value of many airlines in the last couple of weeks.
We are also getting a much clearer picture of the services that we really need to keep life going: supermarkets, shops selling “essential” goods and health services can stay open (and takeaways too). But pubs, cafes, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, libraries, community centres, beauty salons and all shops selling “non-essential” goods have to close – I can’t even get my hair cut anymore.
But people are resilient – it is now “normal” that your local fitness club is organising online fitness sessions where the same instructor and class get together over a video conferencing application to have their planned Yoga class. Movies and entertainment streaming has been growing dramatically over the past years and is now an established “norm”. The speed with which grandma and grandpa have learned to Skype or Facetime is incredible – last week they could not operate the iPad.
From the work front, I have now the experience that we have a drop in understanding in the team because of the remote working – and there is an overhead of having to explain to people that they are making work for others, as they have not read the last mail and are not repeating the discussion. But, if we can get people to think more about the team sharing of knowledge and actions, while in isolation, it might actually work.
Right now, I feel that the changes in working lifestyle forced by COVID-19 have helped us to identify more clearly the difficulty of getting a distributed organisation to work effectively. We have not achieved the great expectations where the omnipotent communications infrastructure has allowed virtual presence to replace actual presence.
However, the interesting thing is that rather than disappointment about the internet, the expectations are growing, as we can see that many of the necessary communications are possible. It is just that, despite our technology, virtual hugs just are not the same as a real person-to-person hug.