There has been a lot of discussion about Zoom fatigue in the workplace settings and the challenges of remote work and online communication since last year. Some of the most common complaints include the lack of connection with colleagues, loneliness, and a lack of motivation to work in spaces that do not resemble the physical office. For a lot of people, the physical workplace is the main place for socializing. On the other hand, the normalizing of remote work has benefited people with autism or ADHD who struggled to adapt to office environments. In fact, the factors leading to Zoom fatigue (lack of nonverbal communication for example) is believed to be liberating for the neurodivergent population. The neurotypical population gets a glimpse of what a comfortable environment for the neurodivergent people would look like.
What about the other benefits of online communication at work and otherwise which may have been unearthed since last year? It has reduced costs substantially as many conference organizers and attendees have realized. One of the organizers of a major conference in marketing remarked about the diversity of attendees at their online conference, especially from middle and low-income countries where funding is not always available for conference travel. We do not think twice about attending Zoom sessions across different time zones for a wide variety of topics related to our professional and personal interests. I have attended sessions where the speakers were in different cities in India, in North-eastern US and in Eastern Australia and connected with people from varied fields. Ironically in the current context, there has been a greater amount and degree of connections established with new people and re-established with known ones. A major reason for this possibility of having wider connections is the fact that we have gained extra time as all the time spent in commutes and other in-person social interactions has been substantially reduced.
Marlee Bower, a loneliness researcher, and the sociologist Roger Patulny’s research examined the social networks of people during the pandemic. They found that some people grew closer to their friends over the pandemic with increased frequency of communication. So, a person who spoke to a friend two or three times a year started speaking almost on a weekly basis. And only those social interactions seem to have survived online where there was a genuine interest and a need to connect, and not just shared work or hobby. Location was no longer a barrier.
The online communication may also be a boon for people who are more likely to identify themselves as introverts or people who prefer less social and physical stimulation. Online communication gives them a chance to control the interaction and also contribute to discussions at their own pace, whether it is using the chat option in Zoom calls or switching off the video in some cases. It is important to add here that introversion does not equal asocial behaviour. Introverted people also seek social interaction but in a controlled manner. Speaking out in meetings with larger groups may be overwhelming for introverted people and they may keep their thoughts to themselves. Their contribution to a work setting can be immense due to the several positive attributes especially highlighted by Susan Cain in her book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”, including reflective personality, and deeper and more conscious decision-making.
Often in-person meetings involve a lot more talking, whereas introverts are more likely to first reflect and then talk and automatically are assumed to be at a disadvantage, especially when there is limited time. Therefore, the option of writing in their input in chat or email during online communication may be an advantage for their team and organization. Technology can really empower introverts especially as they can also get credit for their work and are not overlooked for new roles. Too many emails may be considered a hassle for some, but it is a foolproof way of getting everyone to notice your work. At the same time, having the video on always with eye contact for long periods during the Zoom calls can be more taxing to introverts. Allowing individuals to switch off the video at times may be a good way to manage the exhaustion associated with video calls.
In a New York Times article from April 2020, the same gender difference was noted in online communication at work as real life with women struggling to be heard in virtual meetings and more frequent interruptions from male colleagues. In educational settings however, there is some evidence that shows that even though males speak more in face-to-face settings, women post more messages online. The use of mute button could be used as method to avoid frequent interruptions, where people keep themselves muted unless they want to speak out and when one notices a colleague unmute herself, they may not ramble on.
It is also vital to note that these advantages of online communication are more apparent and likely for tech savvy people, whereas older individuals and people with lesser internet skills could face a reduction in their connection with the outside world. A lack of internet connection means total exclusion in the pandemic and lockdown scenario. Ensuring internet connectivity for all in a country like India is challenging but essential for survival, as noted in the current dire times, where people are reaching out to others on Twitter and social media for leads on hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, and medications all over the country.