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‘Zoom could be the MySpace not the Facebook of history’, says Cambridge Judge senior faculty

Meeting virtually is ubiquitous - but has drawbacks
Meeting virtually is ubiquitous - but has drawbacks

Forging bonds is an indissoluble part of human nature - and how that does or doesn’t happen in the zoom age matters, say two Cambridge experts in the field.

Dr Chris Coleridge, senior faculty in management practice at Cambridge Judge Business School, last week posted a report titled ‘Trust in the Desert of Zoom’, which considers how to build the skill set necessary for innovation and collaboration with those we’ve never met in person.

“Working from home gives some people a greater sense of reality or sense of control over how they organise their work,” says Chris. “So it’s not necessarily negative to move to remote working, but in terms of a team working together it’s going to be rough.

“For instance if you’re in secondary school and you want to put a band together and you have to do it on Zoom it can’t gel into Pink Floyd in quite the same way.”

The same dynamics are involved whether you’re starting a business or a band - anything to do with creativity or innovation gets buffered on Zoom. So you have to compensate.

“My role is teaching entrepreneurship,” Chris explains. “Typically that is where people have got a bright idea and need to collaborate with a team to work on it, and that now seems very difficult. Typically I would say do a hackathon or go to networking events, or join a society, but that’s all gone now and we have to build trust without meeting face-to-face. Maybe, today, this might be someone you have met but if this goes on for years that will slow new collaborative relationships down.

“We run the risk of losing something here. The culture of an organisation is founded in stories, rituals - even the layout of the building - and we don’t have an answer to that.”

The pull of interaction is sometimes greater than the risk it brings with it.

“We need this more than we realise and we’ll find a way to get it even if it means the risk profile going up - what’s happening now is an interesting experiment in what humans need and we’ll find different ways to create solutions.”

Chris Coleridge, senior faculty in management practice at Cambridge Judge Business School
Chris Coleridge, senior faculty in management practice at Cambridge Judge Business School

The key negatives about virtual culture are that you can’t read people’s body language, you can’t gesticulate - and you can even be muted by the host, though this isn’t true of all virtual platforms. You risk losing autonomy over your ability to express yourself properly in public.

“Usually there’s lots of social cues from being in a room,” Chris says. “So we’re going to have to get to know someone we’ll have to get into the habit of talking much more freely, to discuss office politics, or human dynamics. We’ll need that if we want to continue this kind of collaboration. Most effective leaders pay attention both to the task and the emotional needs of the those involved. It’s group maintenance, and now that’s true not just for leaders but for everyone - to be building bonds as well as continue the focus of the work. That’s my suggestion, that people will figure out ways to evolve those partnerships.”

Meanwhile, Cambridge-based counsellor and regenerative psychotherapist Katy Bailey now holds sessions virtually.

“It’s really hard as a counsellor to pick up on the non-verbal cues which make up 93 per cent of communication,” says Katy. “Communication is made up of words, tonality and body language. Zoom gives us around 20 per cent of communication. It’s hard to maintain eye contact because their image is somewhere else on the screen. In addition, we are not used to seeing ourselves talk so a lot of clients can become quite self-conscious.

“We can choose to change the background in Zoom, but what does that say about openness and people not wishing to reveal their homes? Or people carefully choose their background and lighting, add intellectual books and trophies, all considered to say something about them.

Katy Bailey, Cambridge-based counsellor and regenerative psychotherapist
Katy Bailey, Cambridge-based counsellor and regenerative psychotherapist

“You can only see the top half of someone, you can’t see their hands, this is a huge visual clue. People don’t really gesture.

“So basically, we have conscious control over what we say, the background we choose, and how we choose to present ourselves - but our tone and body language are driven by the subconscious. It’s really easy to communicate incongruently, as in our words don’t match the signals our body language and tone are giving off, which can lead to the recipient feeling a bit confused. This can lead to lack of trust.

“However, some people are enjoying a slower pace of life, they recognise that they don’t need so much, they can make do. They are noticing the real things again, bird song is louder, nature is more vibrant. They spend more quality time with their children. They appreciate the difference between aloneness as opposed to loneliness.

“We will all come out of this with greater knowledge of self and how we fit into our world.”

But if Zoom isn’t doing a good enough job, that’s not to say it can’t be done.

“What I know is that Zoom has not ‘won’,” concludes Chris. “There’s plenty of other tools that are getting traction.

“Zoom could be the MySpace not the Facebook of history.”

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