Weird digital communication in the time of lockdown

Further to my earlier posting regarding online remote working, a gradual easing of lockdown restrictions in the UK has made a couple of issues related to collaboration and communication come to the fore.

The first of these relates to email, where one feels that we have gradually begun to understand how it is not a fantastic way to discuss complex issues. The manner in which we compose and then send messages is heavy guided by email software. For example, I have long suspected that the ‘cc’ line in emails is habitually used for a number of perhaps strange purposes:

  • To let the main recipient know that the conversation has an ‘audience
  • As a form of passive aggression
  • To let the recipients know that the sender knows some important, scary or powerful people

Of course, it may also just be used to keep people informed, although their demotion or promotion from the main ‘to’ field then seems strange in itself. What would the in-person equivalent of this be? That we have a conversation with some people (‘to’), yet ask a whole group of people (senior managers, friends, enemies, colleagues) to stand far enough away that they can still hear, but will not say anything (cc). There is of course a whole other group (bcc), who are invited nosy buggers, looking for dirt. It is perhaps not surprising that there have been calls to abandon email completely, for a whole load of positive reasons.

A more rigorous analysis is available through this brilliant paper by Haesevoets, De Cremer and McGuire!

In terms of group discussions, lockdown brought to the fore behaviours within online meetings, which have become at once a cliché and unavoidable feature of working life. Quite a lot has been said about the hilarity of ‘Dave, your mic is muted’, and so on, but the software typically used to facilitate meetings has in itself started to affect behaviours.

Within my own discipline area, studies which considered the influence of modelling software on architectural design (such as the excellent work by my colleagues and friends Dr Huda Salman and Dr Marianthi Leon), have tended to suggest that having a learned ability to use software in an intuitive manner, just as one might use a pencil or pen, is crucial. When the interface gets in the way (keyboard, complicated menus, ipad screens being too shiny, too many options, slow computers), the eventual design outcome is likely to be altered by the process itself. In some respects, this is not so different to the manner in which choice of musical instrument will influence the music itself, depending on characteristics, sound, materials and of course the proficiency of the player or composer.

With this in mind, lockdown has brought with it unexpected events at both the beginning and end of meeting, which are a direct consequence of meeting through video conferencing:

  • The waiting room, and,
  • The easy ability to meet again immediately
The Royal waiting room – Ballater Station, Aberdeenshire

Unless talking with (say) the Queen or George Clooney, I imagine that most business meetings do not involve a waiting room. However, Teams (and others) have made it easy to make sure that every person taking part must spend time in the vestibule, informed “When the meeting starts, we’ll let people know you’re waiting”. Quite apart from the inevitable buildup of paranoia, to then be ‘admitted’ only to discover that many people are already there, having a great laugh, and presumably enjoying the fact that they have shared special information.

Sharing a private joke.
Sharing a private joke (original on Flickr – creative commons)

As noted by Sarah Cooper in her insightful analysis (#40: as the meeting is ending, ask a few people to hang back to talk about a separate issue) trying to have a further unexpected meeting – maybe with the boss – is a powerful way to appear exclusive and top secret. It has become rare for a Teams meeting to actually ‘finish’ with everybody leaving immediately, and I suspect there is some kudos to be gained by being the last person to exit.

Our new normal is likely to involve far more online communication than was the case back in 2019. Understanding how technology – pervasive, structured, managed – is likely to change the manner in which we interact will be crucial.

Don’t get me started on the ramifications of conversations being recorded and made available for posterity.

Richard Laing

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