Over the last two years, office workers of the world have gotten a tantalizing taste of either fully remote work or partially remote hybrid work. Many don’t want to go back to commuting to a workplace full-time, no matter the cost.
According to research from the ADP Research Institute, which surveyed more than 32,000 workers, fully 64% said they would consider looking for a new job if they were required to return to the office full-time. More than half said they would accept a pay cut of up to 11% if they could guarantee themselves remote or partially remote hybrid work.
“It will be extremely challenging to get employees back to the office full-time,” says Lori Dann, founder of the Presidents’ Leadership Council, a peer advisory group for small business presidents. As a result, companies will have to develop new skill sets if they want to survive and thrive in this new normal.
One major area where companies are being forced to evolve is assessing—and optimizing—the impact of virtual meetings. Virtual meetings that occur over videoconferencing technologies such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams have both unique advantages and disadvantages that companies increasingly will need to weigh moving forward.
On one hand, virtual meetings hold the potential to increase a meeting’s productivity and effectiveness if run correctly, all at a lower cost than meeting in person. On the other hand, recent research shows virtual meetings have specific downsides that may impact how well teams generate ideas and develop effective working relationships. Getting the right balance of virtual meetings to in-person interactions is still new for many leaders, managers, and employees.
“With increased use and adoption of virtual services that are continually adapting to offer a better experience, the way we communicate will change,” says Elaine Raybourn, a social scientist in the Statistics and Human Systems Group in the Applied Information Sciences Center of Sandia National Laboratories, where she focuses on the future of remote work. “The onus is on each of us to navigate the challenge space of what it means to communicate effectively with different tools, learn where our strengths are, and how to address our weaknesses.”
Virtual meetings have specific downsides that may impact how well teams generate ideas and develop effective working relationships.
To do that, companies and teams must carefully weigh the pros and cons of virtual meetings—and of remote work as a whole.
The Benefits of Going Virtual
There’s no question that virtual meetings provide some major benefits to businesses, says Dann, who regularly advises business leaders on the issue of remote work. “The ability to facilitate meetings virtually allowed many companies to maintain operations during the pandemic,” she says, which in turn prevented layoffs and bankruptcies.
Even as the pandemic subsides, businesses and employees have found plenty to like about virtual meetings. They cost less than in-person meetings, saving the company money and giving workers more time back into their day for productivity. In addition, video tools with recording, virtual note-taking, and screen-sharing capabilities can make virtual work more efficient and effective.
“There are lots of notable technological innovations in the virtual meeting space that show promise for a better creative experience, such as enriched virtual whiteboards and improved shared reference space with virtual or mixed reality,” says Longqi Yang, a Senior Applied Researcher in Microsoft’s Office of Applied Research who studies the future of work. Additionally, he says, cross-geographical collaboration and flexible work hours are much easier to achieve through virtual meetings than in person.
Virtual meetings also reduce the barrier to entry for events like conferences, says David Holtz, an assistant professor in the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and a collaborator with Yang on recent remote work research. Says Holtz, “Many folks who would not have had the time or money to fly across the country for an event are now able to tune in and see talks, and network with others in their field.”
There are other benefits, too.
The option of virtual meetings—and remote or hybrid work—is now a core recruiting tool for companies. The research from ADP notes that employees who work from home report they are more optimistic about the next five years of their careers and more satisfied with their employment compared to on-premise workers.
Virtual meetings and employment options can even provide relief to families in difficult home situations. “Virtual services can also accommodate workers with disabilities or employees who need to care for children or loved ones who are ill,” says Richard Wahlquist, president and CEO of the American Staffing Association, a trade association that calls itself “the voice of the U.S. staffing, recruiting, and workforce solutions industry.”
Observes Dann, “Many people have decided they will only work remotely moving forward, making recruiting tricky for some employers,” which means that no matter what a company thinks about virtual work, a red-hot labor market and low unemployment rate together mean workers who want virtual options can be choosy.
However, it is important to note that advantages in recruiting may be temporary. The labor market currently favors workers heavily, given historically low unemployment. If the economy enters a full-blown recession, workers could lose this bargaining power.
The Downsides of Virtual Meetings
As anyone who has grown frustrated with a virtual meeting knows, they have limitations.
The first limitation comes from the technology itself. Services like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, which entire companies rely on for virtual meetings, can experience outages, fail to work correctly, or simply play poorly with someone’s device. All of this can (and does) disrupt virtual meetings, or stop them from happening entirely.
“We are still in the early days of technology-mediated communication,” says Raybourn, explaining that leaves lots of room to improve today’s virtual meeting technologies, but it might also require a lot of legwork as the next generation of virtual meeting technology is designed.
“Bringing our designs to fruition will require advancements throughout the ecosystem to enable a qualitatively different communication experience which is more seamless, intuitive, and not encumbered by technology,” Raybourn notes.
Even when the technology works just fine, it can still have negative effects on how work gets done.
Recent research from Columbia Business School assistant professor of marketing Melanie Brucks and Stanford Graduate School of Business professor of marketing Jonathan Levav studied how the shift to remote work impacts innovation. They found that videoconferencing technology can hamper creativity.
The labor market currently favors workers, given historically low unemployment. If the economy enters full-blown recession, workers could lose bargaining power.
“Our research finds that videoconferencing groups are less creative when generating ideas compared to in-person groups,” says Brucks. She and Levav used eye-gaze and recall measures to show that videoconferencing negatively affected a worker’s cognition. The reason why comes down to the presence of the screen itself.
Previous research had shown there are neurological links between visual and cognitive attention. Brucks and Levav found that virtual communications narrow a worker’s visual scope since, instead of being in a room with a larger field of view, you’re closely focused on a screen.
“The visual focus on the screen narrows cognition,” says Brucks. “People are more focused when interacting on video, which hurts the broad, expansive idea-generation process.”
There are also disadvantages to virtual meetings depending on where in the world you live. In a survey conducted by email security firm Qualitia, Japanese workers were asked about what things bothered them about their communication tools. Among the workers who telecommute, the most common response was having difficulty seeing other peoples’ reactions in meetings.
This may be due to the fact that Japan is a “high-context” culture. People in high-context cultures prefer different communications styles than those preferred in low-context cultures like the U.S. In a high-context culture, communication relies far more heavily on body language, tone of voice, and pauses—cues that are hard to pick up on in virtual meetings. Other high-context cultures include Brazil, France, and Spain, suggesting the advantages of virtual meetings do not translate to everyone.
The Hybrid Future?
“The future of work is hybrid,” says Brucks. “One of the biggest challenges facing managers in the next few years will be thoughtfully structuring work-from-home schedules and expectations.”
As her and Levav’s research shows, companies will need to carefully consider which types of meetings and tasks need to be performed in person, versus which might be better or acceptable to do remotely. And they will need to move quickly.
While there is no doubt virtual work has its benefits, the question remains: Do the benefits of virtual work apply to everyone?
Recent research conducted by the American Staffing Association found more than four in 10 U.S. adults said they plan to look for a new job in the next year. A full 25% of them say the ability to work remotely is an important decision-making factor.
While there is no doubt virtual work has benefits—and some workers demand it—the question remains: Do the benefits of virtual work apply to everyone?
It is easier to enjoy the productivity benefits of remote work if you are already comfortable with virtual meetings. Yet the European Joint Commission Research Center found that half of Europeans working from home were doing so for the first time during the pandemic.
Not to mention, virtual meetings are not just regular meetings on a computer; they require different communication styles and skills than in-person meetings, skills with which many struggle.
For many people, nonverbal cues are critical for effective communication. Face-to-face meetings rarely have people trying to talk at the same time, while this happens constantly during virtual meetings, which can result in some workers becoming hesitant to speak up at all. Also, quieter or more introverted employees find it difficult to make themselves heard in chaotic large-scale virtual meetings.
Companies also will need to consider how virtual meetings and remote work affect employee relationships. Research by Yang and Holtz suggests remote work causes people to spend more time on people with whom they have strong ties, like close collaborators at work. They seem to spend less time with those with whom they have weak ties, such as cross-group connections. This may impact how managers think about virtual meetings.
“Since weak ties are critical for the propagation of novel information and firm innovation, this indicates people should prioritize relationship-building and networking activities during in-person time,” says Yang.
That is a blow to every manager who thinks the occasional virtual happy hour will be sufficient to preserve innovation in the future workplace.
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Show Them the Money: Pay Is Most Important for Potential Job Seekers, American Staffing Association, Dec. 9, 2021, https://americanstaffing.net/posts/2021/12/09/show-them-the-money/
‘Remaining silent in online meetings’ bothers teleworkers in Japan the most: poll, The Mainichi, May 2021, https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20210506/p2a/00m/0na/014000c
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