From anonymity to equality
Remote work as our new reality
People have been working remotely for many years. Nevertheless, remote work has always seemed a second-best choice for organizations where most work is centered around the office environment.
Over the past several months, COVID-19 has caused remote work to be the mainstream selection.
Since the beginning of 2020, our lives have been primarily oriented toward a set of software applications. I am both amazed by and concerned about this unexpected change.
I am delighted that technology provides a more inclusive working environment for diverse talents. My deaf friend does not have to worry about noise from the ventilation window in our lab.
My colleague does not attract people’s attention anymore when rolling into a meeting room in a wheelchair. Suddenly, the distance between them and our normality has vanished behind the screen.
For the first time in history, we are widely distributed yet intricately connected.
However, it has disturbed me that many skills that we possess do not appear to be applicable in the virtual situation. Online communications minimize most of the nonverbal communication skills that I have worked hard to develop.
For example, the gestures that make me look more confident, movements that engage my audiences, and even my dress heels seem redundant.
Last week, my thesis defense was conducted online. Instead of having stage fright, I experienced “stage lost.” Since everybody turned their cameras off, for a moment, I thought I was presenting to a set of profile pictures instead of the thesis committee. I had my camera on but did not feel visible.
Furthermore, I was not even sure how engaged the committee members were throughout the presentation.
We have become accustomed to engaging in the main conversation offline and side conversations online — usually text-based. With the COVID-19 pandemic, online synchronous collaboration has been adopted intensively on a global scale for the first time.
We decided to use online meetings to conduct our main conversations. Even though software applications are irreversibly shaping communications at work, few of us were trained to cope with daily virtual collaborations.
The shared context is not completed in online collaborations because of the reduction in nonverbal communications, which are essential for smooth and successful interactions by conveying information about the conversational partner’s cognitive state, emotions, and attitudes.
Without the shared context, an online meeting is never equivalent to an offline meeting, not to mention that people often turn off sound (and mute themselves) and video when meeting offline.
Eventually, we all become anonymous in the virtual world. This makes our physical appearances less important while reducing a large amount of information that is available offline.
However, anonymity does not mean “equality”; rather, it makes our status “unknown.”
Equality requires mutual respect based on understanding.
One day, my deaf friend told me that she missed the daily hugs and laughs in our lab, even though she was bothered by all kinds of noise from time to time.
I suddenly realized that the factor that brings equality to the workplace is not making everyone look the same, but the willingness to communicate.
From now on, online meetings will become routine for most of us. We can probably start sharing some of our attitudes and emotions; have a brief, casual chat before the meeting begins; or even proactively turn our cameras on to show our presence.
After all, standing at the crossroads of choosing ignorance or compassion, we are the ones to decide whether the distributed working style is a means for cutting out interactions or an opportunity to communicate in an equal manner.