Zooming ahead? Not so fast!

7 December 2020

Co-authored with Hanieh Mohammadi, doctoral student in McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management

We are smitten with the latest videoconferencing technology much as a lover is smitten with a new partner. We notice everything that is wonderful and nothing that is not—for a while, at least. Then the reality sets in. And the worrisome becomes more obvious, sometimes too obvious—unless the relationship is going to work. Of course, the sooner the wonders and the worries are appreciated, the better. Accordingly, before we close down too many offices, let’s review the benefits of this technology briefly, of which we are well aware, to give greater attention to its drawbacks.

Casual Convenience with Surprising Structure
We used to travel to the office and walk to our meetings, or else spent hours in an airplane to get there. Now, a few seconds before the meeting begins, we amble over to our laptop in the convenience of our own homes and log on. And lo and behold, there is everyone, in plain view. What could be more casual, more convenient?

But wait. Don’t be fooled by the apparent informality. What may seem casual in execution can be rather formal in organization. These videoconferences can be a lot more tightly structured than most meetings at the office. They don’t just happen; they are preplanned with a predetermined set of participants, each focussed on one screen, one frame, in his or her e-box. In other words, videoconferencing can be as orchestrated as a concert. There is, of course, a reality on that screen—there is a reality everywhere, not just in the “real world”, whatever that is. But on that screen is a focussed reality, even when each of the participants comes to it from the rich and varied realty of their own homes. 

Of course, many meetings at the office were carefully scheduled too.  But once started, they didn’t have to remain that way. People could move around, chat aside, get attention to question the frame. And many more meetings were not scheduled at all; they just happened. Somebody walking by a door started a conversation, or two people bumped into each other at the coffee machine. Think of how much constructive business was conducted that way.

Have you bumped into anyone on zoom lately? Or have you had much banter at the end of a video call, catching up on news, consolidating a relationship? Usually everyone goes back to his or her own coffee machine. Don’t look for close encounters of any kind on this technology.

Do you plan to attend your favorite business conference online this year? Joining sessions will be convenient, but don’t expect to meet the person who could become your next best customer. 

Are you in favor of bashing the bureaucracy, flattening the hierarchy? Then have a look at that screen. In a corner is a button called “mute”. You can block out your sound so that no-one can hear your dog barking, or you talking on another call. On just one of those laptops, however, is something more formidable, like the conch in “Lord of the Flies”. There, one mute button can mute all the others, enabling one person to control the conversation: decide who gets to speak and for how long. Bash the dissent, elevate the hierarchy. Try waving a hand to get attention.  Alternately, when there is no such button, be prepared for chaos in any meeting of more than a few people. Have you been on a large family zoom call recently, with everyone talking at once (like a cocktail party without being able to take anyone aside)

Mass Communicating minus Community and Collaboration
Courtesy of CoachingOurselves.com

It’s amazing how many people can be brought together on a videoconferencing call. One of us did a podcast on his latest book, with an audience in China of 50,000—live. Every single one was close by, on their own screen: the speaker full blown, in intimate conversation with whoever asked a question, as if there was no-one else around. What a change from speaking in a hall, with someone at a microphone asking a question, to hear the answer from a distant podium. On the screen at home, both parties are right there, for all to see, a few inches from each other, and from everyone else looking on. (Careful about that little blemish on your cheek.)

The problem is that such intimacy disappears as soon as another person appears on the screen: easy come, easy go in this wired world. And when that “Leave Meeting” button is hit, gone is any sense of community that may have tried to raise its head. One of us had a number of video conversations with a CEO for purposes of research. But it was only when they met face-to-face that she felt they really got to know each other, thus enabling the project to move forward. 

A sense of communityship beyond leadership is key to the harmonious functioning of any organization. The good ones work hard to establish this. It doesn’t disappear with videoconferencing among people who have already been in close touch, but is it enhanced? And can it get started in the first place with people who don’t already know each other?

A colleague reported that his daughter appreciated the chance to continue her yoga classes virtually, instead of having to stop them. But she complained that “I can’t hug them!” It’s tough to express warmth, let alone trust, on a screen.

Orchestrated Harmony or Spontaneous Creativity
Have you seen one of those wonderful orchestra pieces on the screen, with everybody playing so harmoniously together, each in his or her electronic box? This was, in fact, as constructed as an edited film: they all played apart until someone put it together. The alternative, with no-one doing the editing, is the cacophony of “Happy Birthday” that you have probably sung to a relative on a zoom call.

Imagine what that podcast in China did for that book, with everyone’s attention drawn to it for an hour. What could be better for an author, or a CEO having to make a point to the company minions?  But how about a CEO, or anyone else, who needs an innovative design, or a clever solution to a nasty problem?

Back in 2019, a few of us could pile into a conference room, in the presence of a white board, with papers strewn across a table, while we engaged each other enthusiastically to come up with something novel.  We walked around, shared notes, scribbled on the board, took each other aside to get in deeper. How to replicate this on a videoconference call? What’s to see beyond the screen, what’s to do beyond the keyboard? Click for spontaneity? Hit the “Serendipity” key?

Lateral vision is as important in management as it is in sport. We can no more play basketball with our eyes fixated on the net than can we manage an organization with our eyes fixated on a screen.

So please, not back to the same old, same old “new normal”
In 1975, one of us published an article that portrayed managing as a lot more messy than planned, described in a New York Times article as “calculated chaos” and  “controlled disorder”. This was not bad managing; it was necessary managing given the dynamics of the job. Since then, unfortunately, much of this been cleaned up, thanks to the steady replacement of grounded management by lofty leadership in many established organizations. This has left no few “leaders” cooped up at the “top”, with their eyes fixated on the bottom line. Perhaps, therefore, the greatest danger of the new videoconferencing is that it can exacerbate the very form of leadership that most needs to be challenged.

Don’t get us wrong. The video conferencing technology is wonderful, in its place, as is every other technology. Use it, but please—not to your heart’s content.
© Henry Mintzberg and Hanieh Mohammadi 2020. See CoachingOurselves.com, impm.org, and imhl.org for some creative ways to zoom past these problems.

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