What have we learned from the Corona crisis? A trap

We are about to start opening up society again after working as if we were on another planet for two months using solely online tools. We have had to very swiftly learn a lot of new skills and most have handled it really well. 

The pitfalls, however, are also emerging. There are dangers of creating long lasting conflicts or making very expensive mistakes due to either a lack of understanding of what is really going on, or because we make conclusions too quickly on fragile arguments. Let me give you some examples.

Online work is fine, there is no need to show up physically!

I have already come across this conclusion in several different settings. Let me just start by saying that I too am convinced that a lot of meetings will be moved to online forums. There are tremendous amounts of money that can be saved by moving meetings online. This is of course, bad news for airlines and hotels, many of which make most of their profits from business travellers. But it is now clear to everyone that it is possible, and since everyone has to cut back on expenses anyway, the ‘golden travelling days’ will most likely not  return. It is ironic that climate advocates have been arguing for this change, but corona and cost-consciousness have forced us to make the transition. 

However, it isn’t free. “There is no such thing as a free lunch” the Americans say. Great awareness is needed about both the pros and cons of exchanging physical meetings and teaching with online ones. The most important con to me, is this one:

It takes far, far longer and is much, much more difficult to reach a common understanding of a complex matter online.

Using a technical expression there is far less “band width” in the communication between people online. Less information per minute is being transmitted in an online meeting compared to when people are sitting across from each other. But that is not all. It is also much more difficult to get into an agile mode of working together when you do not instantly perceive the other people’s micro reactions, such as eye movements, other facial expressions, shifts in postures and tones of voice. You need a far stricter communication protocol when working together online.  

I have met several and have heard of many more, who believe that also daily work which may include solving complex challenges can be moved online without further considerations. It isn’t even thought of as an issue:

  • One person put forward this view, but it turned out to not really be about dialogues as in meetings and teaching, but more about an online style where information had to be passed along, orders given and reports being returned. And I guess that kind of work can just as easily be done online. 
  • Another manager was also very satisfied with meeting online, it brought with it the convenience of not being confronted with all the constant irritating daily details and issues. The employees, however, became more and more frustrated with not having direct contact and not having anyone to clear the road for them. But listen, is this not just abdicated leadership?. 
  • Several employees have joined the chorus, expressing their contentment with a mere online presence. It saves them the trouble of interacting with others and gives them freedom to structure their work at home. The funniest example I heard though was of a high-school teacher who gave up on her students turning on their cameras, because not everyone was wearing clothes, when participating in online classes from their laptops in their beds. We cannot stay engaged in this way as the power of Teams to solve complex challenges evaporates. 

There is a real risk that if we proceed uncritically working exclusively online without acknowledging the inherent limitations, it will naturally take us in the direction of more top-down management, more distant so-called leadership and less engaged colleagues. This is mainly because the whole social aspect of taking joint responsibility disappears. 

We should not lose the opportunity to learn here. The crisis has taught us that when exposed to the unexpected, resilience is paramount. It is imperative to re-group and use skill sets in new ways. However, if we think we can solve the problems that the crisis has caused us with more upfront planning and more top-down orders, then we are in for a disappointment.

It is not impossible, but it is not free either.

Here are some initial observations after two months on the Corona planet. This is not scientific material containing the weighing of heavy evidence, instead it stems more from the category of anecdotal evidence. However, it is all we have for the moment. 

My basis for the following notes is my own experiences with more than 30 teaching sessions of 3 hours each, at least 50 online meetings, participation in several online courses and summaries from others in the same situation:

  1. Through numerous trials we have discovered that solving a complex task together online takes about double the face-to-face time. This observation is based on tasks where there is initially only fragmented knowledge available in the group. This knowledge then has to be pieced together, solutions have to be found and strategies agreed. It is not just menial work of doing something that has been thoroughly specified beforehand. 
  2. Going through material with people who have to take in knowledge and gain a deep understanding of matters takes longer than doing the same thing in a physical setting. Partly because it is simply harder to take in as much information per unit of time, and partly because longer breaks are also needed, leading to a generally less productive day. Additionally, my fear is that the learning outcome is still of a poorer quality compared to courses run in a physical setting. 
  3. It is unrealistic to hold online classes of more than 10-12 people maximum, compared to the 18-20 which can be comfortably taught in a physical setting.
  4. You “lose” twice as many participants during an online course, in the sense that they mentally check out of the situation. Avoiding this requires much effort to stay ahead and create opportunities for participant engagement. 
  5. It is far more strenuous both giving and receiving information also in online meetings. You feel exhausted after 2 x 3 hour sessions in a day. I have a suspicion that the ones who argue otherwise are the ones who check out mentally regularly anyway and this is even easier to do online.
  6. A lot more time is needed to stop teaching and facilitate feedback. It is also even more difficult for introverts to make themselves heard in an online forum. 
  7. Battling technical issues should not be underestimated. In any given meeting there is  always at least one person who has problems, causing the flow to be interrupted. These issues can be anything from loss of internet connection to someone having difficulty finding a link, loss of sound or mismanagement of some feature or function. This contributes greatly to the general stress level, because everyone is constantly in a default “fault finding mode”.
  8. It is far easier to lose concentration, when you are just facing a screen. The whole of the internet is right by your hand and there are a lot of things that call for our attention. And if we have to start working from home in the midst of private challenges, then I have a few predictions about the results we will achieve. When we are together in a team, we enter into a social context where we take responsibility for each other and help each other, this is blurred in an online setting. The experience is not as tangible and it is quite easy to check out from it. 

We just have to face the fact that when we are dealing with complex tasks online we can probably only manage about half of what we could do in a physical setting in the same amount of time. The difference in time spent is most likely not as big when it comes to Complicated or Obvious Tasks. However, we are in a time of increasing complexity on all fronts and complex issues increasingly need to be dealt with. 

Conclusion and a few pieces of advice

Essentially, what happens when you work online is that the visibility, the transparency between people decreases dramatically. This causes many of the intuitive social regulation mechanisms that we have built into our interactions over time to become disabled. 

  1. Investing in high-quality equipment is generally worth it. This can be: a good headset or an echo-cancelling speakerphone, a good webcam, two screens or more for someone teaching online and a cable internet connection, not wireless. Many companies are having to invest in more bandwidth for their employees whether they are working from home or their offices because so many people are using cameras constantly now.
  2. It is important to encourage participants on courses to turn on their cameras. It is simply not enough to only participate with audio. The video function serves several functions, one of which is for everyone to be able to signal using the camera – holding up a hand, showing a simple drawing or other things. When it comes to online meetings the visual element is just a part of the transparency that everyone has to commit to. To stress the importance of this we no longer accept people on our courses who will not commit to turning on their videos.  
  3. Be aware that more discipline is needed. We start on time and stop on time. It is often necessary for hand gestures before someone new starts to speak. There is also more need for a facilitator who keeps focus on progress and general engagement. For those who work with Scrum: the Scrum Master just added another dimension to her work here! 
  4. Accept that people become tired, really tired from online activities. It requires longer breaks. Do not expect the same results, especially when complex tasks have to be solved online. Double the price is not unrealistic for complex work. Maybe we will adjust to more online work, but it will never be the same. It is simply not the same exchange of information as when people are together in person. It is almost like a natural law and it  should not be overlooked.

It is not impossible to work exclusively online, but it is more difficult than meeting up physically. There is money to save, but it isn’t free: “There is no such thing as a free lunch”.

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