Commentary: The trouble with virtual communication

By Dr. Myna German

Jeremy Bailenson, a Stanford Univ psychologist and author of Experience on Demand, has studied virtual communication for twenty years and sees big problems with it compared to “au naturel.” Eye contact is next to nil on Zoom or the equivalent and all you see are technology Gallery grids. You can’t see facial gestures and experience the camaraderie that exists in a big room.

That being said, most of us are happy to have our jobs, compared to those who are unfortunately out of work, because you can’t telecommute to being a security guard in a bank or cleaner in a small store that’s closed. The economy is taking a big hit from COVID-19 so we can’t complain about the tedium of online meetings or missing the repartee in the office at the water fountain or copier room.

Zoom meetings are tiring because most degenerate into a 1-on-1 exchange between the moderator and one person, while an in-face meeting involves chit-chatting among peers that is often more provocative in uncovering real problems outside the hierarchy. Zoom and virtual meetings tend to have a hierarchy of the moderator and the group that is difficult to break and defies communication rules.

No doubt about it, productivity is lost when telecommuting reigns supreme. A Price Waterhouse survey finds that about half of companies believe that they are witnessing a dip in productivity with the shift, but that’s a small price for keeping everyone healthy if social distancing is what has prevented the pandemic from becoming more out of hand.

We are social animals and the loss of camaraderie in the office as a motivating force cannot be underestimated. On the other hand, some call centers in China reported workers were more productive when alone, according to a recent NPR report.

So before we say Zoom is king, let’s think about the alternatives. A walk in the park? A porch-visit? Take a drive around town instead of sitting sedentary by the screen. Talk to your neighbors from a distance of six feet apart perhaps. Don’t fool yourself that online communication is the same as in person. It isn’t!

Dr. Myna German lives in Camden.