While technology connects us, it can never bring us truly together

Technology such as Zoom and Teams may make connecting during lockdown – whether for a funeral, Pride or work – easier but we are all missing real human interaction, something bosses should bear in mind when thinking about the future of work.

I have now attended my first ‘Zoom funeral’. That’s a sentence few of us would have understood a year ago, and yet an uncomfortable reality that many of us have now faced. The technology was seamless and did indeed connect us to an important moment, but it would be hard to argue we were together in the way we needed to be.

I put on a black shirt for the occasion and we gathered round our dining table to watch the service in Ireland. Before and after it, we spoke with friends and relatives who were either attending or equally as distant.

If this pandemic had hit even a couple of years earlier, so much of that day would have been fraught or impossible. We were remarkably grateful for it all, but at the same time it felt a little hollow.

We couldn’t sit in a room with our loved ones and casually share memories of a great life lived; I couldn’t learn more about a lady who I cruelly never properly knew due to the impact of dementia; we couldn’t hug, or hold hands, or sit in knowing silence or shed much needed tears of pain, of sadness, of peace together. Even now we still don’t know how and when we can get over to Ireland and spend much needed time with family there.

The joy of Pride

At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum is my usual experience of June – a month that for me is synonymous with Pride, equality and love. At the end of June last year, I boarded a special Virgin Atlantic ‘Pride Flight’ to New York and spent a long weekend celebrating equal love with friends and strangers alike.

During the trip, we visited the Stonewall Inn and talked about the reality of the riots, the hardships and the battles that had come before us, as well as the lives of those who’ve led the way. That includes many of the black and trans people who are still most persecuted today but who have allowed us to be expressing our own feelings in (relative) freedom.

There are many different ways the LGBT+ community is still coming together in smaller groups and online for Pride, but there’s certainly something missing.

It’s a month when a large chunk of London’s LGBT+ population usually finds itself drinking together in a park at the wonderfully open minded ‘Mighty Hoopla’ festival. It’s a time when the heart of our capital city is usually paused for a day as a Pride March makes its way down Regent Street. It’s a time that companies take little steps that do genuinely make a positive impact to the community, even if we often still ask for more.

There are many different ways this community is still coming together in smaller groups and online, but there’s certainly something missing. Creative Equals research found that 86% of LGBT+ people had struggled psychologically during Covid-19 against a benchmark of 68% for men; 89% of them felt the pandemic will worsen the diversity cause.

In the absence of Pride events many companies have reduced their visual and external support of the community. Some have even switched to using rainbows to mark the NHS this month instead, though I know many have turned the resources internally to support their own people too.

Outvertising, an organisation I am part of that supports and encourages LGBT+ representation in advertising, is hosting a series of virtual events over the coming weeks. At these, you can learn how to be an ally or celebrate with us, but we all know they won’t feel the same as this rare moment when we normally come together physically.

We all understand why and don’t for a minute question the measures being taken to manage Covid-19. But it’s another case in which all the video conferencing, social media posting and message sharing can’t compare to actually being together. On the contrary, a lot of the above has contributed to the exact opposite.

With opinions locked into tweets and humanity-free exchanges, we’ve seen debates raging about gender identity, LGBT+ rights and more. I’m writing this at a moment when the UK Government itself has chosen to take a step back from proposed and well supported reform on their trans and gender identity approaches.

I’m also writing it amid what I hope will one day be remembered as a pivotal change in the discussion and action taken around race issues in our country and around the world. In exceptional circumstances, and with lots to personally lose, we’ve seen people coming together to try and commit to action.

Why Zoom falls short

Yet to really be heard, after decades of being quietly dismissed, people have physically had to come together. Once again, Zoom calls and virtual discussions fall short of the emotion, the reality and the impact this moment needs.

Sadly, Creative Equals also found that 79% of ethnic minorities in our industry feel Covid-19 will make diversity worse, not better. If you aren’t personally thinking of what steps you can take in your own life both personally and professionally you’re doing it wrong.

It’s a lot easier to evangelise about working from home if you’re doing so from a bench in your garden rather than taking the sixth video call of the day on your bed because one of your housemates is using the kitchen table.

Our work lives seem rather mundane in comparison to the heights of emotion all the above moments entail but they’re the everyday embodiment of this. There’s been plenty of talk about how wonderfully disruptive this time has been and how we’ll never go back to how things were. But as we face a unique opportunity to step change how work looks, especially in a creative and flexible industry like marketing, we need to be careful of the difference between technology connecting us and truly bringing us together.

It’s a lot easier to evangelise about the benefits of working from home if you’re doing so from a bench in your sunken garden rather than if you are taking the sixth video call of the day on your bed because one of your other housemates is using the kitchen table.

How marketers can navigate the ‘perfect storm’ of remote working

We’re not just ‘working from home’ at the moment we’re ‘surviving a pandemic’ and that also brings exceptional circumstances with children, our social lives and our willingness to travel. Many of us will be far less enthusiastic about being permanently in our homes when there is an outside world we’re allowed back into again – coming into the office isn’t just about being in the office, it’s about who you can see and what you can do around it too.

The effectiveness of working from home

I think it’s an outright falsehood that we’re all able to be as productive and effective working at home.You don’t have to dig far to hear stories of over burn, long hours, inefficient conversations and exhaustion. I’m sure it works very well for some people in some roles, but that is far from the universal truth some thought pieces espouse.

We forget how handy it is to be able to quickly connect with a colleague on an important matter that doesn’t need a whole meeting but is a bit nuanced for an email. We forget how important it is to connect emotionally and casually by chatting at the water cooler or even just smiling as we pass in a corridor.

We forget how hard conference calls can be for people who struggle with technology, are neuro diverse or for other reasons don’t feel empowered to step up and be the one voice speaking. We forget how important it is to have hard conversations face to face where our own humanity helps disarm the moment. We forget how nice it is to be able to switch off.

We even forget our colleagues, who when out of sight become out of mind. If you drop off an email chain or miss a Teams call, you can be entirely forgotten from discussions with little hope of stumbling back into them. There’s even long-term evidence that while people working from home can be roughly as productive as those in the office, they’re much less likely to be promoted. Connection and visibility matters, and companies looking to radically step change that internally will have to make very concerted efforts to offset the impact.

You need some rules, and to be together when it’s important, but across marketing we’ll benefit hugely from a vast increase in flexibility.

Of course, with technology things are a lot better than they would have been if we’d tried to do this a decade ago, and a decade from now no doubt that will be even more the case. But I’m skeptical that any of the tech solutions will ever solve for all the above, because you cannot build for the casualness of human interaction or the serendipity of bumping into someone.

That is not to say I’m against a step change. I have been lucky enough to enjoy relatively flexible working for many years and I really don’t understand why some firms have remained wedded to presenteeism for so long. You need some rules, and to be together when it’s important, but across marketing we’ll benefit hugely from a vast increase in flexibility.

Our diversity challenges will likely benefit too, as it will help erode many of the personal barriers that have held some of our colleagues back. Being able to plan meetings around school pickups is fantastic. Being able to spend time with loved ones in general, perhaps even spending weeks or months working from another country for times of the year, is an absolute revelation that I hope we find a way to permanently embed.

Yet as much as technology connects us within the industry, and indeed with our consumers, I’m not sure it truly brings us together. We will face huge challenges in getting back into our offices over the coming months, especially while important social distancing approaches remain.

But if you’re involved in that process don’t be too quick to throw out the value of those office spaces and bringing people together, just because a new piece of technology claims it can do it better. The working lives of the future may be very different, but listen to some of the quieter, younger and minority voices in your business on the realities of how you should shape that before you build it around your own life’s image. And remember how the extremes of emotional circumstances in this unique situation highlight just how fallible virtual connections can be.

Jerry Daykin is senior media director at GSK Consumer Healthcare, a voluntary director at Outvertising and a WFA diversity ambassador. For more on Outvertising’s Pride events visit its website.

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