Share your opinion

We are asking our website users for their opinions on the Digital Leaders website. If you’d like your voice to be heard then please complete the survey, which should take approximately 3 minutes.

The dreams and disappointments of digital collaboration

online events

Written by Prof. Alan Brown, Professor in Digital Economy, Exeter Business School

Another day, another set of Zoom meetings. We’ve now become so used to working from home that holding meetings online has become the norm. Fresh cup of tea in hand. Fire up the browser. Adjust the camera. Make sure you’re not on mute. And away you go.

There is no doubt that during the ongoing challenges we’ve faced over the past 2 years, this online way of working has been essential. Maintaining a dialog with colleagues and clients would have been impossible without it. Beyond that, it has been a boon for inclusivity and flexibility. Yet somehow I am losing patience with it and finding the online experience increasingly unsatisfactory. And it seems I am not alone.

 

Zoom fatigue

One of the challenges with a high number of online engagements is that it takes a physical toll on us. In what is now widely known as “Zoom fatigue” (although other online collaboration tools are available ),  it seems that staring for hours at a collection of square boxes on a screen can be damaging to your health (who knew?). Complaints range from increasing neck and back pain to headaches from eye strain.

But the damage from excessive online activity appears also to be psychological. In a detailed study by researchers at Stanford in 2021, they identified 4 psychological causes of “Zoom fatigue”:

  • Too much highly intense eye contact causing stress to all those engaged in the discussion. We’re just not used to being always looked at by a variety of faces all the time. Under the intensity of this gaze, many people become anxious and concerned.
  • Seeing yourself too much on screen is unnatural and disconcerting. We usually don’t look at our own faces very much. Yet here we are staring t ourselves for hours. This personal awareness can cause increased self-criticism and reduce our self-esteem.
  • Reduced physical movement to stay in camera view reduces brain function. The webcam demands we stand in one spot to maintain our image on screen. This reduced movement impairs thought processes and cognitive activity.
  • Lack of physical clues diminish communication and increase uncertainty. In a face-to-face encounter, a great deal of the exchange takes place by interpreting body movements and gestures. Without this our brains need to work extra hard to work out what is being said, or else we miss much of the subtlety of human communication.

If you are curious about how these factors effect you and your team, try their survey to see where you land on the Stanford Zoom Exhaustion and Fatigue (ZEF) Scale.

 

Blurring the lines

But of course, the shift to online interactions is part of a much bigger digital disruption taking place in how we interact, collaborate, and learn from each other. Entertainment, education, esports, and many more industries have been reassessing their delivery models to respond to significant changes in attitudes and expectations for online collaboration. They are all asking fundamental questions about the role of online experiences in our everyday activities.

These concerns were brought home to me in recent conversations with my good friends at Totem. They have been creating a digital platform supporting meetings and events with the aim of enriching the online collaboration between participants. These conversations made me reflect on my own recent experiences taking part in different kinds of online events. Several distinct observations came to mind.

Firstly, as a speaker at several online events, I am increasingly frustrated at the very limited ways I have available to me to interact with the audience. With few exceptions, the technology for online collaboration tends to default to the lowest common denominator across participants. Invariably, this means:

  • Zoom or Teams as the primary communication tool. If you are lucky, then most people will turn on their cameras and you can gain a little encouragement rather than talking to a blank screen. Some interaction is possible through the chat feature, although usually out of sync with the discussions taking place.
  • Slido or Mentimeter as an additional polling tool. These kinds of real-time responses can be very helpful to gain insights from the audience and to encourage a dialog around the key themes being discussed. The challenge is to include them smoothly into the flow of the narrative without causing too much disruption. Swapping between tools creates disconnects.
  • Miro or Mural as shared whiteboard tools. In theory, these support group interaction. In practice, you watch in awe as stickynotes fly around the screen. My personal experience is that they are more of a distraction than valuable information sharing platform.
  • Slack or some other set of online channels as a group discussion tool. Moving conversations into themed channels enables focus and encourages the interactions to continue beyond the current event. However, there tends to be very little management or support for those discussions. Consequently, they invariably fizzle out before making much progress.

Second, I have reached the point where I no longer understand the distinctions between core concepts and categories of collaboration activities. Is this an event or a meeting? Am I part of a continuous learning activity or a discrete intervention? Do I focus on the needs of those in attendance or aim for broader off-line engagement?

Part of the challenge in these interactions is that wherever digital disruption occurs, traditional boundaries between categories are broken down. For example, as products and services are digitized, there is often a redefinition of key characteristics related to access, ownership, agency, and distribution (who does what, who gets what, who governs what).

As a result, when you participate in making an online presentation to a community of colleagues, the context and characteristics of that interaction may be uncertain. Furthermore, as almost everything is recorded and retransmitted in some form, there may be many different (and unbounded) scenarios in which that material will reappear. Legal and ethical issues aside, it is expected today that others will have access where and when they require it.

Third, the direction of travel, we’re told, is that all meetings are “hybrid”. Unfortunately, it can be very unclear what this means. Of course, one key aspect is that some people may gather in person while others are remote. However, much more may be implied. For example, many attendees may register for a meeting but not show up at all. Rather, they watch a recording of the meeting on-demand. Similarly, multiple technologies may be used to support different engagement scenarios, including recorded video, short talks from many presenters, tutorial-style in-depth reviews, breakout session in teams, multi-person panel topics, live Q&A sessions, and more. The variety seems endless.

As an example, consider one of today’s common meeting experiences. An event is publicized as an important in-person half-day strategy session for a broad set of topic experts. Following a 2 hour commute you then find that you are sitting in a room with a handful of others and spend almost all your time staring at a screen where several other have dialled in to participate remotely. Attendance is sparse because many more will wait for the recording of the event and provide their inputs as follow-on emails. Does this experience adequately meet anyone’s needs?

 

What’s next?

There is a great deal of interest and investment in improving the current state-of-the-practice. As our understanding of online interaction grows, new practices are emerging that will help us to optimize for different collaboration scenarios. In parallel, there are many advances being discussed in the burgeoning areas of EventTech, CollabTech, EdTech, and more. Each of these opens up opportunities to add value to how we work together.

Meanwhile, much more substantive visions of the future are underway. Aside from the hype, the massive interest in web 3.0 and the Metaverse can be seen as directly targeting improvements in community and collaboration.

This is an area highlighted recently by Tim O’Reilly. In his blog post from August 2022, Tim explicitly recasts the metaverse as primarily a communications medium rather than a destination. Its aim is to establish connection between people and things in ways that makes sense for the purposes of collaborating and communicating. Seen through this lens, the metaverse will be the mechanisms by which many of the frustrations of trying to digitize the event experience are overcome.

Of course, this vision for the metaverse is some way ahead of the reality. Demonstrations of VR headsets, online gaming, and avatars provide a glimpse of what is possible. How these will evolve to a true immersive collaboration experience is yet to be fully understood.

 

Back to black

Online collaboration has been essential to survive the disruption we’ve all faced over the past few years. It will remain critical in the future. Yet today’s experiences online are too frequently inefficient and frustrating. The growing “Zoom fatigue” may be relieved as we attend more meetings in person. But the hybrid scenarios we encounter can be complex and confusing. Will further digital technology advances be the answer? Or do we need to wait for the promise of a more disruptive approach such as the metaverse?


More thought leadership

Comments are closed.

Join Digital Leaders

By submitting your contact information, you agree that Digital Leaders may contact you regarding relevant content and events.