Video Killed the Office Bully

If you type “hybrid working” into the search bar of any online image bank, the first
page of results will be filled with images of happy workers collaborating across a video
conference. Indeed, it’s become the cliché of the hybrid work environment, with video
conferencing often the butt of office humor. We’ve spent so much time on Zoom, Teams,
Webex, etc. that “Zoom fatigue” recently entered the business language lexicon.

While the growth in video conferencing has been mind-boggling (Microsoft estimates
that online meetings among Team users increased 153 percent between March
2020 and February 2022), video meeting fatigue doesn’t seem to be damaging the
work experience. Rather, video conferencing could be driving some positive effects in
terms of employee engagement.

In its research on how hybrid work conditions impact company culture, MIT Sloan
Management Review found that more than 50 percent of business leaders working
in hybrid environments said the ability to express their personal opinions in the workplace
has improved since the start of the pandemic. Only 7 percent of all respondents
said it had gotten worse. A similar percentage of respondents said that feelings of
inclusion and diversity have improved in their organization.

“Even in regions where expressing personal opinions and ideas is subject to strict
social norms, such as avoiding controversy in a group setting, things seem to be becoming
more flexible,” said MIT SMR researchers. “Respondents in South America and
Asia say the ability to express a personal opinion has improved even more so than in
Europe and the United States.”

Video conferencing, it turns out, could be “leveling the playing field,” offering a
“very powerful tool” to improve the quality and fairness of meetings and discussions,
said researchers at MIT Sloan School of Management. Everyone being in a small box on
the screen, they argue, opens the room to more voices and perspectives and effectively
alters the dynamics of the traditional business meeting.

For starters, online meetings diminish leaders’ ability to control workers with an imposing
physical stance and gestures, said Wayne Turmel, cofounder of the Remote Leadership
Institute. “When people are meeting in person, it is much easier for leaders to use gestures
to show power over the folks in the room,” he continued, “But when everybody is the same
size in a box on a screen, that’s much more difficult to do.”

On most videoconferencing platforms, a skilled facilitator has many tools available to
promote fairness, agreed Thomas Kochan, Professor Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of
Management. Kochan pointed to the ability to mute everyone until they want to speak by
using a raise-your-hand feature. “Doing so prevents more aggressive participants from
interrupting others or speaking over them,” said MIT SMR researchers. The chat function,
meanwhile, allows people to address the group without interrupting whoever’s speaking
and enables private side conversations without distracting others.

And according to Turmel, online/remote meetings have given executives an opportunity
to develop new levels of empathy. “Through remote meetings, they can see what
is going on in people’s lives and relate that to the challenges at work,” he told MIT SMR.
“Before the pandemic, if you were working from home, you kept your phone on mute.
You put the dog in the garage and kept children out of the room. You did everything
to conceal the fact that you were working at the dining room table. But then the pandemic
hit, and we really got to know each other as people.”

Senior executives long have been advised about the benefits of casually chatting
up employees in hallways or by their desks to hear what’s on their minds. This type
of “management by walking around” goes a long way toward making employees feel
heard, while strengthening executive decision making by providing firsthand knowledge
of what’s actually happening in an organization. The challenge, argued Kochan,
is that many executives don’t have the time to walk through offices, especially if the
company has multiple sites. Teleconferencing tools, he said, can make these opportunities
grow exponentially.

So, while online and video meetings may lack some of upsides of in-person engagement,
employee interaction within the digital realm does come with tangible benefits.