The pandemic made us go digital. Let us now stay digital!

Have you had an online meeting today? Chances are you’ve had several. But will you revert back to your old ways ever again? Michael Björn argues that you shouldn’t. Instead, you should go even more digital!

Let us now stay digital

Head of Research Agenda and Quality at Consumer & IndustryLab

Head of Research Agenda and Quality at Consumer & IndustryLab

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I live far from my main office and have been attending meetings digitally rather than in person for years. For that reason, I thought self-isolation wouldn’t impact my work life much at all.

Boy, was I wrong!

One the one hand, this lock-down has elevated me to an equal team member again; and on the other, it’s making work exhausting. And all of this because the digital ways of working that I already practice have gone mainstream in my company.

Let’s start with the good news. Before, I was just a fly on the wall, or more literally, a disembodied speakerphone on an office table. I was added to meetings more as an afterthought rather than actively invited as a participant. It’s not that people were rude or unfriendly, not at all; they just had a natural and very human tendency to forget about me, and maybe slam down their coffee cups, computers and papers around that little speakerphone so loudly that I couldn’t really hear what was going on.

But all of that has changed completely. Nobody ever forgets to screen-share their presentations anymore, or goes off writing things on a whiteboard out of view to electronic participants. Instead, we are all equals in joined isolation. And I am very grateful for that.

But, good things never last, do they? This initial positive surprise has gradually been replaced by a feeling of exhaustion. At the end of the workday, I feel completely drained.

Too keen for the screen

Turns out that I have been struck by what by now is commonly referred to “Zoom fatigue”. Spending lots of time staring into the eyes of many people, who all stare back at you, is quite unnatural and makes you quite tense, as you try to present an acceptable face all the time. No yawning, no untidy hair and certainly no nose picking! Instead, you try to look interested and alert all the time. Video conferences are like watching TV while having multiple TVs watching you back. Quite awful if you think about it like that!

It seems that being ignored by everyone was what made online meetings bearable, and the kind of high-involvement mode that everyone is engaged in now is not at all what physical meetings are like.

Are you suffering with Zoom fatigue?

Are you suffering with Zoom fatigue?

Hence, we need to fundamentally rethink the way these online meetings are done. And I think the main problem is the screens themselves. They are flat, whereas humans are not. I spend a lot of time using VR. Although that is (mostly) outside of work, I can spend hours on end in multiplayer games or other online gatherings without getting fatigued at all, even though most of that time is spent in high involvement and highly performative environments. Meeting someone in VR is less stressful simply because it’s more like meeting someone in the physical world.

For example, if you hear someone talking in VR, you can associate the direction of the sound with the visual location of someone in 3D space. This makes it unnecessary to constantly stare at each other. You may have heard of the 7 percent verbal communication rule, which claims that 93 percent of what is communicated is not actual words said, but things like body language and tone of voice. This is probably grossly overstated, but certainly, being able to see someone move their head towards you is a really good cue that they’re probably going to say something. Seeing other types of body language, such as people articulating what they are saying with hand gestures helps a lot too.

The office of the future? 

The extreme upswing we now see in the use of online communication via the likes of Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, and Teams – due to social isolation caused by the pandemic – is likely to be followed by a big fatigue backlash, and a very high demand for something that is better and feels more natural to use. VR in its current incarnation may not be good enough, but over the next decade this could evolve into a full-fledged Internet of Senses.

Such an environment would be perfect for online meetings. I like to refer to fully developed Internet of Senses services as sensational, partly as a pun on the fact that they involve human senses beyond sight and hearing, but also because they would feel completely and sensationally natural.

For instance, more than 4 in 10 respondents in our study wanted a digital workstation that allows them to be virtually present at work or school from anywhere. By 2030, not only do they want colleagues to appear and sound totally real, they also expect the ability to interact with every object in the room, including tasting a colleague’s birthday cake and being handed a report.

Here’s how the Internet of Senses will make an impact

You may think that this seems too much like sci-fi and instead hope that this pandemic is soon over so that you can go back to ‘normal’ and forget about online meetings. While I share your wish about the pandemic, I would absolutely disagree about the meetings. There can be no going back to pre-corona behaviors. In fact, we must not revert to such behaviors if we care at all about this world we inhabit.

A decade of digitalization

The pandemic is set to cause the largest ever fall in CO2 emissions, with a reduction of 8 percent compared to 2019. This is in fact in line with the 7.6 percent annual reduction needed to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.  While totally abstaining from work related commuting, travel and the use of offices is not the way forward, the least we can do is try to digitalize as much of this as possible in order to act responsibly. Depending on your job role, you might not ever have to go back to the office: Twitter has already announced that some employees can work from home permanently, and other companies will likely follow suit.

Obviously, there are many other activities we should try to keep digital rather than revert to our full scale, pre-pandemic levels. Holiday travel is one of them. As many as 43 percent in our study wanted to experience full-sense immersion into moments of historic significance and drama. The example given was the ability to not only see the ancient remains of Pompeii but taste ancient street food, experience a traditional bath, and feel the scorching heat as Vesuvius suddenly erupts. I’d love to do that myself, to be honest, and I would be willing to give up a physical CO2-emitting vacation for that.

Finally, the online shopping boom that we’re experiencing now due to the pandemic, is something that may also help reduce emissions in the long term, especially if we also digitalize more of the goods and services we’re purchasing. As many as 45 percent say they were interested in a digital shopping mall where by 2030 they can feel the texture of clothes and furniture, smell the freshness of the vegetables and taste samples of foods available for purchase.

Let us make the 2020s the decade of digitalization!

Learn more

Explore our 10 Hot Consumer Trends 2030 report to find out how the internet of senses is shaping consumer expectations.

Browse our other ConsumerLab reports that cover the future of technology.

Read our top 10 working from home tips.

Learn nine ways to manage teams remotely.

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