11th July 2021
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Lessons from the Online Digital Experience and the Crisis of Online Engagement
I recently had a major shock: For the first time in more than 16 months I went to a meeting and delivered a presentation in front of a group of a dozen people. Given my role as an advisor and educator, you may find this rather strange, but I felt a bit lost. It is not that I’ve been inactive over the past year. I have been involved in numerous webinars, participated in panel discussions, led conversations with groups of every size. And, of course, been in interminable Zoom, Teams, Webex, and other virtual meetings.
Yet, there is something quite fundamentally different about standing in front of a group of people in a room. Sensing the energy and focus of the people present. Experiencing the physical reactions and interactions as you discuss a key point. Seeing their eyes glaze over when you fumble for the right words. To be honest, after such a long break, I found it quite intimidating. I had a strange sense that I need to learn again how to engage with people.
We have all become used to seeing the world through a mosaic of squares on the screen in front of us. Headshots of people in their living rooms, basements, attics, and spare bedrooms. Intrigued by the blurred backgrounds, bookcases stuffed with books and family photos, partial views of the garden. It has become the lens through which we see the world.
This way of working has brought many advantages to those of us now freed from hours travelling on overfilled trains to spend long hours in soulless cubicles in faceless office buildings. It has opened up many opportunities for online interaction for people living in remote locations, brought flexibility for those with less predictable schedules, increased understanding of the issues of diversity in the workplace, and helped individuals who struggle to develop their inter-personal skills.
But this has come at some cost. For all of us working online over the long period of the pandemic, at the top of our list of issues is the challenge we face as educators and communicators to maintain engagement with those participating in the conversations. For those we can see on screen, it is obvious that much of the time they are bouncing between multiple windows, being distracted by pop up notices about new email, and struggling to shut out a myriad of other distractions going on around them. And for those choosing to switch off their cameras, who knows.
The problem of maintaining attention online is well-documented. Digital technology commentators such as Nicholas Carr have been writing for a number of years about the “what the internet is doing to our brains” and concluding that not only are attention spans getting shorter, but also that digital technologies have an important influence on the ways in which people interact, Sometimes for the better, and sometimes not.
The Covid pandemic has accelerated many of the trends in online communication, education, and interaction. Many of the directions are rather obvious and well-discussed (such as the use of virtual meetings and the rise of online learning platforms). Others are perhaps a little more surprising. In this regard, the excellent Microsoft Work Trends survey from March 2021 is a great example. Amongst its conclusions we see that the data it has gathered from looking at the use of Microsoft products such as Office365 and Teams shows that over the period of the pandemic:
- People’s interactions have increased but their networks have contracted. So, we are spending more time online, but interacting with fewer people.
- Time spent in meetings has more than doubled. Far from being isolated online, we are more engaged. How productively and whether this is sustainable remains to be seen.
- Feedback from online users of Microsoft technologies reveals that the deeper integration of digital technologies into their home-based workplaces means that many people feel they now bring more of themselves to their work activities than they previously did and feel more connected to their work colleagues as a result.
The implications for digital online engagement are immense. And the ongoing analysis is raising many questions for those in leadership roles, HR specialists, educators, communicators, and many more. There are three areas where I believe we need to pay particular attention.
First, as we come out of the lockdown restrictions many have experienced, we must reassess interaction techniques to understand how to deliver face-to-face engagement in a world that has shifted substantially. Will the approaches used almost 2 years ago still be accepted today? Have attention spans for students and participants lowered? Do we need different ways to structure communication, sharing, and learning sessions for individuals who now expect more autonomy and control over their interactions?
Second, as many have discussed, we expect the future to require support for a varied set of hybrid interactions. The considerable positive benefits of hybrid interaction approaches must be maintained. Yet, the disadvantages inherent in remote working require significant attention. What are the lessons for designing hybrid interaction approaches? How do we strike the right balance between insisting on face-to-face interactions and supporting remote approaches? Can we afford the costs of supporting and maintaining hybrid styles of interaction?
Third, there is no doubt that we are in a period of intense uncertainty and inevitable volatility on many fronts. The implications for how we interact online are unclear. How do we move forward quickly in the context of these unknowns? What kinds of flexibility must be built into our working and interaction approaches? What are the best ways to share lessons and best practices to benefit our communities?
Meanwhile, all of us must adapt quickly to adjust our ways of working and interacting. We are all aware that returning to old ways may not be possible as we start to move out of our attics and basements and back into the office, classroom, and boardroom. I am just hoping that I’ll remember not to show up in my pyjamas!
Digital Economy Tidbits
Why pivoting people is a strategic priority. Link.
No startling insights here, but a good summary of the opportunities and challenges for people in the workforce as we transition in post-pandemic to a digital economy.
The pandemic made it necessary for companies to make strategic pivots to adapt to rapidly changing environments. To meet these new demands, they must also pivot the people within their organizations. Pivoting people refers to a form of talent management that focuses on retraining employees so that they can fill those jobs or roles most closely aligned with an organization’s strategic direction. Preparing employees now, through reskilling and upskilling, will allow organizations to move forward without forcing their employees to adapt on the fly — or, worse, to fail.
The great resignation. Link.
I know from personal experience that many people have taken the last few months as time to reflect on their lives, jobs, and what they want to do with their time. And as a result, I know several people who have quit their jobs, moved on to other roles, or simply walked away. Until now, I had not realized how big a phenomena this was!
In what’s been dubbed the “Great Resignation,” 4 million people, or 2.7% of US workers, quit their jobs in April. That’s a record going back to 2000. In all, 41% of workers globally are considering leaving their current employer this year, according to a survey from Microsoft.
What’s behind this move? Lots of theories have been put forward:
Experts have floated several explanations to interpret all the quitting:
· Workers who didn’t like their jobs but stuck with it during the pandemic are…not sticking with it anymore.
· Many are retiring early after cashing in on a booming stock market and rising home values.
· People have reevaluated their career paths after an “unprecedented” year which allowed for more reflection.
· In that same vein, people might be looking for a job that allows for better work-life balance.