Zoom is Dehumanizing

When the shutdown first began and everyone was forced online we had Zoom happy hours and Zoom reunions and Zoom drop-ins with people we hadn’t seen in a long time. We felt so connected. We couldn’t imagine the isolation of stay-at-home orders without the blessing of technology. Zoom helped us fill gaps in our need for other people. But now those gaps are vast chasms and we need to see each other face to face. Sure, the vaccines led us to declare the pandemic over. But so did Zoom fatigue.

Zoom has made us adept at making points succinctly, which is a valuable skill, as it has made us one dimensional in our interactions with others. Especially at work. We are mere thumbnails on a screen, disembodied heads speaking to a gallery view of people who may be paying attention or may not. I’ve been in meetings where people have their cameras off, making it impossible to know if they’re even there. And I know that when that green light on the laptop is on, to everyone on the call you look engaged regardless of what you’re really looking at on your screen.

We can only prove we’re always working while at home if we’re always in meetings. Productivity measures risk becoming judgments of how often one is logged in on Zoom, looking at faces, whether anything is getting done or not. Meetings just for the sake of having a meeting have always been a thing. Now they’re a job description.

In a counterintuitive way this impulse to always appear working by engaging on Zoom risks jeopardizing true engagement. And it risks the purpose many of us look for, and find, in work.

Many will say it’s wrong to seek self-definition in work, and what we do for a living should not be considered who we are. But that oversimplifies the fact that we spend many, if not most, of our waking hours at work and these hours certainly do influence and express our values, our core beliefs and our reason for being. For many of us work is our primary means of self-expression. When we express ourselves we seek feedback: empathetic, consultative feedback. We look for clues in our boss’, coworkers’ and customers’ or clients’ behavior. We look for clues about how we are doing. We require communication.

Communication requires more than just words. It’s a two-way process that relies on body language, facial expressions and pauses that linger for contemplation in the space we occupy together during a conversation. Absent all that we are just being spoken to if not lectured. The give and take of collaboration on ideas draws on how we relate to each other, and that relation often requires presence. On screen we are more likely to jump in and fill up thoughtful pauses and to rehearse what we will say next instead of truly listening. We’re unlikely to fully see our collaborators or fully understand the depth of their ideas. We’re unable to relate to a person who is a mere thumbnail on a screen.

I remember the long telephone conversations I’d have with friends when I was a kid. Most of the time they were anticipatory of what we would do or what we would discuss when we were together. They left us wanting to see each other, or longing if that was not possible. They often ended in plans of things to do and anticipation of personal contact. Those phone conversations were links in the true, in-person work of developing a relationship. Like those phone calls Zoom meetings can supplement in-person experiences. Like those phone calls Zoom can reinforce a relationship, or an idea, and add to its expression. But like those phone calls a Zoom encounter is never enough. We need contact. We need to be with people.

We’re curious. We like to know things about the people we work with. We need to find things we share in common. Yet this exploration is most often done informally without an agenda. Those water cooler conversations that expose information about where we live, our families, our hobbies. That’s how we come to know, and to trust, each other. But almost no one signs onto Zoom just to chat anymore. There’s always an explicit purpose for a meeting and someone who directs the conversation. There’s little room for discovery of interesting things that are off topic. And when explorations of people as individuals are prompted on a Zoom call, when small talk is encouraged, it always feels uncomfortable, scripted, even disingenuous. What could become a moment of true discovery comes off as a mere icebreaker in which we present some version of ourselves we think will impress – not who we really are.

Then there’s the ease with which people are dismissed. It’s simple, natural even, to disregard a person you barely know. New hires on Zoom have enormous difficulty fitting in to cohesive groups because those groups are formed by banter and activities often impossible, even discouraged, on Zoom. And while development of talent and connection online is difficult, firing someone you don’t really know, someone you’ve never even shared a coffee or a handshake with, is dreadfully easy. Little commitment is made to a person not seen as a full person. Yet that is all Zoom can offer to most virtual employer-employee relationships.

I know some companies get it right. I know Zoom has its benefits and Zoom work is here to stay. But I can’t for the life of me understand why everyone does not want to rush back to working in-person, together. Yes, commutes are terrible. Yes, it’s great to wear sweats and work with the dog at your feet. But I fear we risk creating a class of workers who are more expendable, people we are less invested in, the longer we remain virtual. Sometimes work gets uncomfortable. While we can’t avoid conflict, we must find ways to work together if we are to be fully human in our interactions, and this requires inquisitiveness and acceptance, confrontation and collaboration. These things are less likely on a Zoom call when that red leave meeting button tempts you on the screen. You can’t grab someone on the way out of the meeting for clarification. You often can’t follow up once the host has ended the meeting. While on that screen you have your shot to make an impression, and with no in-person interaction it may be the only chance you get. We’re complex individuals. We have much to offer. Unfortunately, Zoom is not a very good forum in which to express the many facets of who we are.

In order to establish and maintain a culture we must come together and work together in all our humanity. Double emphasis on the word together. In-person. If we’re to be reduced to mere avatars on display, always on task, speaking when spoken to strictly about the issue at hand, we may as well be replaced by artificial intelligence. But we’re human, and we’re social creatures. We crave and desire contact and find meaning in community. Zoom can supplement this, but it cannot replace engaging all of our senses in communion with others. As we come out of the shutdown let’s come out of the home office and return to true collaborative work. Work that engages all of our promise and possibility, with all the rewards of the social aspects of work. With each other, breathing the same air as we speak, explore and solve problems and seize opportunities. Our mental health requires it.

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I aim to keep this newsletter free, but it does require a good chunk of time each week. One way you can help me to continue is to subscribe and share this content. Another way, one which helps pay the bills, is to purchase a copy of my book Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis for yourself or for a loved one who may benefit from it (buy a copy here or click on the image of the book below). Thanks for reading me. If you’d like to be in touch contact me at george@practicingmentalillness.com. Please spread the word.