To Zoom or Not To Zoom? Which Is More Productive?

To zoom or not to zoom? Which is more productive, satisfying and enjoyable? Face to face meetings or zoom interactions? Universities, corporations, churches, offices of all types and varieties, must all wrestle with this challenge.

The answer seems obvious: getting together within grabbing distance beats the alternative, hands down.

How do we know this? That is the choice made by all such organizations composed of dozens, scores, hundreds and even thousands of people who interact with one another. They could have decided otherwise before Covid. Zoom and Skype were available long before this disease impacted us. Meetings in person passed the market test with flying colors, under ordinary circumstances.

After that bug struck, the calculation radically changed, of course. But at present, either due to changing statistics and/or many of us becoming sick and tired not only of Covid, but also of being locked down and masked up, the issue once again arises. Many corporations are now asking, cajoling, demanding, that their employees show up for work at the central office at least one or a few days per week. This is a hard sell, since workers have become accustomed to attend meetings with a commute on their part of 25 feet or so — from their beds or kitchen tables to their desks where their computers are located — instead of one of many miles and many minutes. Gasoline prices are up a bit too, in case anyone has noticed.

To sweeten the deal and render old style commutes more acceptable, firms are now offering all sorts of perks to an even greater degree than before: coffee and soda pop on the house, free meals, t-shirts, elaborate office parties, even meetings with famous musicians and movie stars for some of the larger companies. (This demonstrates that labor unions are hardly needed to encourage employers to treat employees well. Do they do this out of the goodness of their hearts? Maybe, to some small degree. But there are also profits in them thar hills to be garnered from stepping up these “working conditions”).

But the battle is by no means over, at least not yet. For which really brings about better communication and cooperative interaction, which, after all, is the main purpose of working together in one big office building? Is it personal get togethers where everyone is masked up, or zoom meetings in which everyone can see everyone else’s full face, not just much of their heads?

At first glance it would appear that proximity has it all over electronics. That at least seems to be the decision of the marketplace so far; many major firms are calling back their teams to the central office place albeit only haphazardly and partially.

However, it might be argued that they reckon without full appreciation for the fact that we are all lip readers, at least to some extent, even if for the most part unconsciously. Deaf people to a great degree are masters of this skill. But the rest of us, too, understand more of what speakers are saying when they do not cover their mouths with their hands – nor with a mask. That is to say, ease of communication – after all, the main desiderata of this new initiative – may actually be more effective when the listeners can see the entire face of the speakers, via zoom, than when geographically juxtaposed given compulsory facial coverings.

So it is not merely a matter of weighing better communication versus the time and effort it takes to commute. It is not fully clear that the transfer of information can be better achieved in person than electronically. This is an empirical question, one, presumably, that the free market will weigh in on, anon. This jury is still out.

Reprinted with the author’s permission.