What’s wrong with 'virtual'?

Ultimately, the biological machinery of our brains demands that we have human contact, so let’s not try to reverse millenniums of human DNA coding


By Kevin-James Fenech 

Kevin is the founder and owner of JOB Search - jobsearch.mt and FENCI Consulting fenci.eu.

The recent COVID ‘semi-lockdown’ invariably impacted how working people hold meetings. All of a sudden there was a massive surge in the use of virtual platforms such as Teams, Zoom, Google Meet, Skype, etc.

With nearly four months experience now of virtual meetings, I can safely and confidently say that the ‘virtual’ is inferior to the ‘physical’. It simply isn’t as good as the ‘real thing’ and I don’t think I am alone in thinking this.

First, virtual meetings tend to artificially manufacture one-way communication rather than foster two-way (or more) human interaction.

By this I mean, a virtual meeting only works if one person speaks and the rest of the participants listen. The minute several people try to engage in a conversation it becomes deafening and confusing.

Second, you lose the ability to read body language and sense emotional energy. Human beings ‘encode’ (the ability to read peoples’ cues) and ‘decode’ (the ability to send cues) other p[eoples’ body language when in a physical meeting. Granted some do it better than others but it’s just the way humans are genetically wired. We look at facial expressions, notice hand gestures, body movements, tone or pitch of voice and most importantly we instinctively sense people.

Experienced managers and leaders can judge and evaluate people this way and it helps them in the running of a business and/or taking decisions. All this, however, is diluted, if not completely lost, when interacting with people virtually.

Third, virtual meetings are much more draining than physical ones. If you have an afternoon of back-to-back virtual meetings you are stuck to your seat for what seems like an eternity, your eyes glued to a screen and the effort required to make the meeting work is much greater.

So instead of feeling energised and satisfied from physical meetings, I find virtual meetings exhausting and frustrating. It is also dead easy to get distracted and difficult to engage in a deep discussion.

My son for instance, had virtual school during COVID and he hated every minute of it. His attention span dropped dramatically, he sorely missed physical interaction and he lost the stimulation he used to get from being in a class full of children.

As a result, his learning suffered and his frustration with school escalated. My son loves human interaction and meeting people gives him energy. Other kids however, the more introverted types, conversely became very unsociable and withdrawn. The COVID lockdown made them more socially inept and left them psychologically distressed.

The whole point of school is not just the learning of things but it is about the physical interaction with other children. Virtual school was necessary but completely inadequate during COVID.

My point is that humans need human interaction and the virtual world does not satisfy this need.

Therefore, the workplace need not undergo a virtualisation revolution costing businesses thousands of Euro since ultimately we still need physical contact with our fellow work cohorts.

I mean it is a bit like shopping; sometimes nothing beats the ease and convenience of shopping online from a site like Amazon.

Yet other times nothing beats walking in and out of shops, trying things out or trying things on, interacting with people, squeezing in an espresso and catch-up with a friend, stopping for lunch and then doing some more shopping.

We need and we love both.

The same applies to meetings: we need both virtual meetings (sometimes) but also physical meetings (always). I would actually go as far to say: only hold a virtual meeting if a physical meeting is not possible. We are only human after all!

When we physically meet our work colleagues, customers or suppliers, we have an opportunity to build trust, to engage, to bond or share, to nurture a relationship, etc. Whereas, if we were to go 100% virtual post-COVID, I think work relationships would suffer; trust between us will weaken; and engagement levels will drop. Virtual only works as a second option.

Ultimately, the biological machinery of our brains demands that we have human contact, so let’s not try to reverse millenniums of human DNA coding.

I therefore strongly believe that virtual leads to poor human relations and ultimately loneliness which undermines a strong work place. Let’s fight to keep face-to-face meetings for our sanity and happiness.

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