On this #ThrowBackThursday, I invite you to take a step back to reflect on our love/hate relationship with virtual working and its enabling technologies. In 1964, Marshal McLuhan coined his famous phrase, “The medium is the message,” to describe how our technology influences society in his classic work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Fifty-seven years later, his insights are more relevant than ever as we consider the monumental impact of the pandemic on our habitual ways of working. Let’s explore.

We’re only human, after all.

Here in Canada, as business rolls into Q4 amidst the pandemic’s 4th wave, hopes of a complete return to “normal” work-life are on hold. While some have transitioned back to the office, many companies have backtracked their plans, still grappling with hybrid work logistics and complying with social distancing rules. And, much to everyone’s despair, the feasibility of delivering in-person events remains a mixed bag. So, despite a resurgence of face-to-face connection, the need for online meetings and virtual events isn’t going away anytime soon.

Big Brother doesn’t trust you.

The pros and cons of remote working and its impact on productivity and corporate culture are well documented. We won’t go deep on that now. But considering the most common complaints from employees, missing genuine human contact with co-workers has been paramount during pandemic isolation. Hard to argue with that – we are social beings, after all. Ironically in McLuhan’s time, people said the same thing about TV killing cherished family time at the dinner table – but it didn’t stop our obsession with it nor acknowledging its value as an educational medium.

Employees also cite so-called  “Zoom fatigue” as a pervasive ill, given expectations to be online in meetings all day long and worse – in some cases – their presence tracked by employers to ensure people are working a full 9-5. This lack of trust reflects the old 19th-century factory mindset that presence equals productivity – and standing over someone’s shoulder is the best way to keep them on task. Is it fair to say corporate cultures clinging to this attitude are as much responsible for exhausting people and contributing to a negative experience?

Can we really blame technology, whatever the platform, for existential angst?

The introduction of virtual conferencing and collaboration technologies (long before the pandemic) was disruptive in that it opened the door to challenging the status quo. It provoked the question, “Could this be a better way?”. Free employees from the tyranny of the daily commute and enable them to strike a better work-life balance for both well-being and productivity? Corporations were hesitant to embrace this radical change en masse. It took the forced chaos of the pandemic for many to see proof that embracing virtual working was not only a lifeline keeping business afloat but a productive way to achieve business results.

Cover of 1964 edition, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
Image Source: en.wikipedia.org

The Medium is Still the Message

Circling back to McLuhan’s theories, we can glean some striking insight from his musings on the impact of a light bulb. As noted in this summary of McLuhan’s book, it states:

“A light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs, yet it is a medium that has a social effect; that is, a light bulb enables people to create spaces during nighttime that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness. ” You might extend this impact statement by saying it expands the potential for human creativity and innovation to flourish.

“He describes the light bulb as a medium without any content. McLuhan states that ‘a light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence.’ That is the medium’s message.

Sound familiar? Virtual conferencing platforms enable people who would otherwise not have an opportunity to meet to connect, collaborate and co-create amazing things together. Virtual platforms have no content, but their presence creates an environment with unlimited potential.

Companies that can embrace this potential will be the ones to thrive in the future of work. What if you only hold meetings for essential purposes? Create outcomes-focused workflows, so it doesn’t matter when people work if deliverables are on time? Create a safe space to engage in critical conversations, enable knowledge transfer across dispersed teams, commit to team-building activities to foster trust, and engage employees in fun game-based learning experiences? (Shameless plug).

Technology is just the medium, and in terms of its social effect – how you use it in the workplace will determine a positive or negative impact. For L&D leaders, the challenge is to help people gain the skills to thrive in virtual environments.

What is your experience with virtual working?  What skills do you think are essential for success in the #FutureofWork?