Management Kept Talking About “Connectivity” In The Workplace
Turns out they weren’t talking about network drop outs. So what were they on about?
“We need to talk about connectivity”, my manager said during a video-conference team meeting about a year ago. “Yes”, I responded, “the network connection is really unreliable and IT support needs to be a lot more accessible”.
But she wasn’t talking about tech issues. She was talking about staff members connecting with each other. Since then, connectivity has become a buzzword denoting some kind of social glue that binds people in the era of COVID-19 workplace arrangements.
I grappled with this strange new concept and realised that it meant something quite different to my idea of connecting with colleagues.
It meant setting up a regime of workplace video-conferencing meetings: section meetings, team meetings and one-on-one “catch ups” with managers. Add to this any number of impromptu video calls managers would make to a staff member whenever the whim took them. This was on top of the timetable of meetings I had for various committees and working groups.
It didn’t felt like connectivity. It felt like surveillance. It was a level of monitoring we would never have been subjected to in the office where it was quite common for me to be left alone for a whole afternoon. Now, the only way to achieve that would be to turn off my computer and phone.
I was not lacking interaction. I’d had more interaction than ever before. If I needed anything else, it was solitude.
It felt presumptuous, coercive and maybe just a bit ableist. It was driven by the assumption that having more contact was good for everyone. But some people prefer to be left alone. Some people find video-conferencing intrusive. Some people have sensory-processing issues that have them jumping out of their skin by the third video-conference of the day.
Imposing interaction for its own sake just doesn’t make sense.
Connectivity isn’t going to come from the kind of artificial and stilted chit-chat that you get in video-conferencing. If I’m going to connect with someone it’s going to be because we’re discussing something of substance: sharing ideas and developing them; tossing around options for problem solving.
Small talk just doesn’t flow when you try to to it electronically. The medium is too purpose driven. You just do what you need to do and get off. It’s not conducive to lingering in the way that you might after an in person meeting. And I’m just not going to use up valuable sensory processing by spending longer in front of a screen than I have to.
Someone tried to get a regular Friday afternoon drinks Zoom session off the ground. It was a nice thought but my capacity to keep up with a chaotic group conversation on a screen at that stage of the week was nil. We may as well have been in a noisy nightclub.
I’ve actually managed to do alright with one-on-one video-conferencing, provided I’ve got some control over when they happen. They don’t seem to be bad approximation of what happens in person and I’ve managed to have some good discussions that way.
But the kind of interaction presented as promoting connectivity left me cold, offering only the most superficial interaction. I felt at the same time overstimulated and undernourished, hollowed out and craving substance.
True human connection doesn’t come from meetings. It’s not even really something you can plan. It comes from the little things that unfold during the day in an organic way. The kitchen/lunchroom banter. Catching up to someone as you walk from the station. Debriefing with colleagues after a difficult client. An unexpected meeting in the lift with an old colleague. These kinds of serendipitous encounters that add colour to your day aren’t things you can recreate electronically.
Now that I’m back in the office a few times a month, I’m starting to populate my day with little morsels of connection: having a pub lunch with colleagues, dropping by their desks during the day.
You can’t manufacture human connection and you can’t decide what it means for others. You have to give people the space to find it themselves in their own way, if and when they need it.