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What did the office ever do for us?

Matt Smith

April 21, 2020

Matt Smith is director and chief content officer of WHJE and MD of WPB

You can probably tell from the fact that I chose to paraphrase Reg, the leading conspirator of the anti-imperialist movement in the Life of Brian, that I am not totally smitten with home-working.

I may be playing my part in managing our public health risk but my video-conference frustrations make me nostalgic for office life.

The lockdown has provided many opportunities to enjoy the plethora of home-working platforms; Powwownow, Zoom, FaceTime, Teams and Skype are all variations on a theme that have become indispensable to home-working. (I’m tempted to add ‘Houseparty’ to the list but as yet have not used that enough to understand its real USP and I may be too old to do so).

Having used all of them with varying degrees of aplomb, I’ve noticed they fail to deliver (unlike the humble telephone) on one very important level – they do not convincingly energise or flatter their users. Nobody wants a daily diet of poorly lit, largely static viewing, fatigued conversations that go on far longer than they should.

We are, whether we like it or not, becoming the presenters of our own one-man/woman shows. It has fostered in me a new appreciation of TV studio production values and anchor presentation skills. The only difference with video-conferencing is that, so far, no-one to my knowledge has admitted having ‘turned over’ mid-call because they found what they are watching a ‘bit crap’.

Going visual changes everything. Our brains are particularly adept at processing visual information – likely tied to the fact that 70% of all our sensory receptors are in our eyes.

We have plenty of senses but for most of us, sight is the primary way we navigate the world. This is fine but when we watch people on video-conference I wonder if we really listen or do we go into TV mode and let it wash all over us? If we are not personally engaged do we by habit switch off?

I have to conclude that in the long-term we, and the technology we use, need to become better at video conferencing if we are to ‘take people’ with us on a call.

The process at the moment is too leaden, prone to breakdowns and results in a procedural conversational exchange that is reminiscent of the Chuckle brothers’ ‘from me to you, to me, to you‘ line though not nearly so funny.

Also why is it these platforms only freeze when one of the participants (usually me) looks like Ed Miliband choking on a bacon sandwich?

These calls will invariably improve when they are broken up by vignettes of surveys or film footage and each of us participating adopts a more watchable persona.

Video-conferencing will become performance art so the answer is more practice and better performance both from participants and the technology we use.

But even then I shall still miss the live theatre of the office which has given me many things over the years – not least some welcome respite from home, routine, a semblance of a career, some good friends and Ricky Gervais’ inspired comedy epic.

What did the office do for us, Reg? Quite a lot actually.


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