Zoom has been a lifeline for many businesses during a time of rapid transition, but we're learning it has some serious drawbacks for users.
COVID-19 has turned our world upside down and caused fundamental changes in the way we work. To enforce social distancing in an attempt to stop the transmission of the virus, many businesses have shifted their employees to remote work. The rapid pace with which this happened didn’t leave organizations time to prepare. Instead, they grabbed hold of the most popular platforms to launch them into the 21st century and keep their businesses afloat.
One platform that has seen exponential growth during this quarantine period is Zoom. Zoom is a video and audio conferencing platform that currently sees more than 200 million meetings per day—some of which now include donkeys, horses, and chickens. While the platform has been a lifeline for many companies during this transition, businesses are beginning to take note of the problems that arise when products are pushed past their intended design capabilities—security issues notwithstanding.
Remote work is touted for its many benefits: flexibility to create your own schedule, ability to design your own office space, freedom from distractions (at least for those of us who don’t have children), more time with our loved ones, and no commute. While this may sound idyllic in the best of times, the challenges that come with working from home are exacerbated when it is enforced as our only option. Zoom has been uniquely positioned as the solution to these challenges, but our increased reliance has shown that in its current state, it’s not a 100% solution just yet.
Self-determination is fundamental to our well-being. As humans, we need to feel that we have control over our lives and our choices. But many of us are feeling out of control right now. Not only are we being forced to work from home, but we have to completely reframe the way work gets done.
Zoom has helped us simulate face-to-face meetings. But in an effort to maintain the status quo and ensure everyone feels supported, companies are over-scheduling virtual meetings. While the intentions are good, the pressure to accept the onslaught of invites (out of fear of unemployment or being perceived as not “playing ball”) contributes to this out-of-control feeling, which has been linked to more serious mental health issues like depression.
When we work in an office, there are plenty of opportunities to maintain a connection. Physical proximity makes it easy to stop by our co-worker’s desk or run into them in the lunchroom. But when we’re working from home, staying connected takes a much more conscious effort, which can even feel awkward at times.
Isolation is bad for our brains. Lack of social interaction can lead to mental sluggishness that negatively impacts productivity, stifles creativity, and hinders decision-making. Not to mention, it also increases our risk of cardiovascular disease and depression. To buffer these effects, we are heavily leaning on Zoom. But research shows that online interactions are not the same as in-person ones. According to Olav Krigolson, a neuroscientist at the University of Victoria, the emotional response we get when communicating online isn’t the same as in the real world.
So, couple the extra energy spent trying to maintain relationships with the fact that these online interactions aren’t as rich with connection as in-person, and we’ve got a lot of people at risk for feeling isolated and lonely.
Remotely collaborating requires layers of technological mediation. It’s not as simple as walking into a meeting room, writing on post-it notes, and jamming on ideas. While Zoom is accessible, even for those not technically inclined, there are myriad activities that can make meetings challenging—especially when the group is large. The added steps required to test new software, share screens, wait for audio lags, and not talk over teammates while brainstorming, creates friction and frustration for users.
There are many reasons we find videoconferencing exhausting, but Steven Hickman, the executive director of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, provides an insightful reason as to why our virtual interactions take up more energy than physical. He says there is a different quality to our attention when we are online. We are hyper-focused in a stimulus rich environment, processing visual cues from multiple people at once, yet also distracted, checking emails while we are supposed to be conversing or listening to our colleagues. No wonder we are exhausted—humans aren’t able to multitask in a normal situation, let alone adding on the emotional toll of a pandemic.
We are using Zoom for everything now. In a pre-pandemic era, Zoom was used primarily for meetings, but we’ve since adapted the platform for more informal gatherings, like virtual happy hours or lunch breaks. In a remote context, these gatherings look very different virtually than they do in an office. Instead of small exchanges occurring naturally and concurrently, the group is forced to collectively discuss one topic at a time. And sure, Zoom offers ‘break-out’ rooms, but these need to be mediated by a host. This format not only impedes meaningful connection, but it also alienates personalities that don’t shine in group settings.
As a digital product and service design studio, we understand the importance of designing products to fit users’ needs. While Zoom has done a great job thus far, it is only a temporary solution in its current state. Like every other product and service designed in the pre-pandemic era, Zoom needs to adapt to survive.
As we shift to the age of the virtual customer experience, the digital transformation that many businesses underwent overnight will need to be revisited. The solutions that can truly solve the needs of its users will reimagine their industries and define the next normal that follows this pandemic.
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