Many of us have been spending an increased amount of time at our desks, hooked up to Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Messenger or some other online video/chat/conferencing/calling technology in a desperate attempt Keep Calm and Carry On. It doesn’t really matter whether you are staying in touch with friends and loved ones, running a business, learning new skills or any of a myriad of other things, online meetings have become a normal part of our days and will persist long after the intense effects of COVID have diminished.
Microsoft reportedly has seen a more than doubling in daily active users on its Teams platform to 75 million and 2.7 billion meeting minutes in one day. That was in April 202, who knows what the numbers look like now – lots is a good guess. Meanwhile, Zoom was seeing 300 million daily meeting participants.
And ‘Lots’ is what has been written about how to use these various platforms, ranging from best practice and technical guidance through security concerns to etiquette and avoiding online faux pas.
I’m going to try to avoid all of those and be a little more speculative, and think about some social impacts…
We are all equal online
I’ve often pondered the inherent inequalities of our lives. To claim that we are “All created as equals” seems evidently untrue and denies the marvellous variation in humanity. I’m far more inclined towards the subverted version “We are all created unequal”, in an optimistic way (noting that, sadly, inequalities benefit some individuals in some environments more than others). Our personal formation, genetic and environmental, determine who we are and in what we might excel. The fortunate amongst us discover our strengths and are able to benefit from them in the environments we live in. For example, I can ‘see’ patterns and respond rapidly to visual data; my wife can see numeric relationships and responds rapidly to tables of data – we have our differences that are strengths or weaknesses depending the context and shape our careers, the tools and techniques we use. I need rich visual reports, she needs cleanly presented tables. What’s true in our household at a micro scale is equally at the macro-scale, where they develop based on the mixture of skills and attributes in their general population, selecting some as more important and others as undesirable. This is true in organisations, friendships and our wider societies.
Where am I going with this, you might ask? Well, corporate environments arguably favour bold, strong, articulate, extrovert individuals; classic ‘D’ personalities as described by DiSC, even though all the evidence is that almost all personality types can be effective leaders and successful people.
In the work context, the shy, quietly considered, humble, calm, conscientious etc. are easily overlooked in favour of the louder, brasher types who make it their mission to be remembered. It’s not just personality: gender, race, social background and too many other things that define us are, nevertheless, the basis for how others perceive and value us. Countless times I have seen brilliant co-workers overlooked on some spurious or unconscious basis. At this time of Black Lives Matter, LGBTI and other focus on injustice, this is more pertinent than ever.
“We are all created unequal”
By now you are possibly wondering what all this has to do with online existence; thanks for sticking with me. I have observed that online behaviour can be markedly different from in-person behaviour. Perhaps it’s the slight time lag introduced by the technology; perhaps the lack of pheromones, equalisation of physical presence or a sense of security that digital distance affords. Whatever the cause, and interactions are different and I see unexpected personality types prosper at the expense of their more bullish counterparts. Physicality no longer dominates the interactions; I see the more quietly spoken and oft-ignored, adapt to the new circumstance and step forward at exactly the moment that those who relied on different skills and ‘charms’ struggle to apply what has always worked before.
I wonder if the pandemic and its attendant transition to greatly increased online living will be seen by future generations as a great leveller event, easing out gender and racial bias, unconscious prejudices and unacceptable behaviours in favour of more egalitarian interactions. I certainly hope so