How to really work and lead from home. Hint: it is still about work.

No, it is not about you. 
Or how you look on webcam. 
Or about your home. 
Or curating the background with stuffed animals.
Also, it is not all about seeing faces. 

 — It is about people doing work together. 
And how leaders do their work.
And then zoom fatigue will be gone.

“Wait, this doesn’t work in zoom — aahh, that worked in MS Teams, or was it in”

Video conference fatigue? Tired of listening to Talking Heads? 

Let’s start with the obvious: video conferencing makes us all tired. As we all were becoming experts (or at least „experts“) in the recent weeks – we participate in heated discussions about appropriate measures related to COVID-19, about reproduction numbers and herd immunity, we also can describe the advantages of Microsoft teams and the disadvantages of zoom, we are proud because we know how to mute somebody or to operate the screen sharing feature („Wait, this doesn’t work in zoom – aahh, that worked in 3CX, or was it in“).

Apart from the technical limitations – we painfully experience that technology is always „poor technology“. No matter what the WLAN bandwidth, the resolution of the camera, the software; we are experiencing the limitations that these forms of communication impose on us in terms of our ability to communicate and interact. We learned the effects of exponential growth – this may be applied to corona, our video conferencing knowledge, and our frustration with it.

„Communication Jazz„, the ability to talk to each other, to agree with each other via verbal signals, to add half-sentences (which more rigid contemporaries would misinterpret as interrupting each other), this liveliness of a communicative interaction, which is not only factually but also emotionally enriching, is difficult.

Even though touch & feel can only be insufficiently emulated; yet in the past weeks, many of us described a new get-together, a new community – people took the time to address and express feelings, there was a higher sense of attention, people were happy to hear from each other (probably this was the case many decades ago, when a telegram was thoughtfully decorated with a few words to form a precious letter).

We all know that. Still, after the first challenges and euphoria, something has changed.

Learning a different, new language – the language of digital communication.

At the beginning, it even may have felt great. We learned some new skills. We started from scratch, learned to do „baby steps“. It was curiosity, joy, and as everybody started to walk like toddlers, we felt a certain feeling of community and belonging. We felt like members of a task force, commanding our forces from our dinner table. We felt that we were in this together.

This was fostered by two other, quite rare phenomena. With all the challenges that the current situation poses to us, these two aspects were somehow helpful so far for leaders to connect with their people. These factors already became fragile or are being eliminated anyway:

First, it was an unexpected common focus of attention, a kind of pull on Corona or Covid-19. We had a common focus. This focus brought us together – even if only temporarily.

Second, it was the shared emotional situation: in the beginning insecurity, paired with curiosity and anxiety, anger, frustration, joy, gratitude – we were able to connect emotionally (even if the motives and situations that triggered these feelings were very different – one was overwhelmed, either because one had too much work, was out of work, had to work from home, had short-time work; because one lived alone, lived with the family, still lived with the ex etc.).

This common attraction of attention and the high emotional congruence gave some people the illusion of a new community or solidarity, coupled with a pause, that now many things would be different, humanity would grow together. These illusions are just about to burst when one listens to the variate of interpretations of the feasibility of measurements, the rising unemployment rates, all existing division are becaming painfully visible, again.

Also, the crisis or survival mode, which created the first weeks in the offices transplanted into the living room with all its significance, its energetic pressure to act, is slowly fading out. There will be a time after COVID-19 and until then a very long time with it. The sprint became a 1000-meter run, then a marathon, now an ultra-marathon or a hare & hedgehog run with moving targets.

The difficulty of balancing strength and endurance, at the same time combining confidence and pessimism into a sustainable realism, balancing anticipation and exhaustion, is challenging when path and goal are unknown. Driving on sight is only successful if you basically know where you want to go, when you are „there“ and what the road is like.

Adapting to a profound change process is mainly done by processing emotions; it also costs a lot of energy. We do not have comparative patterns of behavior available. Only a few of us have experienced wars, and no pandemic of a similar magnitude. Our minds are overwhelmed, our (even healthy) narcissism is offended, our control illusion gone. And now this zoom thing….

We have sobered: after the first, exciting steps and experiences, all new wears off. We now experience digital communication, digital leadership as a painful experience, as it requires a profound rehearsal of cultural techniques: how do these digital forms of communication work, what is possible with them? What is not? And: how can I design, use and perhaps even enjoy digital leadership, virtual communication and collaboration?

Talking heads – Is that digital leadership?

It is natural, habitual, self-evident and also helpful that when we communicate with each other virtually, we focus on the other person, his or her face, and that we are seen. After all, the camera on the laptop is attached there. This serves the communicative, interactive aspect of leadership: talking to people, listening to them, perceiving them.

Seeing faces. Seeing hands. Seeing ends.

The narrow focus on the faces of others or the other person on my face is only very limited level of interaction. „Seeing faces“ is important. What is at least as important is „seeing hands“, metaphorically: it is seeing work, how work unfolds, how work is created as a collaboration of many hands, and the ability to observe how collaboration happens. That is collaboration. Actually, working together.

Collaboration is not virtual pinboards or digital post-it walls, which are now establishing themselves in the first virtual euphoria of online conferences, where a multitude of digital post-its are pinned and moved back and forth. This might be interesting for brainstorming, but is that work? Is that working together?

Writing post-its and putting them on walls was already a hype in the agile scrum world, lulling people to think that spending ours and days in agile routines was real work. Maybe it is helpful to pause before we take this to the virtual sphere.

The „work“ of leadership in this 2.0, 3.0 or x.0 world

In this x.0 world, leaders experience virtual, remote communication as especially annoying and empty. Maybe for good reasons: missing the satisfying effects of being together, chatting together, eating cookies at meetings, sipping coffee together, walking the talk, or talking the walk, seeing people, talking to people expose deeper questions: What, actually, is „work“? And: what is my leadership work to organize, may I say, „real“ work?

In the digital space, the question may be asked more soberly and clearly: what, actually, is work? If leadership is organizing work in the best possible way, what then is digital leadership, or, more precise: what is the work of digital leadership? What, then is leadership? What is to be achieved? What are results? What is work and cooperation in this context? How can collaboration be designed, what does leadership do to make collaboration successful, possibly even more productive and effective than in direct touch-and-feel?

If the focus is on seeing faces or talking heads, on the communicative aspect, then there is still a lot of talking, a lot of exchanges, a lot of talking, extroverted communicative heavyweights have the upper hand, others become quieter, withdraw.

If the focus is on seeing hands and finally the results seeing ends, then it is about collaboration, then work is done, then texts are created, concepts, designs are created together, then something like working software code or Wikipedia is created, a true collaborative effort.

Leadership: organizing communication and collaboration to achieve best results

The question facing leaders is how they organize collaboration: how can people do work together, who has what responsibilities, who has what rights, for example for approvals or quality gates, while at the same time ensuring fluid, transparent and permeable communication and information.

Great groups ship. – Warren Bennis

The digital, virtual space makes transparent what is productive work (the achievement of results) and what is just „being busy“. How many video conferences are there à la „good that we talked about it“ without results being achieved. Warren Bennis‘ dictum that „Great groups ship“, that great teams „deliver“, i.e. achieve results and that makes people happy („look at the work“), should be taken to heart by all managers who are now taking a crash course in digital leadership.

Happiness is not the result of emotional pampering, the endless flows of appreciation, taking away all risks, writing endless piles of post-its, it is the result of overcoming difficult, challenging situations, with the feeling that my contributions matter, that I am contributing to results. Completing things, contributing to completing things is what makes people happy, not leaders who tell me how great I am, but leaders who give me the chance to work and co-work with significance.

How can we all see that we produce results? It is about a productive balance of seeing faces (interacting with people), seeing hands (working or working together) and seeing ends (leading purposefully, goal-oriented, results-oriented).

People (leaders, too) are „full body interventions“

We used to work with our bodies, we interact with our bodies, we resonate with our bodies. Leaders, trainers, coaches, clients, everybody – we are all „full body interventions“. It is not to be underestimated to see more than just the head, even in digital space. One of the most effective changes in virtual meetings and workshops was to decide to stand and show more than just my face. Not only did I become more agile and energetic, but the participants reported that they too noticed a higher vitality and energy level. Why? Mirror neurons are simply always at work and also „work“ in digital exchange. When we stand, we move, we never stand still, even our thoughts, our feelings become more fluid, we may express ourselves much more.

When we see (and show) more than our heads, our communication is more natural, because we are not „talking heads“, we are more. Our mirror neurons fire differently, we „touch“ each other more, we resonate with more than just our heads.

Heads are more associated and liked with thinking and talking, bodies more with feeling, doing, resonance, contact.

If we only see talking heads, then implicitly we are even more focused on thinking and speaking, all other, essential channels of our interaction and communication – sensing, feeling, sensing, guessing, hesitating. When we see more than just our heads, our faces, more will come between us in communication, in interaction, in resonance.

How strongly do we stimulate and energize ourselves and others when we sit and see only the heads of others?

The more we can contribute, we can give of ourselves, the less we have to hold back. Walking on thin communicative ice is exhausting, because we have to make a step and hold back at the same time – we are constantly testing, attentively, cautiously, perhaps too cautiously, whether the ice is still bearing. Trying to contribute and to hold back at the same time, it is extremely exhausting. The result: „zoom fatigue“.

It is more powerful if we can trust that the ice is still bearing. If we can align and express our forces and resources – our inner ones and those with others. If we can bring all our weight, our significance, all what we are to the bearing ice, the dancefloor, the virtual team meeting.

Then collaboration and communication may be a creative, joyful dance.

Stay healthy – physically and mentally,


Written: April 19, 2020. Revised: May 9, 2020 and May 20, 2020

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