Apparently my ten-year high school reunion got postponed again, something I only found out when I was in town over the holidays. Whoever was organizing it was “adamant” that the reunion wouldn’t be held over Zoom, which is why it was scheduled in December, delayed multiple times because of COVID. After two years of working-from-home, people associated a video conference with just that, more work, and there’s already a tendency to overwork yourself when you’re at home. Like millions of other employees who were thrust into a remote lifestyle when the pandemic shuttered everything, those classmates of mine certainly aren’t alone in feeling this way, and those sentiments definitely ring true for many who were working in the real estate sector when the pandemic hit.
Yes, working from home has its benefits. The reduction of commuting is a big one. In 2020, Americans saved roughly $90 billion in commuting costs and an average of 49.6 minutes a day, according to research conducted by Upwork. There’s also a common thread of employees having a higher productivity output, since they have better control over their environment, they have better concentration. “It’s so much easier to finish a thought when the only thing you have to contend with is a Slack ping, as opposed to a co-worker tapping your shoulder,” said Bernadette, a video editor I talked to who became a remote employee thanks to the pandemic.
Remote work also has its allure for various demographics. Employees with chronic health conditions could monitor their well-being from the comfort of their own homes. Parents with young children who needed them throughout the day found remote work favorable, especially after it was reported that the cost of center-based child care leapt 47 percent higher during the pandemic. Neurodivergent workers were no longer forced to endure sensory overloads of a conventional office. It’s no surprise that a FlexJobs survey revealed that 58 percent of workers who responded said that they would “absolutely” search for a new job if they weren’t able to continue working remotely in their current role.
But there are significant drawbacks to the benefits. There’s no set routine, home office materials can get costly, and there’s an increased likelihood of overworking. “Working from home is a double-edged sword,” Bernadette continued, “I have freedom but there’s an added pressure that I can’t ignore. It’s like I have to answer my messages the second they come in or finish a task right when it’s assigned to compensate for the fact that I’m able to do it all from my own apartment.”
It’s not just the urge to overwork that taxes the brain, it’s the endless video calls. Video calls impair the communicative nuances and nonverbal gestures that people exchange when they’re face-to-face, and it’s exhausting to deal with. If the video feed is grainy because of poor internet connection, it gets even worse. Without a full emotional picture of the person on the other side of the screen, people have to exert intense attention to what’s being said instead of how it’s being said. Couple that with euphemistic corporate jargon, which is already infamous for hindering meaningful communication with words that don’t actually mean anything, and it can drain anyone faster than you can say “synergy.”
Then we have the gallery view, where a collage of all of the meeting participants appear at the same time. Looking at multiple faces, especially faces without tangible expressions, at once forces the brain’s central vision into disarray. The brain doesn’t know where to look and isn’t entirely sure what it’s looking at, so it exerts more energy to try to make sense of everything. That’s why people experience more mental exhaustion during a videoconference than a call on a regular phone. Those feelings of mental exhaustion can easily spiral out into anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, that’s not surprising seeing as depression rates in the U.S. tripled when the pandemic first hit.
Interpersonal dealings are the root of the real estate industry, so the fact that videoconferencing was hindering the ability to read the subtleties in human behavior became a problem. On a panel at the Propel by MIPIM conference last month, Leslie Himmel, Co-Managing Partner of Himmel+Meringoff Properties made the point that “Zoom doesn’t work, because you can’t tell if someone is lying. When you lose body language, you lose what is crucial to making a deal.” Himmel was flanked by Ken Fisher, Co-Managing partner of Fisher Brothers, who also had his complaints about strictly videoconferencing, especially when it came to acquiring new talent. “It’s very difficult to hire someone over the computer, I’ve made some not-so-good hires over Zoom because of how tough it is to read someone through that little camera,” he said.
Though many CEOs and business owners echo Himmel and Fisher’s grievances of awkward video calls, they are not going anywhere. Even while Omicron is returning cities to their highest COVID-19 threat level, video conference vendors are already looking towards a future where the virus has receded. Last September, Zoom partnered with ROOM, a manufacturer of soundproof modular office booths. Because videoconferencing was so widespread for so long, it actually changed the office layout. Unlike a regular phone call, you need visual privacy as well as audio privacy, so hybrid offices usually feature designated quiet spaces to log into a meeting. Centering themselves at the center of hybrid office design is how Zoom intends to literally follow people back to their offices.
It’s clear that working from home alleviated stressors across the board for employees, so much so that exerting extra brain effort for a meeting seems like a fair trade. But maybe it’s not an even trade, one of the reasons that people want to go back to the office is because the lines of working and not working are less blurred. Leaving a place at the end of the day is an easier way to convey that you’re finished with work. There’s no sense of urgency to answer an email at 9 pm because, well, you are not physically at work. Suffice to say that that’s why my classmates are against a virtual get-together, as they are yet again aiming to host an indoor event whenever “the ‘Rona lets up.” Considering where I grew up, I’m honestly shocked that celebrating with a tailgate in the Chili’s parking lot wasn’t the plan to begin with.