insight magazine

Inside Finance | Spring 2021

How Business Leaders Can Zip Past Zoom Limits

In a remote work environment, videoconferencing is ubiquitous, but research shows it can have negative effects on onboarding and engagement.
Nancy Miller, CPA Controller - UOP, Honeywell International Inc.

Since March 2020, most of us have spent more time on Zoom than ever before. Zoom and other videoconferencing platforms are now the place where work meetings, onboarding, happy hours, Christmas parties, family visits, birthday parties, and even weddings happen. But new research shows the limits of videoconferencing tools like Zoom—as well as the unique challenges it can create for onboarding new hires and engaging employees.

The Onboarding Process

Onboarding is more than just filling out forms for human resources—it’s the process of bringing new employees into the workplace, integrating them into their departments and, perhaps most importantly, communicating the goals and culture of the organization. In a remote workplace, videoconferencing has to do the lion’s share of the work in the onboarding process, and it can introduce new challenges to the process.

Research from Dr. Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford Virtual Interaction Lab, has found that there are several attributes of videoconferencing that lead to fatigue and overwhelm—feelings that are counterproductive to onboarding a new team member. When videoconferencing replaces in-person interactions, the sustained eye contact (staring at a grid of faces staring back at you), self-monitoring (constantly checking to ensure you’re centered on camera), reduced mobility (sitting in a single position), and increased cognitive load (trying to interpret body language and nonverbal cues) combine to create a particularly draining experience. After spending hours in video meetings, new employees are likely to feel exhausted and possibly alienated by the experience.

Unfortunately, in a remote work environment videoconferencing is all but indispensable. We must use it to replicate not only formal training, but all of the informal interactions and passive learning that comes from observing coworkers, supervisors, and executives. How else are new employees who have onboarded remotely during the pandemic going to develop these vital relationships and absorb the culture and values of their new company?

As I have onboarded new employees over the last year, I realized how much I took for granted the in-person onboarding activities: stopping by their workstation to check in, walking them around to introduce them, and developing a personal relationship over lunches and deskside chats. While I continue to focus on covering the basics and ensuring access to equipment and technology, I have also designated onboarding buddies to help new team members acclimate to both the role and company. In addition to pairing new hires with longtime employees, I have found it effective to pair new hires with other new hires as they go through a shared experience. This combination of perspectives provides different avenues for new hires to get the information they need to adjust to a new workplace and role, as well as build the kind of interpersonal relationships so essential to effective teamwork.

We spend a lot of time and effort identifying and attracting new talent—we should spend just as much effort ensuring that new employees are given as many tools as possible to succeed. It’s even more important in a remote environment where team members may be feeling isolated and overwhelmed. While videoconferencing may have its limits, by using it judiciously and helping new employees find alternative ways to connect with their coworkers, we can set our new hires up for success.

Driving Engagement

As we reinvent the onboarding process, we’re finding that employee engagement needs a makeover as well. The switch to videoconferencing and other digital communications deprives us of physical cues like facial expressions and body language, important feedback that has long been essential to human communication. In addition, informal conversations have been lost—those moments in the hallway or lunchroom were critical to fostering relationships between coworkers and contributing to overall connection and job satisfaction.

People are craving new and innovative ways to engage with their team members at the individual, departmental, and organizational levels in a work-from-home environment. Early in the pandemic, organizations were eager to adopt new strategies to address these challenges: informal Zoom lunches and happy hours, group chats, and other ideas. While some of these strategies have been effective, they still suffer from the same unfortunate challenge that plagues onboarding and training: Videoconferencing is exhausting. Team members are already in exponentially more video meetings than they had attended before March 2020—it’s not rare for someone to have hours of back-to-back meetings. Even while employees want connection and engagement, they’re drained by the digital medium itself, so organizations and leaders must be proactive in finding solutions to this exhaustion.

An approach I have found effective in fighting Zoom fatigue is scheduling transition periods in between meetings. Even five minutes between meetings allows for a stretch, a walk, and a brief mental break. Another strategy I use is changing mediums when videoconferencing isn’t necessary. I have enjoyed making some meetings “walking meetings,” where I talk on the phone while going for a stroll. In addition to health benefits of the activity, a 2014 study found that walking increases the “free flow of ideas” and is “a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity.”

We don’t have all the answers to how to navigate a remote workplace, but as most experts agree that remote work will continue to be the standard moving forward, we have to continue to seek them out. We should take what we’ve learned in the past year—both the limits of tools like Zoom and the successful changes we’ve made—and continue to explore new solutions to ensure that we can develop and engage new and existing employees no matter what the future holds.

This column was co-authored with John Hepp, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor of accountancy in the University of Illinois’ Geis School of Business.

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