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How to handle productivity killer Zoom catch-ups, now we know video calls are here to stay

Contractors might not blink at it because they’re such dab hands at ‘WFH,’ but a new study shows that fully remote working can reduce productivity by 10%-20%.

I think I’m inclined to agree that if you’re fully remote (‘hybrid-working’ emerged in the study as the sweeter spot), you risk putting a strain on your brain. And in the long run, that will impact mood and productivity – issues many contractors come to me to address, writes life coach Shwezin Win of Win At Life.


Touching base (sigh)

If you’re a fully remote contractor who keeps having to ‘touch base’ with the client – or do other cringey phrases that mean you need to call up every so often – your mental load is more likely to be taxed by the sheer process of video calls.

A by-product of the pandemic which the study by Stanford University indicates isn’t going anywhere (“organisations will continue to adapt their practices to manage hybrid and fully remote workers more effectively”), these calls often tie contractors up in knots, even top technologists.

Because whether it’s Zoom, Teams, Skype or Webex, these platforms require your brain to work harder and consistently, due to various factors:

  1. Non-verbal cues overload

In face-to-face communication, we naturally process a multitude of non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions, body language, and gestures. Video calls, although providing some visual cues, can be limited, leading our brains to exert extra effort to decode information.

  1. Tech glitches and distractions

We’ve all been there and had these! Technical issues like lag, microphones not working, or poor video quality can disrupt the flow of communication. Constantly adjusting to these disruptions can strain cognitive resources, making the conversation more mentally taxing. It’s also just plain frustrating, meaning your pot of patients is going to be on the defensive from the word Zoom!

  1. Multitasking challenges

Video calls often involve managing multiple tasks simultaneously, such as reading chat messages, sharing screens, and toggling between applications while trying to take notes. This multitasking demands increased cognitive load, making it harder for the brain to focus on the primary conversation.

So before you next have to have a video call, ask yourself:

  • How am I going to prioritise and manage cognitive load during video calls to ensure effective communication?
  • In the face of technical glitches or distractions, what strategies will I employ to maintain focus and facilitate a smooth conversation?

Understanding these challenges and implementing strategies to mitigate cognitive strain can help you optimise your approach to video calls and enhance overall communication effectiveness.


Zoom isn’t Zooming off anywhere for a long time to come

And to reiterate, these Zoom-style calls aren’t going anywhere fast.

According to the Stanford study, US patent applications which advance technologies supporting video conferencing doubled as a share of all newly filed US patent applications from January to September 2020. With his co-authors, the study’s Jose Maria Barrero, an economist, adds that his own research found such a “redirection of innovation efforts” continued through at least early 2022. “So,” the study says, “it is reasonable to anticipate that remote-collaboration technologies and tools will continue to advance at a rapid pace for some years to come”.

Even if you feel you quite successfully manage the way you work fully remote, there are a range of benefits you still miss out on.

Here’s what I’m referring to. A client I had was starting to question whether contracting was still right for them. There were many issues in their thinking, but the one that created the lightbulb moment was the fact that they were working remotely, fully, continuously. Although they enjoyed the work-life balance and the ability to support the needs of their family, the contractor found themselves feeling disconnected and disengaged — from the work and from the client. Through our coaching sessions, we were able to identify the key areas of importance for them:

  1. Balanced flexibility

Although fully remote helped with family life, they were missing the collaborative energy of an office. It was difficult to deal with stakeholders and colleagues without those ‘water cooler moments,’ or chats by the coffee machine to get to know people. They were a ‘people person’ so they loved getting to know others, and the isolation of being fully remote was impacting their motivation and productivity.

(As a helpful aside, the Stanford study states: In a study of mentoring practices and team relations, Emanuel, Harrington, and Pallais (2023) consider software engineers at a large technology firm. Some engineering teams were housed in the same building, and other teams were split across two adjacent buildings. Before the pandemic, employees housed in the same building as teammates received 21 per cent more comments on their code from coworkers. These comments provide suggestions on how to improve code, and they play an important role in employee learning and performance gains. When the pandemic struck, all employees shifted to work from home. The comment rate difference between colocated and other teams vanished, and overall comment volume fell by almost half.)

  1. Enhanced collaboration

In my experience the value of face-to-face interactions in the office cannot be understated, as being ‘present’ encourages collaborative problem-solving, idea sharing, and team bonding. All of that may be challenging to achieve in a fully remote setup.

  1. Personal and professional development opportunities

My IT contractor client wanted to learn and develop themselves professionally, and personally. Being in the workplace allowed them to at least have the option of seeing what workshops, group sessions and networking events would involve or entail. In the end, an external training provider helped my client achieve the professional development which their fully remote work environment would never have led to. In fact, the provider was named by someone at the workplace who used their courses, when the provider previously ran courses for the workplace’s C-Suite.

  1. Client brownie points 

Clients often appreciate the reassurance of occasional face-to-face meetings. Occasional office working enables you to build stronger client relationships, providing a personal touch to business interactions that may be missed in a fully remote setup.

Next, I’d like to acknowledge that change can be hard for everyone, and if you have been fully remote for a while, it can be daunting to transition into hybrid.


Preparing for hybrid…

Here’s a couple of questions to help you think through how hybrid could work.

  • How would you plan to structure your working week to optimise productivity, both in a remote setting and during in-office days?
  • Hybrid working demands adaptability. How do you envision adjusting to changes in work dynamics, balancing remote autonomy with the collaborative nature of in-office days?

By embracing the flexibility and collaborative potential of hybrid working, contractors can create a work environment that maximises productivity, provides greater client satisfaction, fosters growth, and ultimately leads to a more fulfilling professional experience.


The trap

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that by reaching out for help relating to your remote work, you’re going against your IT contractor roots. The Standford study makes clear that productivity suffering is absolutely a thing.

Barrero, with his co-authors, writes: Gibbs, Mengel, and Siemroth (2023) study productivity outcomes for skilled professionals at a large Indian technology services company. In March 2020, the company abruptly shifted all employees to fully remote work in response to the pandemic. Immediately after the shift, average worktime rose by 1.5 hours per day and output fell slightly according to their primary performance measure. They estimate that the shift to remote work lowered average labour productivity (output per hour worked) by 8 to 19 percent.

They also provide evidence that greater communication and coordination costs drove much of the measured productivity drop. In particular, time spent on meetings and coordination activities rose, crowding out time devoted to a concentrated focus on work tasks.


Ready to discover?

So, if you’re in a dilemma as to whether your working patterns are right, wrong, or even if contracting is still suited to your personality, lifestyle and goals, click here for a free discovery call with me. Let’s help you gain some clarity on what could supercharge you for the journey ahead.

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