I went to a meeting recently, before COVID-19 rules tightened. Not a Zoom meeting, a real meeting, in person, face-to-face.
A group of Toronto developers and architects, all women, had invited me to hear about a new project, Reina on the Queensway. Dismayed that the condo-building game is so dominated by men, they have put together what they call “Canada’s first condominium designed and developed by an all-women team.”
Properly masked and distanced, we sat around a sprawling conference table for about an hour. It was delightful, an altogether different and far better experience than meeting online. By the end, everyone was smiling under their masks at the sheer fun of it.
In the COVID-19 era, it is easy to forget what we gain from meeting other people in the flesh instead of on a screen. Zoom works remarkably well for most purposes. The transition to online work imposed by the pandemic has been smoother than anyone expected. Many businesses are talking about shifting to remote working for good. Employees can avoid the cost and annoyance of daily commuting, and companies the expense of renting pricey city office space. Everyone wins.
Or so it seems. Zoom can be an efficient and often pleasant way to meet. I go on a Zoom call with colleagues most days and enjoy the chance to see their faces and meet their cats. But it doesn’t hold a candle to gathering in person.
So much is lost online. Eye contact, for once thing. When we talked to each other around that big conference table, we met each other’s gaze. That made a huge difference. Body language, for another. We knew when someone around the table wanted to speak. We could just tell. No need to click on the raised-hand symbol to try and break in.
Those may seem like little things. They’re not. Humans read each other through the face and the eyes. Even when the face is masked, the exchange among us is far richer in person than otherwise. We get a sense of those we are meeting that we could never gain from seeing them on screen.
If that were not true, then people would have given up meeting in person long ago. The invention of the telephone removed the strict necessity of face-to-face contact. E-mails, texts, DMs and all the rest made exchanging views childishly simple. Even video chatting and conferencing are hardly new. People continued to gather in boardrooms, living rooms and coffee shops to size each other up.
If we stopped doing that, or did much less of it, we would be poorer for it. It would mean losing the random interactions that produce some of the best ideas: the hallway chat, the pre-meeting gripe session. It would mean giving up the separation of work and home life that keeps us sane and gets us out of those sweatpants with the old mustard stain. Travelling to work and to school isn’t just a hassle, though it can surely be that. It opens up our eyes to the world around us. Commuting, like travel, can broaden the mind.
What happens to the exhilarating buzz of a big-city downtown when everyone is noodling away on their laptops at home. What happens to college life without the floods of students circulating on campus? Ask a university student today how much she enjoys watching lectures on her computer or her phone. Somehow the chance to see a prof droning away in a real lecture theatre seems precious.
The pandemic has shown we can work remotely, and that’s a good thing as far as it goes. It gives employees more flexibility, especially if they have kids to raise. Many are telling their companies they don’t ever want to return to work nine to five, five days a week. Now they can come in when they’re needed and work from a distance otherwise. Whether we should is another question.
We truly are social animals. Much of our social life has shifted online. Much of our work life has moved there, too. COVID-19 is accelerating that shift. But we still need to meet each other, see each other, look each other in the eye. It’s part of being human.
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