I have one piece of advice for ambitious twentysomethings wanting to advance their careers in 2021: Be in the room. Unfortunately, for many so-called digital natives, conducting their entire life online feels natural. So working from home may appear to be a favourable development. But Zoom, Teams, FaceTime and other video software are poor substitutes for face-to-face communications. Hence, those who turn up in person will gain the competitive advantage — whether they are interviewing for a job, pitching to raise investment, selling a new product or presenting their plans to colleagues.
Of course, Zoom and suchlike are convenient. You do not have to spend time and money commuting to a workplace. You can roll out of bed five minutes before a meeting and, still wearing your pyjamas, log in: no need to struggle with the rush hour on public transport and spend all day under the beady eye of your boss. You can segue efficiently from one meeting to the next, wasting no time travelling in between.
The flaws with video conferencing are legion. It is extremely difficult to detect humour in conversation, especially subtleties such as irony. Personal warmth is in part derived from non-verbal communication — facial expressions, which are hard to distinguish on a streamed image, and emphasis and tone, which are tricky to pick up with poor audio signals. Cueing exactly when participants speak can be hard, which means people are forever talking over each other. Such irritating behaviour is much less common in the presence of another person — we almost subconsciously read signals so that we sequence the back and forth of human interaction much more effectively.
I have met work colleagues in person throughout this year, partly because I am involved in essential activities such as food production and retail. Over the months since March I have lost count of the number of meetings I’ve organised where my visitor has exclaimed: “This is the first time I’ve met someone in person for months — and it is so much more enjoyable/productive than Zoom!”
We are social animals. Pretending that screens can take the place of real conversations is wrong. I find Zoom calls tedious and forgettable. You finish them feeling drained. By contrast, I often leave an in-person meeting more energised and engaged. Whether it is meeting an impressive entrepreneur for the first time or reconnecting with an existing contact, the old-fashioned method of sitting down for a chat beats its digital counterpart hands down. Of course, it takes more effort, but that is partly the point. The other person has bothered to come to see you — or vice versa — and consequently you give them your full attention and listen and learn.
I sense that for much of the time on Zoom, co-workers are distracted. Especially in bigger meetings, one can be sure that some are doing their emails or even ordering their shopping. Mostly, there is little of the intellectual commitment that is required when you are sitting opposite another person. It is much easier to say no to someone via email or video than face to face. Negotiations in person tend to be more fluid because one can interpret body language, whereas Zoom is for the mechanistic transmission of information, not persuasion.
So if I were joining an organisation in an entry-level role in the coming year, I would take every opportunity to be in the office (or warehouse, laboratory, factory, shop or restaurant). You will stand out from the lazy or fearful ones stuck at home. Healthy young people are at very low risk from Covid-19: up to December 16, just 48 people under 40 without co-morbidities such as cancer and heart disease had died in English hospitals. You will learn more and make much better contacts by going into work. You will feel more part of a team and absorb the culture properly. The tyranny of distance and the fragmentation of working from home undermine morale and can leave staff feeling disconnected and lonely.
The fact is that you cannot get to know someone via Zoom calls. That is only possible by encountering them in person and seeing the whites of their eyes. Politics and emotions still dominate the workplace, as they do all human affairs. If you are absent from the serendipitous catch-up, you are soon forgotten. The health and safety police won’t tell you this, but it’s true. Be where the action is, on the frontline — in person.