COVID-19: how videoconferencing can change our relationship with co-workers

For millions of workers, videoconferencing on Zoom, Skype, Teams (etc.) has been the primary way to interact with co-workers since we were confined. It is now from home and often on a kitchen table or a sofa that professional meetings are organized. Thanks to videoconferencing, many workers are invited to enter their colleagues’ homes. The naughty kids, the messy flat, the disobedient pet, etc. Everything that is usually hidden is now visible to co-workers and probably changes the relationship with them.

The symbolic apparatus separating private life and work is questioned

The classic organization of work is based on a clear separation between private life and work. Even when we talk about work-life balance, we are mainly talking about the time we spend at work, the time we spend on our private life and how to achieve a satisfactory compromise between the two.

And when our private life meets our professional life, it is only for certain ceremonial activities, such as the Christmas tree in companies, for example. Thus, private life and professional life are most often separated and their rare meetings are most of the time strictly planned and defined.

Professional environment is not only designed to make work efficient, but it is also a symbolic apparatus in which the hierarchical line and the different statuses between workers are made visible.

By allocating a specific space for work, that is to say, offices located far from the home and precise working time, this separation has made possible the creation of a social environment dedicated to working and independent of the private life, with its own aesthetic, hierarchy, language, etc.

The job titles, the size of the office, the furniture, the outfit defining professional environments are often very different from those encountered in private life. In this, the professional environment is not only designed to make work efficient, but it is also a symbolic apparatus in which the hierarchical line and the different statuses between workers are made visible.

Stuck at home in front of a computer, there is no desk and no dress code to distinguish certain people from others

However, home videoconferencing calls into question this symbolic apparatus. Stuck at home in front of a computer, there is no desk and no dress code to distinguish certain people from others. While people are dressed in simple clothes and struggling to keep their children calm during videoconferencing, the differences between superiors and subordinates are no longer so obvious.

As a result, the staging of professional life is vanishing to the point that it can even seem a bit ridiculous during such a crisis. While people are trying to save their business and their job by working from home, pretentious job titles and luxurious offices may seem unnecessary.

Work and private life are more entangled than ever during this crisis

Letting people work at home means that the separation between work and life is difficult to maintain, especially during this period of confinement. Forced to juggle children’s homework, lunch to prepare and report to write, people are forced to reorganize their work and their private life, not by separating them again, but often by finding the best way to articulate them. This can lead to the definition of new informal rules at work. For example, feeding a baby can now be a fully accepted excuse to leave a work videoconference.

Of course, work and private life have never been completely separated. Personal concerns in some way influence our work and our relationships with our colleagues; while the tensions, successes, and failures encountered at work can alter our private life.

Paradoxically, videoconferencing separates us physically from our colleagues but can bring us closer to them, because it gives us access to a part of their life that we ignored before.

Also, career choices are often influenced by family relationships and personal experiences, as much as professional career influences who we are. Therefore, this artificial separation has often been a source of difficulty for people, as we often leave part of ourselves at home each time we go to work.

What is valid for us is also valid for our colleagues. By separating work and private life, workmates are artificially reduced to their job title or their skills, thus ignoring part of their uniqueness and their richness.

Paradoxically, videoconferencing separates us physically from our colleagues but can bring us closer to them, because it gives us access to a part of their life that we ignored before. At the end of the day, videoconferencing could even make us more empathic toward our colleagues.

I share my views on alternative and new ways of working — Prof in organization studies at Université Côte d’Azur — Surfing and yoga enthusiast!

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