Slack and Zoom are making you lonely and paranoid. Embrace the phone instead.

Zoom Fatigue

Here’s the thing about working from home: It’s great for family flexibility and good for our productivity, and nothing beats the commute. But it sure does a number on our psyches.

Research found that remote work induced feelings of stress, burnout, and isolation. A report published by Buffer, the social-media management firm, showed that loneliness was the biggest struggle remote workers said they faced, along with issues of collaboration and communication.

It’s arguable those challenges are one and the same. The most popular tools of collaboration and communication for remote work — I’m looking at you, Zoom and Slack — are tough on our mental health. And indeed may even cultivate loneliness and misery

This is no small issue — for us or our bosses. Studies suggest a positive correlation between effective workplace communication and employee engagement and job satisfaction. As surges in the Delta variant delay return-to-office plans around the country, it looks like many of us may be working from home a while longer. So, what’s the solution?

Here’s a novel idea: Embrace the telephone.

Zoom and Slack create self-doubt and uncertainty

Working from home is tough business. Without the informal social cues of the office — a nod of approval in a meeting with your boss, or a smile from your colleague in the hallway — we’re left wondering where we stand: Am I liked? Am I doing a good job? 

Lacking context, our brains fill in the gaps. Because we’re hardwired to seek out negativity, the communication we do have can create simmering self-doubt and uncertainty. We become suspicious of terse emails and Slack messages from our managers. We read into colleagues’ blank expressions on the "Hollywood Squares" Zoom grid. 

What’s more, in the physical workplace our interactions are fluid: If you have an off-putting or frustrating conversation with your colleague in the conference room, your relationship can rebound later when you run into them in the elevator. A simple, "Are we good?" and all’s forgotten. 

With remote work, the volume of interactions is smaller, and digital text messaging lacks nuance. It’s hard to repair a bond over Slack or email. Emotions don’t translate well, and emoji often miss the mark.

Zoom is unnerving, too. The delays, frozen or out-of-sync faces, and weird echoes are just a start. Disembodied heads don’t help matters either, said Melody Wilding, the career coach and author of "Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking, Master Your Emotions, and Channel Your Ambition for Success."

"Evolutionarily speaking, when we can’t see someone’s legs or hands, it puts us on guard," she said. "We perceive it as a threat."

Zoom also makes us more self-conscious. "When you see yourself on screen, your self-monitoring kicks in," she said. "You’re hyperaware of how you look and how you’re coming across.

 "Humans aren’t designed to be staring at ourselves."

Embrace the phone call

The telephone may be the salve for our anxiety around working from home. For starters, you don’t have to be sitting at your desk to take a call. You can be standing up or walking around, which research showed is a boon to creativity. Talking on the phone also allows a greater focus: You’re not as likely to get as distracted by the dings and pings happening on your screen. 

Why don’t we make better use of the phone? New research by Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and Amit Kumar of the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business offers clues. They found that many people anticipated that the phone would lead to uncomfortable, awkward interactions. Most said they preferred email. 

But, Kumar told Insider, this is a case of "miscalibrated expectations."

In a series of laboratory experiments, he and Epley found no difference in how awkward people felt talking to someone on the phone as opposed to typing a message. Importantly, phone calls led people to feel a greater sense of closeness to their conversation partners. 

They also found that video calls did not make people feel any more connected to their conversation counterparts than if they talked without a video element. This is consistent with past research that suggests a person’s voice is the primary signal for social bonding, they wrote in Harvard Business Review.

"It’s all those paralinguistic cues — the human emotions and feelings conveyed in our voices — that make us feel connected to someone," Kumar said. "The video component doesn’t seem to add much." 

The implications are clear, he said. Don’t fear the phone. "If you expect it’s going to be awkward, you’re not going to reach out and call someone," he said. "You won’t learn that it’s a good way to build social connections."

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Rebecca Knight August 24, 2021 at 05:54PM

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