To zoom or not to zoom, that is not the right question!


“Zoom is not the solution.”

was the title of a recent article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. It caught my eye and curiosity. The article quotes the fresh off the press publication by Coscia, Neffke & Hausmann in the August edition of Nature Human Behavior. The research paper with the title “Knowledge transfer in the network of business travel” links international business travel measured via credit card data to economic growth factors [presenting data from 2011-2016]. One of the authors, Ricardo Hausmann, a Harvard professor, and director of the Harvard Growth Lab, comments on his publication in the light of our current pandemic. If science offers evidence that important business and innovation relevant knowledge transfer needs in-person interaction to be fruitful for economic growth and job creation, we cannot rely on business from a distance only. Fair enough. Yet, what is the news?

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

Building trust and know-how - offline and online

Expertise and research on virtual teams and leading at a distance have a long history by now. The reality of the modern workplace has been one that included virtual leadership and digital collaboration for many distributed teams for more than 25 years (see the New Yorker article on "Why remote work is so hard and how it can be fixed," or check out Howard Rheingold and his seminal work.

Digital infrastructure was different back then, yes. But besides the telephone, people have used e-mail, shared drives, shared platforms, intranet platforms, later social tools like enterprise social networking (cf. Luis Suarez blog post, or any of his Linkedin posts).

For the past 20 years, we have provided similar reasoning to train and coach leaders and consult their organizations on how to best nurture relationships, both offline and online. The need to develop a “heartbeat” has been put forward by scholars like Martha Maznevski as early as 2000 (Maznevski & Chudoba, 2000). 

Photo by Anete Lūsiņa on Unsplash

Photo by Anete Lūsiņa on Unsplash

When the economy goes down, one of the first budgets to cut is travel expenses. Reduction or even complete cancellation of business trips has been a very familiar scenario for many of my clients and a big challenge for virtual leaders, distributed teams, and digital workplace culture.

Companies measure costs in peculiar ways. They can calculate their travel cost savings easily. Yet, no one measures the losses by cutting down on business trips: performance drops, lack of know-how or experience relevant to prevent costly or harmful mistakes or accidents, missed opportunities, or innovations not made.

Coscia, Neffke & Hausmann have indeed made an important argument for number driven business leaders to consider what else is at stake when cutting back on traveling. It is a valuable, innovative study on the effect of business travel on knowledge transfer that will hopefully stimulate more research (there is much to say aboutthe types of knowledge they claim to address that would need another blogpost).

Yet the pandemic is not over, businesses are down or throttling, our environment needs more sustainable solutions (the 2021 WEF Davos summit will focus on 'The Great Reset'). So business travel is undergoing drastic change beyond Covid-19!

Balancing care and high performance becomes one dire challenge for leaders facing the question of how much travel we can afford with regard to health, environment, business.

Re-imagining leadership, learning and knowledge co-creation

When weighing different costs of business trips, to zoom or not to zoom is not the right question. I am far from discouraging business travel and face to face meetings and team events. A lot of my own business depends on it. But, we must not equate today’s digital workplace with a video call only application – be it via skype, zoom, google meet, MS teams, or any other. 

We need to relate the possibilities of travel experiences with the full range of experiences made in today’s full-fledged digital collaboration environments. See e.g., Syamant Sandhir’s treatment on the full featured digital learning experiences of students.

For example: Access Visio directly from a tab within Teams channels

By Jared Spataro, Corporate Vice President for Microsoft 365

By Jared Spataro, Corporate Vice President for Microsoft 365

Therefore, the business travel vs. zoom dichotomy compares apples and oranges. The whole debate of office or not office (i.e. home office or any kind of mobile work) pretends a wrong dichotomy. Digitalization is happening. It affects any work and any workplace and any work tools. Foresightful digitalization is responsible digitalization.

In times like these, we need the imagination to re-define collaboration across distances. For this, zoom is the lowest level of entry. Compared to what e.g., Microsoft has pulled off by first imitating services like slack (which I love(d)!!!) and now offers with MS Teams, we face a new reality of collaborating in a digital workplace environment that has great potential also to improve co-located digital collaboration experiences by far.

We now talk about (almost) effortless co-creation of new workflows and business processes, monitoring team activities, and project progress in shared spaces, allowing cross-organizational collaboration and learning platforms to reach a new level. Digital collaboration platforms – not zoom as in video call – are already happening. They will be the future of work and thus change the meaning and relevance of business travel. Trust building, relationship building, and serendipitous explorations and education will still be relevant – both offline and online.

The question is not whether zoom is a solution to travel restrictions (be they budgetary or pandemics related). The question is how we can re-think and re-imagine leadership, collaboration, and learning.

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