Virtual Life

Thursday, March 28, 2013

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Remote presence, telecommuting, virtual meetings, virtual offices—these are the technologies that define the futuristic work space.  Online communication has not only crept into our places of employment, but also found its way into the interactions of our families, our schools, and even romantic relationships. 

Work Online

Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo (and formerly a high ranking executive at Google) recently made waves in the business world by revoking Yahoo’s policy that allowed employees to work from home.  Best Buy made a similar move, eliminating their vaunted Results Only Work Environment (ROVE) program.  Both companies have been on the decline for a few years, with new management looking for ways to quickly turn them around.  Is this a sign that telecommuting has failed?  Despite all the hype about social networking, is remote, always-connected access mainly a boon for our personal lives, but a bust for business?  What about online education?  If these businesses believe physical presence is necessary for productive work, does that imply distance learning doesn’t work?

At DornerWorks, an engineering services company where I am a partner, the company policy only permits working from home by special permission.  The normal expectation is to be at the office in person, although we provide quite a bit of flexibility with the actual hours.  Some folks start later in the morning and work late.  Others start early and leave early.  Others work longer one day in order to free up some time for personal errands on another day.  We’ve found that in cases where an employee does work at home, productivity can vary quite a bit.  If they are home because of a sick child or a snow day for all their kids, then productivity might be fairly low (likely because of distractions at home).  However, sometimes their remote productivity can be quite high.  Instead of lots of formal and impromptu meetings along with interrupts and distractions, they can focus on their work in a quiet space within their own home.  Our open floor plan for most of the workstations of our engineers is meant to encourage interaction and teamwork, but it also sometimes serves to break one’s concentration, making it difficult to focus on a single stream of work on a complex task.  Many of our engineers resort to listening to music with noise-canceling headphones in order to block out the noise and conversations around them.  Even though the executive managers have their own offices, even they sometimes find it necessary to go across the street to the local coffee shop when working on a large task, literally hiding out to avoid a constant stream of interruptions.

If tech companies have not entirely jumped on the telecommuting bandwagon, does that mean virtual communication is not effective?  No, even if telecommuting isn’t embraced, big companies like Yahoo or small companies like DornerWorks still use many electronic means to do business, including web/video conferencing, email, and more.  Even if telecommuting is not the norm, it can provide temporary flexibility so that work does not preclude family life.  “These technologies [videoconferencing] are making inroads, and allowing easier integration of work and family life.  According to the Women’s Business Center, 61% of women business owners use technology to ‘integrate the responsibilities of work and home’; 44% use technology to allow employees ‘to work off-site or to have flexible work schedules’”.  (Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” The Atlantic, July/August 2012, p. 94)

Facebook Family

In former days, families that were dispersed across the country or across the globe could maintain family ties via written letters or the occasional care package that might take days or weeks to arrive.  Later, wide availability of telephone service augmented the written letter, providing live communication, albeit limited to a relatively poor-quality audio connection.  More recently, those communication technologies have been augmented and sometimes completely replaced by Internet-based tools including email, instant messaging, social networks such as Facebook or Twitter, and video conferencing such as Skype or Google+ hangouts.  These tech gadgets help parents stay in touch with children studying or working in distant locations.  They help spouses connect when one is away on a business trip or called to active duty in the military.  They help siblings catch up on each other’s lives when living in different states. 

The content of the communication is affected by the tools we use, as McLuhan famously quipped, “the medium is the message.”  The length of the message impacts what we say and how we say it.  The available communication channels influence heavily interpretation and nuance.  You might hear irony in their voice, even if the words don’t immediately tip you off.  You might see irritation in their body language, even though their voice sounds calm.  Our use of sideways smiley faces :-) when chatting online are, in part, a recognition of the lack of body language signals in that medium. 

There are certainly some messages that lose much when sent electronically:  a hug of comfort, the good-natured slap on the back for good work, the fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies or freshly picked flowers delivered in person as a token of apology.  On the other hand, sometimes a new medium provides a new opportunity.  “I have so many stories of people reflecting on the ways technology gave their parents voices they didn’t know they had.  I remember years ago, people—mostly 20-,30-, and even 40-somethings—reflecting on the fact that when e-mail and text-messaging came along, they suddenly heard their father in a way he’d never been before.  It gave a generation of taciturn men a way to have affective relationships across their families.  I still hear that about the way people are connecting on Facebook.”  (Genevieve Bell, Director of Interaction and Experience Research for Intel Corporation, in an interview with Alexis Marigal in “What Makes Her Click,” The Atlantic, December 2012, p. 42.)

Distance Education

I have blogged previously on online learning in Mediated Communication” .  Let me simply add here that the desire of Yahoo management to bringing employees into the office for better engagement is not much different from the teacher’s concern to engage students in the classroom.  I think online employment or education probably works best for employees or students that are self-motivated or perhaps incentivized to be engaged.  The less inspired, self-starting, and mature they are, the less likely the online experience will be productive and the more likely they will be distracted—and distractions abound when one is using online tools. Sitting captive in a classroom is no guarantee that a student isn’t checking Facebook on the sly or reading a pulp novel tucked in front of the class textbook.  However, the environment matters.  The supposedly “multitasking” learner who not only has an online lecture streaming in one window, but also has Facebook, iTunes, gmail, Twitter, and YouTube all tiled across their laptop screen will no doubt have trouble focusing on just the lecture. 

I don’t see online education completely replacing live classroom instruction in the near future, but I do see it augmenting and enhancing education, just as the telephone didn’t completely replace the written letter, and just as Facebook didn’t completely replace the telephone.  That’s what technology does.  It augments.  It is a tool that extends our abilities.  It is the hammer that extends the reach and power of our arm.  It is the telescope that extends our sight.  It is the automobile that enhances our speed.  One of those educational enhancements is to give a new voice to those that have been silent:  just as email enlivened the “taciturn” father, so too electronic communication can be the voice of a shy or taciturn student.  “I think professors can help out by including an email option for participation so that introverted students have a way to share their ideas. I know one introverted friend who has been extremely grateful to professors that provide that option because she feels included in the conversation without having to fight other extroverted students to have her voice be heard.” (from an editorial by Ryan Hagerman , “Calvin needs to understand, support introverts,” Chimes Calvin College Student Newspaper, 1 February 2013.  )

Remote Relationships

The easy distractions of all our online tools, which can make online learning challenging, can become literal temptations when it comes to romantic relationships.  The ease with which we flit from one YouTube video to the next can lull us into thinking our real-life relationships are as easily interchangeable.  Dan Slater examines the online dating phenomena in his article “A Million First Dates:  How Online Dating is Threatening Monogamy.” ( The Atlantic, Jan/Feb 2013, pp. 41-46)  He finds that greatly increasing the available choices leads to less satisfaction and less engagement with any single choice. “Gian Gonzaga, [eHarmony’s] relationship psychologist, acknowledges that commitment is at odds with technology.  ‘You could say online dating allows people to get into relationships, learn things, and ultimately make a better selection,” says Gonzaga.  ‘But you could also easily see a world in which online dating leads to people leaving relationship the moment they’re not working—an overall weakening of commitment.’” (p 42)  This is not surprising—it is simply another aspect of the distraction that can plague any aspect of digitized life.  Slater points to Barry Schwartz for an explanation: “a large array of options may diminish the attractiveness of what people actually choose, the reason being that thinking about the attractions of some of the unchosen options detracts from the pleasure derived from the chosen one.” (p. 43)  Furthermore, much of our digitized world is also monetized.  Where capitalism drives the medium, then subtle incentives and disincentives will appear that might not align with the customer’s best interests. “Indeed, the profit models of many online-dating sites are at cross-purposes with clients who are trying to develop long-term commitments.  A permanently paired-off dater, after all, means a lost revenue stream.”  (p. 42) 

Spiritual Connections

Our spiritual connections to God are in some ways similar to our virtual connections in the digitized world.  We have limited mediums, not because our God is limited, but because we ourselves are finite.  God speaks in an audible voice or appears in visible form very rarely to very few.  However, he speaks to all us through his Word, communicates to all of us through the body of believers in the community of the saints, exhorts all of us through the preaching of the gospel.  Our communication links to God are equally varied.  Instant messages are carried by our prayers, video conferences are through the sights and sounds of a heart-felt worship service, tweets are found in our personal journals.  God hears and sees them all and he doesn’t miss any of the nuances, since he knows our heart.  While acquaintances might misinterpret humor in an email because they don’t know us well, and even close friends might not always understand us even in intimate, live conversation, God knows us better than we even know ourselves.  “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” (Romans 8:26, NIV)

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest