How COVID-19 is changing digital etiquette for everyone in and out of the office
As we watch the norms of using technology evolve in real time, here's how to keep up.
At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, a new phrase started appearing in my inbox with sudden regularity.
The usual chorus of “Hope you’re well!” was replaced, as if overnight, by a more sombre, knowing variation: “Hope you’re well in these difficult times.”
Oh, how things have changed.
The pandemic has caused the way we communicate to evolve, and our relationship with technology is being pushed into new territory.
Although states are slowly reopening, much of our professional and personal lives will continue to be lived almost entirely online for the foreseeable future. Digital etiquette rules remain more important now than ever.
It’s certainly no time for pedantry, but a base level of etiquette is critical to keeping up good relations and avoiding miscommunication at a time when everyone’s already stressed enough. The No. 1 thing to remember: Be kind, to others and to yourself.
PIVOT TO VIDEO
The biggest lockdown-induced shift in our relationship to technology is the video call, whether it’s via Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts or something similar. Many social aspects of life are slowly moving back to the physical space, but, for many people, returning to an office is a long way off, so keeping up your video-meeting etiquette will continue to be crucial.
“When we’re in a group, we make eye contact and we use our body language to signal that we want to say something, and other people are able to pick up on that,” said Anna Cox, a professor of human-computer interaction at University College London. “But when we’re not together, we can’t share that information in the same way.”
It’s hard to tell on a video call if someone is looking at you, someone else or just absent-mindedly browsing his or her inbox. Also, any cross-talk soon renders conversation impossible.
To avoid this, the simplest thing to do is to use a system of hand-raising; some video apps have a function to do this digitally, or you can just raise a finger to the camera. Setting a clear agenda for the call, which is always good meeting etiquette, is even more important.
While the rules are somewhat more relaxed if the video call is social rather than professional in nature, Professor Cox still advises appointing someone, however informally, as the call leader whose job it is to make sure everyone has a chance to speak.
You could start, for example, by taking turns to update one another on what you have been doing before allowing the conversation to flow more freely.
One important point of etiquette around video calls is the mute button: Use it frequently, and use it wisely. In a larger call of, say, more than five people, you should always mute your microphone when not actually speaking to prevent the discussion from being overwhelmed by a cacophony of background noise.
Just remember to click the button again before you next speak, or else endure the shame of that now well-worn chant: “You’re on mute!”
RETHINK WORK CULTURE
Having to adjust suddenly to remote working means that, at a time when meetings are inherently more difficult, we find ourselves needing to hold more of them.
“Because we’ve had to transition into this new way of working, it’s actually created new work for us to do,” Professor Cox said.
Bruce Daisley, author of Eat Sleep Work Repeat, warns against trying to impose regular work structures on a remote team. Digital tools can enforce a sense of an obligation to be online at all times.
“A lot of people have been telling me that they have been having 20 hours of Zoom calls a week, and that their boss is insistent it’s ‘cameras on,’” he said.
But online responsiveness is not a good proxy for measuring productivity and can, in fact, be detrimental to getting real work done. Mr. Daisley suggests setting aside an hour or two –1 p.m. Eastern time generally works well across American and European time zones – when everyone agrees to be available to respond to messages or calls immediately.
He also champions flexibility. In the current situation, the idea of enforcing strict 9-to-5 hours seems unnecessary and lacking in empathy.
Many workers now also find themselves caring for children or relatives, not to mention dealing with the general stress of a deadly pandemic and the psychological impact of lockdown.
Where sending a work email outside of business hours may once have been considered poor etiquette, it is now acceptable, given the circumstances – just make clear that you don’t expect an immediate response.
Maintaining work-life balance has been difficult for many workers, especially as lockdown drags on, but in some respects it may be good to let the lines between our work and personal lives blur.
You may not have realised how many of your social interactions previously happened in the office; take the time to check in on your colleagues, rather than just checking up on them.
Professor Cox hopes that our experiences during this outbreak will help to make the case for more flexible working in the long-term.
Daisley warns, however, against imposing remote working on all workers as companies perhaps realise that a Zoom subscription is cheaper than office space.
“The challenge is that it’s not necessarily equitable in how it falls,” he said. Those with smaller or shared homes may struggle to find a good work space, and younger employees could lose out on the informal mentorship that comes with working alongside more experienced colleagues.
STAY CLOSE (FROM A DISTANCE)
Just because you can’t visit people in person doesn’t mean you can’t stay in touch. In fact, you should make more of an effort to do so.
Aaron Balick, a London-based psychotherapist and author, said it was okay to mourn the loss of in-person interactions.
“It’s really important to acknowledge that we have actually lost something that’s very, very important to human well-being,” he said. “I don’t think there is a quick fix to that with technology.”
Arranging digital meet-ups requires more planning, which can be tiring. If you’re frequently making video calls and using instant messaging for work and with friends, it’s a good idea to put short breaks between the two.
“If you don’t give yourself that signal, it’s possible that those social interactions will feel like work,” Dr Balick said.
Professor Cox suggests using different devices to establish a kind of mental boundary: You could use your laptop for work calls and chats, and your phone for your social life.
When spending so much time on your devices, be mindful of the content you consume and share. “Social media is a place where you definitely see emotional contagion happening really easily,” Dr Balick said.
“And unfortunately, what I like to call our psychological ‘hot’ emotions, like outrage and anger, tend to be more contagious than warm, cuddly feelings.”
Given everyone is already on edge, you may want to be a bit more careful with your own social media posts.
A bit of gallows humour can actually be prosocial in bringing friends closer, but it’s probably not something you want to share publicly. Stick to a private chat where people understand the context.
It may also be a good idea to create some coronavirus-free digital spaces, such as a WhatsApp group in which you talk about any other topic.
In the past, sharing endless pictures of home baking on Instagram could be perceived as somewhat insufferable, but now the digital carb influx is a nice retreat from COVID-19 horror stories.
Dr Balick said the experience of lockdown might actually lead us to rely less on technology to sustain relationships in the long-term, as people crave those face-to-face meetings we might previously have taken for granted.
Over all, perhaps our relationship with technology will simply become more nuanced. Professor Cox notes how quickly concerns over “screen time” – never a particularly helpful concept given the myriad activities that come under its umbrella – have been pushed aside now that technology has suddenly become so crucial for both work and play.
She is sceptical that people who have been newly exposed to digital tools will just abandon them once coronavirus restrictions lift.
“What we can’t predict,” she said, “is exactly what will stick.
By Victoria Turk © The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.