COVID-19’s Aftermath for Enterprise Communications

by Colin Berkshire

For the half a dozen decades that I have lived we have debated whether the world will evolve so that there is no need to commute, where we can all sit at home and do our jobs while being linked by telecommunications.

The voice telephone alone never really seemed to be enough. Seemingly we needed video, too.

Along came the Bell System’s Picturephone, a video phone (See: that required six pairs of wires and an entirely new infrastructure. It was ironic that new digital phone systems couldn’t handle the video while the older analog switching systems were able to do so. In the end, the enormous costs couldn’t justify it.

Next was the Bell System’s Picturephone Meeting Service. The idea was that teams could meet in conference centers strategically placed around the country and could meet without travel costs. This business fizzled not because of cost, but because it just “lacked something.”

Bell Labs did a test in 1980 where they set up working phone system with a mixture of voice only and picture phones in a hands-on museum. They then measured the number of phone calls and duration of each. What they found was surprising: Children spent twice the time and made twice the number of calls using voice-only phones over video phones. There was a year of debate on whether there was a preference for voice-only, or a familiarity, or if what we were seeing was that video was twice as efficient. In the end there was no definitive conclusion, although it seemed that children preferred staying connected via voice more than they did via video.

I’ve done telecommuting, and when I have done so I have always felt disconnected. There is just so much business that gets done meeting people randomly, and there is so much nuance in in-person human communications. Companies struggle on how to manage people working at home. Employment laws make work-at-home legally treacherous with risks of overtime, non-ADA compliant workplaces, risk of hostile workplaces, and how to supervise being legal concerns.

Then, along came COVID-19 and bam! We’re all stuck at home doing telecommuting. Could anything possibly have been more fortuitous for the comms sector than COVID-19? If there has even been a catalyst for migrating people towards telecommuting none have been as impactful as COVID-19.

So, was COVID-19 the impetus we needed to just dive in and finally do it?

I can’t say we know for certain, but my feelings are this:

  • We can do more work-at-home than we thought, and it can be managed, and if legislation allows more “gig economy” to be done it has a time and a place where flexibility is important. (I think the Uber case in California is going to be quite important for telecommuting.)
  • Perhaps I’m just old school, but I miss the office. I miss the smalltalk and the jokes and the relationship building. But more than anything, I miss the swiftness that in-person brings for brainstorming and consensus building and getting everybody up-to-speed on new programs. I have found telecommuting just lacks the snap of everybody being together, bouncing ideas and having great breakthroughs and getting excited. I know this all happens online, but it seems to be less emotional and less enthusiastic.
  • It may be that I am traditional enough that I have not fully embraced the new telecommuting model. I didn’t meet my wife online, I don’t use Facebook or social media, I still use full sentences with punctuation when sending text messages. So it can truthfully be said I am not “with it”. But even still, after this forced trial of pure telecommuting because of COVID-19, I feel that a hybrid model is best. There is still magic that happens when people are together, face to face. That wrinkle of an eye, raised eyebrow, nervous tap of a finger, or instantaneous surprised look are things that are missing even with the best video call.

I talk with my grandchildren via FaceTime all the time. But I still want to hug them and build Lego-towers and teach them how to tie their shoes.