Seeing Is Believing

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“When Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Thomas, one of his disciples didn’t believe. He said he had to see him and put his hands through the holes in his hands to believe that he was the risen Christ”

COVID-19 has changed all rules of engagement; work, home life and everything in between. For the most part, our collective instinct is our concern about our health and our livelihood. In terms of business, we are on the cusp of what will be the hardest global financial recession of this century [yes, it will be worse than the 2008/09 financial markets crash]. And yet, we are all trying to power through with some semblance of normality.

I’m an unashamed, self proclaimed proponent of all things digital. Anyone who knows me, knows I delight in all things technological that make life easier, safer, faster. But this doesn’t mean I have in any way turned my back on the human side of digital adoption. What do I mean by this? I was on a call this week, at home, and my wife could hear me speaking excitedly.. loudly, to some people. She said I sounded angry and asked if anything was the matter. I said no, it was actually a pleasant call and I was smiling when I was having the conversation. I would say I was animated, rather than fractious, but from what she could hear, her interpretation was different. Of course she couldn’t see it, but the chap that I was talking to, on a video call, could. He understood the rules of engagement because he could see me. He was party to all the usual rules of conversational engagement, because he could not only hear me, but see me, and my facial expressions.

But what if he couldn’t see me and all that he heard was my voice? He too might have gotten the wrong impression. Whilst English is for both of us, our first language, just because we’re speaking the same language, it doesn’t mean we are necessarily saying the same thing. I might suggest something in quite an abrupt or forceful way, but the smile or look of bemusement on my face reveals that I may be being sarcastic or am trying to goad the person I’m speaking to into some light banter. A smirk here or a smile there, can easily betray the tone in my voice.

Language on its own is open to mis-interpretation. This scenario reinforced the reason why it was a video conference. Visual and audio helps in getting the context right, more of the time. More data points = better information and a higher probability of taking the right decision and improved interpretation. Richness of data, in absolutely every interaction we have, be it personal or professional, is critical to making the best informed decisions. The numbers [or in this instance, the data] don’t lie. For my wife, it sounded a little off. For the chap on the other end of the Zoom link, it was a thoroughly conducive business call.

Ok, so why? Why do the rules of engagement change so dramatically when it comes to video versus audio? When a void exists, human bias fills said void; in the absence of visuals, we focus solely on the verbal language, because there is no non-verbal [facial expressions] that we can use to help define our interpretations.

In our current COVID-dystopia, everyone’s talking about [ok, journalists are writing about] the rise and fall of Zoom as the primary platform for video conferencing. I read with some small interest, an FT article about Zoom and how to conduct Zoom meetings. One paragraph in particular got me thinking, “No one likes this technology or feels that it shows them at their best. Even before everyone started working from home I was often asked: “How do you own the room when you are not in the room?” My question is, do you need to “own the room”, or do you just need to communicate in as normal a setting as possible? Video calls allow for transparency, trust and security; yes, theoretically, someone could be lurking behind the screen…. But the chances of this are far smaller than if it was an audio call. The boom in Zoom usage [currently USD $117.81] even amidst the privacy concerns it has had to face, and the global press backlash it battles, reveals that we still, en masse, essentially, want to read people; we want to look into the whites of our co-conversationalists' eyes. We are willing to spend our Naira, GBP, USD…. or whatever, to see people. We are still looking for digital technology to recreate, as best we can, the ideal conversation space. COVID-19 has basically restricted 90%+ of our daily face-to-face interactions. Zoom et al are filling the void, as best they can.

I take a lot of Zoom calls. Have done for a while. I like the personal interaction and engagement it allows for. I read the room; quite literally. What does someone’s background [virtual and non-virtual say about them]? I assume people make the same value decisions about me too. And that’s OK; that’s part of the dialogue, the data set. Certainly in the business world, with the move to digital connections in the wake of COVID-19, I have noticed that a lot of people switch their cameras off during meetings for many reasons.. hair not right, just woke up, background is not conducive, rogue toddler causing mayhem, etc. It’s almost as if colleagues / service providers / business propositions don’t want you to actually see that they have a life outside of deal making and doing business. That the lines should be definite between reality and work. They aren’t. The lines are actually blurred. And don’t forget, as Africans, we like to do business with people; we need to see you and feel you and understand where you’re from. When we can’t do this in person, or at your daughter’s wedding, then we will find a way to determine who and what you are… via video. Transparency, on a personal and business level, allows for better trust. COVID-19 and Zoom [and friends] are making us reassess what the parameters are, but they are also reinforcing how we actually do business, culturally.

At Sparkle, we have a policy of having the video on when we meet, and for many good reasons. It supports our values around transparency. We are who we are, we are not ashamed of our look or surroundings. We want to make sure that when we communicate, we use visual and audio to ensure there is no misinterpretation - for clarity, for transparency and to build trust. We have nothing to hide. We are human and we like to see. Our senses are an integral part of the engagement, they help in creating a connection and creating trust, another core tenet of the Sparkle value system. Leveraging technology doesn’t mean that we forget we are Human. Leveraging technology means we can make the most of being human.

Zoom, Microsoft Teams, FaceTime, SKYPE [yes - SKYPE, remember those guys? First to market in the world of video conferencing?] are redefining our very means of engagement in a digital world. From a social element, being able to see, and express oneself in non-verbal ways, is an added extra to just voice calls. At a time when many of our stimuli are deadened, or at the very least, weakened, we need to seek reassurance and value in the original senses - sight being one of them.

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