I saw a tweet that was later removed by the author, so I won’t attribute it out of respect for their wishes. But I thought the concept expressed was provocative and want to explore it. Paraphrasing rather liberally, it went along these lines…
The pandemic made working from home standard procedure. Will a lack of professionalism be the thing that ends WFH?
Now, there are a lot of potential ways to interpret “a lack of professionalism.” I don’t know what this particular author had in mind in that short tweet. You could focus on behaviors in team meetings and group video chats, or allowing inappropriate things to be seen on camera or in screen shares, or not joining meetings on time, or not muting your microphone, or all kinds of annoyances in group conversations. Peer-to-peer web conferencing is not my focus in this blog. But I believe it’s worth thinking about how universal WFH may have affected professionalism in outbound webinars.
Allow me to use a specific example to make some points.
Earlier this year, I attended a corporate conference. It was hosted by a big name in webinar/webcast software. Instead of booking a physical location and flying everyone in, the company produced the entire event online using their own web event software. Easy to attend, easy to host as many breakout sessions as they wanted with no incremental event costs.
The software worked very nicely. It was a lovely testament to how web presentations and virtual events can fill the needs of outbound communication to large, geographically distributed audiences.
The keynotes by company executives were produced at high quality in a controlled environment with professional sound, lighting, and camera operators. They started the event off nicely.
Then came the breakout sessions led by company employees. Each employee presented from home. I saw half-shaven employees wearing rumpled hoodies. I saw presenters sitting in their garage, surrounded by bicycles and lawn gear. I saw people on weak wifi with stutters and freezes. I saw overexposed and underexposed images, framed improperly. I saw laptop webcams on desks, shooting up into the presenter’s nostrils. I heard microphone scrapes, thumps, and volume changes as speakers moved their heads. In other words, exactly what you have seen for years in webinar after webinar.
It didn’t make the shared information any less valuable. But as an attendee, I felt like there was a lack of professionalism on display. It colored my perception of the company. Especially since the keynotes showed that the capability was there… they merely lacked the will to bring the entire event experience up to the same level.
It would have been less convenient for the employees. It would have cost more for the company. But they could have provided backdrops, lights, microphones, or broadcast rooms/studios in locales central to multiple presenters. They could have coordinated dress codes and branding for all presenters. They could have provided advance A/V checks and suggestions for each presenter to optimize the way they were perceived online. Or they could have demanded that each person come into the office for their breakout session presentation.
In other words, they could have dedicated the same kinds of oversight and comprehensive corporate standards to the online event that they would have done for a physical event. But that didn’t happen.
--- HAS WFH CONTRIBUTED TO LOWERED STANDARDS? ---
I don’t want to minimize the strains that COVID-related lockdowns, lockouts, and distancing placed on everyone. Companies, managers, and employees deserve kudos for making it all work as well as they have overall. Homes were forced to serve makeshift duty as offices and broadcast studios while coexisting with the demands of home life, partners, pets, and children.
Home wi-fi networks were suddenly tasked with bandwidth loads they were never built to handle… Simultaneous contention among kids doing remote schooling, family members streaming movies, multiple workers on video conferences, large “office-sized” documents being downloaded in email messages. Add to that the limitless wireless interference sources found in homes.
So we have all made allowances. Sometimes people are just going to have little freezes in team web meetings. Sometimes kids and pets are going to interrupt or add their presence on camera. Sometimes the background environment isn’t going to be pristine. Sometimes the neighbor’s leaf blower is going to make background noise.
Now we come back to that loaded phrase about “lowered standards.” It sounds accusatory or judgmental. That’s not my intent. I’m not belittling employees who have had to deal with the pandemic-enforced reality of life. You tell me what the alternative is for a single parent living in a New York studio apartment with a kid who isn’t allowed to go to school!
But there is an objective reality to face… We used to expect a given standard in work communications conducted in and between office environments with IT-managed networks and equipment and dedicated meeting rooms or office spaces. The new standard includes the allowances I mentioned above. It’s a lower standard.
And you know what? I don’t care. Internal business operations seem to be ticking right along, and if I see a coworker’s cat or kid while we’re talking, it’s kind of cute and doesn’t make me think any less of them. We’re all in this together.
--- THE IMPACT ON PRESENTATIONS ---
Now we switch our attention to the matter of presentations being made to customers, prospects, press, and analysts. Or donors. Or association members. Anyone we are trying to influence or drive to a course of action.
Once we face the world outside our corporate walls, we become ambassadors for our organization. The information we share is only one part of our job. We also have a duty to help create or reinforce a positive image of our company, to create goodwill, to build a sense of trustworthiness and reliability. In short, to show that our organization and the people in it have a sense of professionalism that makes us a desirable organization to work with.
And this is where the lowered standards of remote communication we all agreed to accept during the strict lockdown years is hurting companies. If every public-facing presenter is a spokesperson for our business image, then every public-facing presenter deserves proper support, training, equipment, and setting necessary to represent the organization in the best, most professional light.
That means corporate management needs to define and communicate a different set of standards and expectations for outbound presenters. It means asking presenters to come to controlled environments or studios when making their public presentations, or agreeing to set up home spaces that adhere to corporate A/V standards.
This is how I choose to interpret that original tweet way back at the beginning. Because most home environments cannot meet the standards for professional presentation that companies need to project, it creates a strong impetus for managers, executives, and event organizers to demand Work From Office rather than Work From Home when making presentations.
It’s not so much that employees are not acting professionally themselves, it’s that they are physically unable to create the impression of professionalism demanded by the company. So maybe “a lack of professionalism” won’t kill WFH overall, but it may well kill it for company webinars and conferences.