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Does virtual trump in-person?

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I hesitate to write the first line of this article because I fear that I may be perceived as tone-deaf to the plight of persons struggling with the increased reliance on technology to communicate. The sterile and, in extreme cases, isolating feeling that comes from virtual interactions have made the extroverts among us crave the warmth of in-person interaction. This craving, which often arises from prolonged absence from routine activities, can be so potent that it clouds the merits of the other positives happening around us. In this case, it is the value of the increasing digitisation of everyday activities. 

Digital communication is at the foundation of working and learning remotely. Many of us, who have been blessed to make use of this opportunity, were possibly saying a silent thank you when temperatures dropped to -40°C. Who among the lucky few, working and studying at home, offered any complaints or resistance to attending classes and managing workload remotely when going outdoors was at its most unattractive? The silence is deafening! 

Studies have shown that working and learning remotely increases productivity. Data from 42,240 survey responses collected between July 2020 to July 2021 through the Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes found that workers reported a higher rate of productivity when working from home. Data from the same survey also revealed that work from home efficiency climbed at each reporting interval, peaking in November 2021. Data taken from Statistics Canada also revealed that 90 per cent of respondents reported maintaining the same productivity at home as they would in the office. Of that number, 32 per cent reported that they accomplished more at home. According to Rebecca Stropoli’s article “Are We Really More Productive Working from Home?” persons attribute an increase in productivity to saved commuting time; a quieter working environment; fewer or shorter meetings; meals, chores and childcare efficiency; and less stress. The survey found that the time saved was reinvested into the respondents’ primary jobs. 

Indeed, work-life balance is best achieved through working and learning remotely, but it does not negate the importance of building community and forming lasting relationships. Research conducted by Microsoft between December 2019 to June 2020 found that employees spent less time collaborating with “weak ties.” These are persons who have limited interaction with each other in the workplace. The research also showed that specific departments, mainly business and marketing, found it challenging to complete tasks remotely. 

The same rings true for learning remotely. Despite the benefits of the reduced associated cost of learning and scheduling flexibility, the need for greater self-motivation and discipline makes a primarily virtual learning approach less attractive. Young adults tend to work best with structure and within physical environments. They also have a more substantial need for in-person social interaction because many of the friendships forged during university will remain with them for a lifetime. 

Information Technology, namely digital communication tools, has helped students, workers, and those who play dual roles achieve work-life balance. Still, the benefits do not eliminate the need for in-person interaction. The world has opened Pandora’s box of virtual solutions, which gave persons who wear multiple hats a glimpse of a world where they can effortlessly juggle competing priorities. This demographic is much larger than anticipated and, when faced with constricted terms of work, will have no problem sacrificing income for peace of mind and flexibility. 

The takeaway from this discourse is that remote work and learning should not be arbitrary decisions. Some jobs and programs cannot thrive on a solely virtual interface in the same way that some persons cannot realise their best self connected to society digitally. Research-based policies are needed to help determine the best fit for a given situation.

The pandemic has heightened persons’ resistance to the constraints of working only in person because they will not easily forget the freedom remote work and learning offer. Consequently, a post-COVID world will be a world that embraces a hybrid approach to working and studying — a world where neither virtual nor in-person will have sovereignty. 

Graphics: Dani Moffatt

1 Comment

  1. Very interesting and informative


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