What Zoom’s rise tells us about future of work culture

This article was first published in Deccan Herald.

The shift to working from home would have happened in an organic manner, but the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the speed of change; important to think about the precautions we must take to make this on-going experiment successful

The coronavirus pandemic has become the reason for the largest work from home experiment in history. This phenomenon has meant an increased use of video conferencing and collaboration platforms that allow many people to simultaneously interact and collaborate in a virtual setting.

Not surprisingly, the company that has benefited most from this on-going experiment is Zoom, a video conferencing platform that is being used by millions of users. Zoom’s share price has more than doubled since the new coronavirus began to spread in December 2019. There has also been a rise in trolling and graphic content on Zoom, an almost definitive sign that it is rising in popularity among teenagers and not just working professionals.

Zoom’s rise (along with other video conferencing platforms like Skype and Slack) is indicative of a broader shift in the work culture. This shift to working from home or working remotely would have likely happened in an organic manner anyway, but the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated its speed.

There isn’t much value in arguing about whether this phase will lead to a permanent shift in terms of a bulk of jobs being performed remotely from now. That question depends on too many variables, and it is impossible to predict.

But the shift itself needs to be understood as part of an evolving trend. Workspaces for the most part have moved from cubicles to open-plan offices. As Chris Bailey notes in Hyperfocus, it is contentious to conclude that open-plan offices improved productivity across the board. What open-plan offices did was to make employees think twice before interrupting their colleagues, and made them more respectful of each other’s time.

The future of the office space, moving on from open-plan offices, is the virtual office (widely anticipated and now catalysed by the COVID-19 threat), with people logging in and conducting meetings from home. This brings us to what the characteristics of this new work from home culture will be and what broad precautions we must take to ensure that remote working is successful for us as a people.
Thinking through the idea of working remotely

The first and most important thing to look out for here is going to be the impact this is going to have on the attention economy. With an increasing number of people working from home today, there is going to be a significant reduction in friction. Let me explain, the attention economy runs on the idea of manipulating people to spend more time on platforms. Companies do this by eliminating friction between the user and the content This is why the feed on Instagram is endless, or why the default option on Netflix is to keep watching more instead of stopping. Because everything is either free or so easy to access, attention becomes the currency.

But when in office environments, for example, during a meeting, there is a certain amount of friction in accessing these apps. Using Instagram while talking to a colleague is going to have a social cost on your relationship. However, when working from home, it is going to be significantly easier for employees to give in to their distractions instead of focusing on tasks at hand. It is no wonder that Zoom has begun offering a feature that allows hosts to check if participants are paying attention based on whether or not the Zoom window is active on their screens.

In addition, this also opens a can of worms for privacy breaches and the issue of regulating non-personal data. Because a huge number of people are shifting to working online for the foreseeable future, the value of online meetings increases in terms of the data being shared on them. This gives video conferencing and collaboration platforms the incentive to collect and share an increased amount of data with advertisers. For example, information on when users open the app, details about the user’s device – such as the model, time zone, city, phone carrier, and the unique advertiser identifier (a unique number created by user devices which are then used to target ads).

In addition, increased workloads being transferred online will also generate increasing volumes of non-personal data, making the debate on how that should be regulated more relevant. For context, non-personal data is a negative term that is used to refer to all data that is not personal. This includes data like company financials, growth projections, and quite possibly most things discussed in office meetings.

It is unlikely that COVID-19 has transformed offices forever. In this regard, its role in history is likely to be seen as a catalyst, accelerating the shift from offline offices to online offices. But as it does so, we need to take precautions by introducing friction in the attention economy, being conscious of the privacy trade-offs being made to facilitate new features, and installing regulation for the governance of non-personal data.

(Rohan Seth is a technology policy analyst at The Takshashila Institution)