Wish You Were Here: Is meeting online killing creative contribution?

Zoom and Microsoft Teams got businesses through the pandemic - but are there some drawbacks? 

Zoom and Microsoft Teams got businesses through the pandemic - but are there some drawbacks? - Credit: Archant

Staff have a love-hate relationship with their screens. People have started jobs, launched businesses and developed strategies all in 2D.

But, ask Eleanor Pringle and Angus Williams, is there a downside to being away from the office bubble?

“You’re on mute.”  

If the past year had a slogan, this would be it. And love it or hate it, the likes of Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts have got the economy through the pandemic.  

The government, at least, are keen to get people back to their office.  

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Just last week chancellor Rishi Sunak said he was “in the camp of saying that it’s good that people are in offices together”.  

He added: “I think you can’t beat the spontaneity, the team building, the culture that you create in a firm or an organisation from people actually spending physical time together.” 

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And certainly, science backs up the idea that working collaboratively in a positive environment can be hugely beneficial – particularly for those in creative industries.  

Dr Hazel Harrison is a clinical psychologist who previously worked for the NHS in Ipswich and now runs ThinkAvellana – an organisations that supports schools, businesses and other groups to think more positively about mental health.  

She said: “We know that being in a positive environment helps us to think more creatively. If, for example, we asked people to come up with alternative uses for a paper clip it is the people who were surrounded by positive emotions that come up with the broadest range of ideas. 

Dr Hazel Harrison will lead the talk at Kesgrave High School. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Dr Hazel Harrison  - Credit: Archant

“We also know that being on a Zoom call can use more mental energy. Just because when you’re in the office the banter is quicker, it’s easier to hear, and on Zoom this can be slightly delayed and harder to achieve.”  

Paul Swinney, director of policy and research at Centre for Cities, added: “When you’re on a zoom call you have very deliberate conversations, you may not chat about other projects which are going on as you would in the office. However these are the conversations where you might offer some insight or a new perspective. 

“Likewise, if you have lots of people in an office you might overhear something and join in on a conversation. 

“The other thing to consider is how people learn – which is often by seeing how other people conduct themselves in different situations. That’s difficult to pick up on and take cues from if you’re sat in your bedroom.  

“It’s these intangible qualities which will remain important pandemic or not that will mean offices never become a redundant idea.” 

But – Dr Harrison added – this comes with a caveat: “However, this of course is all dependent on the variable that they feel their environment is positive. That they feel hopeful, optimistic and supported. If they feel emotions like stress then we know this focuses the brain – it goes back to our survival mode – instead of allowing it to roam more freely.  
“So not only does it come down to how genuinely positive the environment is, but also how the person perceives that environment.”  

The Suffolk-based psychologist said: “It comes down to individual preference. We’re seeing a lot of children, for example, saying they’ve enjoyed learning from home because there are fewer distractions.  

“Likewise, we’ve seen adults saying that working from home is actually positive for their wellbeing because they can go for a run when it’s still light or grab some lunch with their partner.  

“I know Zoom has really allowed me to work on some projects and have some conversations I wouldn’t otherwise. I’ve been hosting webinars and training projects which otherwise people wouldn’t have been able to attend, and I know moving forwards I’ll be much more comfortable having meetings virtually instead of travelling to London.”  

This point was echoed by Norwich-based designer Rob Wilkes, founder of Creative Giant, who said: “I would say 99pc of my experience of Zoom has been exceptionally positive. I’ve started working a three day contract with a business based in New York, which wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for Zoom.  

Rob Wilkes, of Creative Giant. Picture: Submitted

Rob Wilkes, of Creative Giant. Picture: Submitted - Credit: Archant

“I don’t think I would have got the contract if it weren’t for the pandemic because it’s sped up the adoption of remote working.  

“The only downside if I had to identify one is that the creative process does require a lot of people to chip in and that has taken slightly longer because people aren’t all necessarily around one table in the same room the way they would be otherwise.  

“Having said that, we can share screens and we’ve got customisable PDFs where we can add comments and then bounce them back really quickly.  

“I don’t think we’ll ever go back to working the way we used to. I started working on my own about six years ago so I’ve always been comfortable with this kind of process. Then as my kids got older I started sharing desks and going back into an office environment – but strangely I didn’t struggle at all with coming back to working solo.  

“If anything it’s easier because now everyone is on Zoom or Teams or whatever it might be – so there’s a lot more trust when it comes to your workflow and when you’re online and when you’re not.”

Even creative teams that normally rely on close collaboration have found ways to work within the restrictions. 

Creative Nation, a Norwich-based media company, runs the BFI film academy courses in Suffolk and Norfolk. 

The intensive scheme offers 16-19-year-olds a hands-on experience of filmmaking, in which they design, film and edit a short film in the space of a week. 

Alex Jeffery, a director at Creative Nation, said: “Obviously, we had to migrate it online, because of Covid, which is quite difficult with a hands-on course like that. 

“It’s as much about keeping people engaged online, because it’s much harder to connect. So we had to put a lot of thought into the course. 

“The quality of the finished films was really, really high. I think a lot of people when they see them are quite amazed at the end product. 

“We were very happy. We think it was a great success. And all the responses we got back from the students were very positive.” 

Jim Horsfield, a freelance filmmaker who worked on the scheme, said: “Normally it’d all be in person. The kids would get together and go through various aspects of the filmmaking industry. Then they would write a script, find a location and go out and film it together. 

Screen Suffolk's Jim Horsfield said having Yesterday and David Copperfield released within six month

Jim Horsfield sees some benefits to distance working

“The next day they would all get together again in an edit suite. 

“But this year, because we wanted to limit the number of people on set and actually using Zoom we’re still able to go out and do a full shoot. 

“We fed the camera feed directly in as a source, so all the students can be sitting wherever they are and can see the output from the camera and control the whole shoot. 

“The next day we got together virtually again and did the editing. 

“I did a screen share and we edited with all the kids sitting at home and we went through the whole edit that way.” 

Mr Horsfield said the film produced was of a similar quality to ones made in previous years despite only ever having three people on set. 

“It’s just a different way of working,” he said. “To be honest it was probably beneficial to some of the kids. Perhaps if they had anxiety issues or anything like that it meant they could be in the safe space of their own home. For some kids it probably made it a lot easier.”

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