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Virtual Work Has A Bandwidth Problem, But It's Not What You Think.

by Ulises Pabon

We’ve all had our share of virtual meetings over low-bandwidth internet connections causing video freezing, voice stuttering, and a host of other communication problems.

However, the most damaging virtual-work-related bandwidth problem has nothing to do with the internet. It has to do with how we process information.

Bandwidth and Human Nature

Bandwidth is a measure of information. It’s the amount of information transmitted over a given channel in a given amount of time. In the internet world, it’s typically measured in megabytes or gigabytes per second.

The smallest unit of information is a binary digit or bit. A bit, like an on-off switch, has two states: 0 (think: off) or 1 (think: on). Assemble 8 bits and you have a byte. A byte can represent 256 states or pieces of information. Gather a million bytes together and you have a megabyte. The King James Bible (Old and New Testament) is approximately 4.13 megabytes in size. Gather a billion bytes together and you have a gigabyte.

I only need one bit of information to let you know the result of a coin toss - e.g., 0 for heads, 1 for tails. But if the conversation migrates towards the physics involved in a coin toss, or towards the state of affairs of the world on the year embossed on the coin, we are talking terabytes! Not for the words; for the non-verbals.

My fascination for physics or for history (to stick with the example) shows, not only in what I say, but in how I say it, in how passionate I get when I say it, and in hundreds of other non-verbal subtleties. How carefully I manipulate the 1964 Kennedy half-dollar that just landed on my hand; the way I lift my left eyebrow when I retell the story of seeing Jack Rudy shoot Lee Oswald on live TV; the tap I give your right arm to signal that “I’m just kidding” when I challenge you to flip 10 heads in a row; all of these inconsequential non-verbals speak volumes.

In his book Silent Messages, professor Albert Mehrabian from UCLA proposed an interesting ratio. Today, we refer to it as the 7-38-55 rule and it’s used by top communicators and negotiators throughout the world.

Mehrabian argued that, when we communicate, 7 percent of our message is carried by our words, the tone of our voice carries 38 percent, and 55 percent is transmitted through our body language - nonverbal cues that transmit context and meaning.

In this light, virtual meetings have a fundamental shortcoming - they simply can’t compete with reality. The obvious non-verbals make it through (assuming the speaker’s video camera is on) but most of the subtleties that make up 55% of our message don’t.

The True Nature of Knowledge Work

The idea that knowledge work is cut out for the digital world stems from a fundamental misunderstanding. When knowledge work is seen as the analysis and exchange of data, it’s easy to conclude that all you need is people behind computers connected via networks.

Yet, data and information sit on the lower end of the spectrum of knowledge work. They are the raw material of knowledge work, not its end-product; knowledge and wisdom are. How do we get from data and information to knowledge and wisdom? The answer, in two words, is context and understanding.

Data and information sit on the lower end of the spectrum of knowledge work. They are the raw material of knowledge work, not its end-product; knowledge and wisdom are.

You won’t find context and understanding in a spreadsheet. They emerge by exercising thought and reflection against the details and subtleties of reality.

Send a survey to a thousand chefs and, if you’re lucky, you might milk an insight or two from the data. But spend one evening with one chef, and you’ll emerge with one thousand insights. The practice is called ethnography. In its purest form, you don’t even need to talk with the chef. Just observe her engaged at work. Take note of moments where she has to expend extra effort to get something done. Notice the task she enjoys. Identify the shortcuts she takes. Jot down tasks that frustrate her. In your notebook, sketch the MacGyver-like contraptions she builds to fold the dough or to open the jar with a stuck lid.

Ethnography allows you to observe the subtleties of human behavior and incorporate context into your conclusions. It’s an example of a high-bandwidth activity that leads to knowledge and wisdom.

The Dilemma of Technology

Technology is an enabler. It’s a great multiplier - whether you’re referring to a rudimentary ax from the stone-age or to the personal computer I’m using to write this article.

During the last decades, we’ve seen a parade of knowledge-work-enabling digital technologies - e.g., asynchronous and synchronous collaboration platforms, document management systems, virtual meeting platforms, artificial intelligence algorithms that support decision making, software robots that automate workflows, and ideation and idea management software.

In many ways, these technologies “saved the day” when we were hit by the COVID pandemic. COVID upended work. It launched Zoom and Microsoft Teams into a meteoric rise. And it made work-from-home the new way of working for millions of employees around the world.

Work will never be the same. There is no going back. Yet, virtual work is not a panacea. It has many shortcomings - at the self, relationship, and task level.

At the self level, working from home presents a fundamental question: Am I working from home or am I living and sleeping at work? For those new to work-from-home when COVID stroke, it felt like the latter. Difficulty disconnecting from work translated into anxiety and burn-out.

Those experienced at work-from-home when COVID hit weren’t exempt from difficulties. Fatigue set in as they tried to manage the daily litany of back-to-back-to-back virtual meetings. It’s a natural consequence of the 7-38-55 rule. Starved of non-verbal cues, virtual conversations become, at the least, awkward, at the worst, excruciating. We need to expend extra effort to make sense of what’s being said and to infer what’s happening.

At the relationship level, while virtual connectivity does offer the ability to reach out and connect, it can’t replace the experience of talking face-to-face with a caring, empathic human.

Ask Vishal Gary, the CEO of He made the headlines when he fired 900 employees via a Zoom video. Go figure.

You can cut a piece of wood with a hammer. It’s going to look ugly, but you can get the job done. Don’t expect a straight line and put some goggles on cause wood-chips are going to be flying all over. The right tool for cutting wood is a saw. If you have to use a hammer, well … use a hammer. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re using the right tool.

This is the exact state of affairs of virtual work. Managers know it’s a different tool but act as if it’s business-as-usual. They underestimate the need for “goggles”!

Last, but not least, the virtual world simply doesn’t work well when it comes to complex knowledge work. Here are some questions you need to ask yourself before you conclude that the task lends itself to the digital world:

  • Is the task context intensive? Does it depend on the tacit knowledge of those related to the task?

  • Does it require collaboration based on the ongoing development of mutual understanding?

  • Does the task require a trust-building environment?

  • Is the task a developmental task? Will the person executing the task require a safe and caring space that fosters learning through feedback and coaching?

  • Is the task scripted and routinized or does it require collaborative creative work?

These are all important questions. For sure, as the state of the art of technology advances, many of the current gaps and shortcomings will disappear. The point I’m making is that you should deliberately pause and think about the fit between the current state of technology and the task at hand as you decide on the venue to get the job done. Even if your only option is to go digital, and especially if your only option is to go digital, consciously assess the weaknesses of your work design and take appropriate measures to address them.

Which Brings Me To Hybrid Work

For some, hybrid work entails working some days of the week from home and the remaining days of the week at the office. For others, hybrid work means a monthly or quarterly face-to-face meeting that everyone is required to attend. It might even include participating in the stereotypical team-building session to “make sure” everyone feels connected and part of the team.

Used this way, hybrid work misses the point. The determining factor between using a virtual platform or using a face-to-face venue to accomplish work is not the day of the week: it’s the nature of the task.

The determining factor between using a virtual platform or using a face-to-face venue to accomplish work is not the day of the week: it’s the nature of the task.

Hybrid work can be a solution when transactional or individual work is performed virtually, complemented with face-to-face problem-solving or think-tank sessions for high-end knowledge work.

This configuration looks a lot like the SCRUM process used within the agile project management methodology. It may well be a template for the future of work - dynamic configurations that morph between virtuality and reality to fit the task at hand.

The Future of Work

COVID spurred the Great Resignation with over 47 million Americans voluntarily quitting their jobs in 2021. It dealt a severe blow to the demand for traditional brick-and-mortar office space in most metropolitan cities.

So, with millions working from home, are offices necessary? Is the office really dead? It’s a trick question.

In many organizations, offices are a vestige of the industrial revolution. Managers “solved” the particularities of knowledge work using the same organizing principles of a factory. They assembled rows of partitioned desks, each employee working on specific tasks, grouped by functional silos (aka “departments”). If that’s the office you have in mind, that, we don’t need.

But let me change the question slightly. Is physical collaborative space really necessary?

I think this question strikes at the heart of the issue. If we imagine a Matrix-like future where we are all lying in pods connected to a virtual world, then, your answer will depend on whether you choose to take the blue pill - which allows you to remain in the fabricated reality of the Matrix - or the red pill - which will allow you to unplug from the Matrix and realize that there’s an actual physical world we live in.

I hate to disappoint the blue-pill folks but you won’t be living in the Matrix any time soon. The Jetsons, an animated cartoon produced by Hanna-Barbera Productions, aired in the ’60s and promised us Rosie - a robot maid that handled cleaning, cooking, and all kinds of house chores. About 50 years later, technology delivered Roomba - a far cry from Rosie!

On a more serious note, questioning the need for physical space is more relevant than ever. More and more, work is getting done through a network of players that includes full-time employees, part-time employees, freelancers, contractors, professional services organizations, and gig workers.

In a recent study published by MIT Sloan Management Review titled Orchestrating Workforce Ecosystems, authors Elizabeth J. Altman, David Kiron, Robin Jones, and Jeff Schwartz argue that this system of interdependent players challenges our traditional notions of work design. The study surveys significant shifts in management practices, technology enablers, integration architectures, and leadership approaches required to orchestrate this new modality of work.

At QBS, we understand that bringing people together to solve wicked problems will require a combination of virtual and physical platforms. What will this look like? Let me use an analogy from the retail banking industry.

Technology has transformed transactional banking into something we can do anywhere. While some banks have dispensed altogether with the physical branch, other banks are betting their future on a hybrid business model. They are transforming the traditional branch into social spaces that combine provisions for technology-assisted transactions, lounge areas for face-to-face conversation and dialogue, conference rooms for private financial planning meetings, and a cafe or juice bar to hang out. This may well be the future of the office.

If we want to foster collaboration, build community, and work as one as we tackle wicked problems we will need physical workspaces like this. Not all work needs to occur here but it will be there for creative and knowledge-intensive high-bandwidth work. Some might need an open area with ample wall space for visual thinking. For others, it might take the form of a lab for prototyping, testing, and accelerated learning. The traditional office might be obsolete but the need for physical space will not disappear.

Closing Thoughts

I’ve peeked behind the curtain and I’ve seen the old man pulling the levers of the Wizard of (Zo)om. I’ve looked under the table and caught Microsoft Teams in its underwear.

Ok. These are horrible metaphors. What I’m trying to say is this: don’t fall for the hype. Virtual work is not a universal one-size-fits-all solution. I'm not asking you to turn into a Luddite. Just that you recognize our natural need for bandwidth when it comes to knowledge-work and wisdom.

Pause to assess the task at hand and configure the right combination of virtual and face-to-face venues to get the job done. Recognize that the brave new world of work will demand a broad portfolio of work modalities. Realize that work is happening less and less under your company's roof and more and more within an ecosystem of players. Create the spaces - virtual and physical - these players will need to come together as one.

The future of work is at your doorstep. As you and your team determine what gets done, who gets it done, when it gets done, and where it gets done, keep bandwidth in mind and you'll make the right calls.

If you need help in designing the future of work, reach out and we'll help you foster collaboration, gain a competitive advantage, and thrive in the new normal.

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