If Zoom CEO is tired of video calls, it's time we got back to office

TOM UTLEY: If even the boss of Zoom says he’s fed up with video calls, it’s time we got back to the office

Technophobes of the world rejoice! This week, we gained powerful support for our campaign against the horrors of video conferencing and the drawbacks of working from home (WFH). What’s more, it came from the most unlikely source imaginable.

Step forward Eric Yuan, the 51-year-old Chinese-born American entrepreneur who founded Zoom — a man who has a huge vested interest in keeping us all out of the office, communicating with our colleagues only through the magic of his internet platform.

Yet now even he is wearying of his brainchild, admitting that he has been feeling the mental strain after too many virtual meetings. There was one day last year, he told the video conference of the Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council summit, when he had to endure 19 Zoom meetings in a row. ‘I’m so tired of that,’ he said. ‘I do have meeting fatigue.’

Zoom CEO Eric Yuan said even he is wearying of his brainchild, admitting that he has been feeling the mental strain after too many virtual meetings

Indeed, so disillusioned is he with WFH that he now plans to call his company’s employees back to the office for at least two days a week.

Nor is Mr Yuan alone among the bosses of high-tech giants in finding that computer-enabled home-working may not, after all, be quite the Utopian dream they once imagined.

Disadvantages

Take Twitter’s co-founder and Chief Executive Jack Dorsey, who hit the headlines a year ago when he announced: ‘Twitter employees can now work from home for ever.’

Since then, the company has back-pedalled frantically, drawing attention to the small print in Mr Dorsey’s announcement, which added: ‘… if our employees are in a role and situation that enables them to work from home.’ That’s a mighty big ‘if’. Now it has ‘clarified’, saying it expects most of its staff to spend at least some time in the office. So much for that ‘for ever’.

It’s the same at Google, where the HR boss Fiona Cicconi has written to employees bringing forward the company’s timetable for summoning them back to the office. From September 1, she says, anyone wishing to work from home for more than 14 days in a year will have to apply for permission.

Workers are also expected to ‘live within commuting distance’, she says. So they can kiss goodbye to any thought of moving to some idyllic remote corner of the countryside, to spend their days Zooming over their laptops by the pool.

Twitter’s co-founder and Chief Executive Jack Dorsey, who hit the headlines a year ago when he announced: ‘Twitter employees can now work from home for ever

Meanwhile over at Amazon, employees have been told: ‘Our plan is to return to an office-centric culture as our baseline. We believe it enables us to invent, collaborate and learn together most effectively.’

My question is this: if even these high-tech companies, which live and breathe the internet, are finding that working from home has serious disadvantages, then shouldn’t other firms think very hard before extending the arrangements forced upon them by the lockdown?

Heaven knows, I can see the attraction of WFH for company finance officers, licking their lips at the idea of all the savings they could make by closing expensive offices and sacking the support staff they need to maintain them.

Indeed, I hope it’s not unduly cynical to suggest that this thought may have occurred to the bosses of the accountancy firm KPMG, when they announced this week that they would be moving towards ‘more flexible working’ after lockdown, starting with more time at home for its 16,000 staff.

Accounting firm KPMG told its 16,000 UK staff on Wednesday that they will work in the office for up to four days in a fortnight starting next month under a hybrid working model drawn up following the recent decline in British Covid cases (pictured: KPMG’s London headquarters) 

Naturally, they dressed up the offer as an act of pure philanthropy, saying: ‘We trust our people. Our new way of working will empower them and enable them to design their own working week.’

But I can’t help feeling they wouldn’t have prospered in accountancy if they didn’t have at least half an eye on the bottom line. The same goes for Lloyds Banking Group, which says it plans to slash its office space by 20 per cent within three years, while HSBC hopes to reduce its square footage by a whopping 40 per cent.

Yet isn’t it at least possible that for many or even most businesses, encouraging home-working may turn out to be a false economy?

Wish

David Solomon, boss of the banking giant Goldman Sachs, certainly seems to think so. Earlier this year, he rejected the idea that home working should be here to stay after lockdown, saying he was determined to get his staff back to the office at the earliest opportunity.

‘I do think for a business like ours, which is an innovative, collaborative apprenticeship culture, this is not ideal for us,’ he said. ‘And it’s not a new normal. It’s an aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible.’

But it’s not only employers who have reason to be wary of embracing the opportunity to stay at home offered by technologies such as Zoom. Workers should be nervous too.

David Solomon (pictured), boss of the banking giant Goldman Sachs, certainly seems to think so. Earlier this year, he rejected the idea that home working should be here to stay after lockdown, saying he was determined to get his staff back to the office at the earliest opportunity

Yes, I’m well aware many say they love it. Among them, apparently, are most of KPMG’s own staff. In a survey conducted in March, 87 per cent of them said they liked not having to commute, while 76 per cent enjoyed the greater flexibility they enjoyed and 65 per cent said they felt they now had a better work-life balance.

I’ve also heard some people say they’ve relished seeing more of their children — although if mine were still young, I know I would have been itching to retreat to the office as soon as I could. Give me the trials of the daily commute every time, rather than the torture of being cooped up all day, every day, with an endlessly demanding two-year-old.

But employees who hope flexible working is here to stay should be careful what they wish for. First the bosses will take your desk and your office space.

Then before you know it, they will calculate that if you can do your job more cheaply from your kitchen or sitting room 50 miles away, it will be cheaper still to hire somebody else on the other side of the world — in India, perhaps, or China.

Stilted

Hoping for promotion one day? I wouldn’t bank on it. I fear it’s a fact of human life that bosses will always tend to favour those they see around them. As for the rest, ‘out of sight, out of mind’, as they say.

But those who have most to fear from the Zoom revolution, I reckon, are the younger generation, just finding their way in the world of work. How are they to get on in their chosen careers, without experienced hands around them to show them the ropes?

Speaking for myself, I wouldn’t have lasted a week in journalism if I hadn’t had grizzled old sub-editors breathing down my neck to initiate me into the mysteries of wet proofs and dry proofs, subdecks, crossheads and straplines, WOBs and BOTs (that’s White on Black and Black on Tint, if you’re wondering) — or barking at me on the one and only occasion when, as a cub reporter, I inserted a rogue ‘O’ between the B and the R in Middlesbrough.

But those who have most to fear from the Zoom revolution, I reckon, are the younger generation, just finding their way in the world of work 

No, man is a social animal. We need contact with our fellow beings to learn how to please or annoy them and bounce ideas off each other, as we pick our way through the minefield of office politics.

Zoom, with its stilted conversations, screen-freezes and other technical hiccups (‘sorry, Samantha, you seem to be on mute’) just doesn’t hit the spot.

No wonder its founder is exhausted. And it’s no surprise, either, that scientists at Stanford University have identified Zoom Fatigue as a clinical condition, caused by excessive close-up eye contact, the tiring effect of staring at ourselves on screen and the ‘cognitive load’ of video-conferencing, which apparently uses up many more mental calories than old-fashioned meetings, face to face.

The sooner we get back to the office, if you ask me, the happier and healthier we’ll be.

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