Introduction: Ready, Set, Get Virtual 5 Some say that people really use the video element primarily to check whether others are paying attention. (In a rapidly developing game of cat and mouse, several videoconferencing platforms even experimented with adding an attention-tracking feature, spurring a stack of articles and blogs explaining how to seem like you’re paying attention when in fact you aren’t, such as by creating a video loop of yourself looking engaged!) By contrast, being able to talk to others is very important. Studies show that vocal interactions ranging from a virtual assistant (voice gives us more positive feelings)13 to your own mother (after a stressful event, teenage girls are as comforted by their mothers over the phone as they are by having them there in person)14 can provide connection. Using your voice can even change your decisions (ordering pizza on the phone leads to less overindulgence— less bacon on the pizza!—than ordering online).15 Voice isn’t always better, though: eBay famously stumbled when they acquired a videoconferencing platform out of the mistaken notion that buyers and sellers would like to connect out loud and in real time, when in fact they overwhelmingly pre- ferred the anonymity and convenience of using asynchronous text-only mes- sages for their exchanges.16 Collaborative work does seem to improve when we use video.17 But the basic concept of social presence has been nearly impossible to perfectly rec- reate through virtual means. Focusing on the video can split our attention, perhaps due to obstacles such as camera angles and choppy feeds.18 Simply put, people notice the difference, and even slight imperfections can make interactions feel awkward and cumbersome (though this may be less of a concern over time as the tech improves). There are also the distractions related to user expertise—according to data collected in 2021, nearly three- quarters of people had to tell someone else that they were still on mute in the prior year, and more than half asked whether others could see their screen.19 We’ve come a long way with the technology for virtual communications. Though we should appreciate everything we have that felt out of reach even a few years ago, we yearn for yet more in the name of seamless interaction. Section Two: Setting the Stage Moving from the office to the home office (or kitchen counter, or hastily modified closet, or car interior) means we have to grapple with a whole new aesthetic. How does our space appear to others, or do we just hide it entirely? What do we wear? Are the rules the same, or are there all new rules and if so, where do we find them? Virtual work came without a manual. The questions of our visuals (dress, office space) have a second layer to them, over and above the impression they give others, and that relates to how they make us feel. One piece of this is functionality—does our space support our work? Do we have the privacy and focus we need? Do we feel like a productive employee
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