Let’s make this clear. Video conferencing is not going to, nor is it meant to, replicate a traditional office environment.
It may one day facilitate the downfall of the open-plan, in-person office as the optimal way of organizing a business in favor of remote, mobile workforces.
But it’s not supposed to recreate the incidental human contact and conversation that comes with physically working alongside other people. In fact, when you try to do that through the use of video conferencing, things can get a little Orwellian–just as new instant video chat service Sneek demonstrates.
Sneek Instant Video Calling
British/American endeavor Sneek is the latest in a line of chat and video calling start-ups designed to bring remote employees together through third-party integration with workflow services like Slack.
As such, it works as a desktop companion that lets you instantly message and video call your colleagues from a common platform and without having to schedule meetings.
Its main point of difference: it provides human contact for remote teams.
Now, an instant, face-to-face video call would appear already to add a human element to typical impersonal office communications like email. However, Sneek goes further than that by turning everyone’s online status indicator into a constantly changing live image of that person as they sit at their computer.
So instead of being presented with a sidebar of “available” or “busy” tabs next to your contacts’ names, like you see in everything from Skype to Gchat (R.I.P.), you instead get an impromptu picture of whatever was in front of their screen 5 minutes ago…or 1 minute ago, depending on how rapidly you choose to update these pics.
The upside to this novel system is that you can start a video call by simply clicking on a person’s image, and you’ll know they’re available because you can see them. And, of course, it also means you don’t have to remember to change settings every time you leave your desk.
The downside is, well, huge.
A Wall of Distraction and Intimidation
Once you’re up and running with Sneek you’ll be presented with a wall–their term not mine–of your colleague’s faces. These images will update at least every 5 minutes with a live shot of exactly what they’re all up to at that point in time. By Sneek’s own admission that’ll be everything from typing to picking their nose.
Here at VC Daily, we’re asking one question: why?
Why would you want that wall of nose pickers loitering in the top corner of your desktop all day?
It’s marketed as a way of building comradery and a team ethos, but surely it’s just going to be a distraction. How often are you going to try and time it just right so you present some hilarious image to your colleagues, or at least look presentable? How often are you going to find yourself just staring at those images, none of whom are making eye contact with you?
Furthermore, it plays right into the number one fear people have of video conferencing–seeing themselves on camera. Almost 60% of people feel more self-conscious when appearing on camera than they do in normal life.
So you’ve just alienated half your workforce.
And, of course, common sense tells you that now everyone is aware they’re being watched all the time, they’re going to feel pressured and anxious. Sneek is aware this setup isn’t ideal for everyone, so it offers the chance to pixelate your image or replace it with a static one.
But once you’ve done so, there goes Sneek’s biggest differentiator.
Now you have a video calling platform that provides static pictures alongside availability indicators. Or Skype, as it is better known.
Socializing with Video Conferencing
Sneek doesn’t seem to be the answer to bringing the intra-office warmth of human contact to video calling. Actually, it doesn’t even seem to understand the question. You’d never sit at your office desk and leer at your colleagues all day long, or set up an arrangement of mirrors to make sure you could see what they were all up to at any given moment.
What it wants to recreate is that random, water-cooler conversation you get in the physical office. We’ve seen other attempts to engender that team bond remotely, and none of them seem particularly revolutionary–or like particularly good substitutes for actual casual coworker interaction.
Which brings us back to that first point.
Working remotely by video conferencing is not the same as working in an office. You can’t treat remote workers as traditional employees who just happen to be at home with a cold that day.
Working entirely remotely is a different animal, and has to be approached as such. Otherwise you just get a 2D version of regular old office work.
I don’t have the answer to the team harmony question with me today, but I can tell you that it begins by building on the benefits of video calling.
An instant video conferencing service like Sneek is a far more human way of communicating than any text-based email or message, and far more efficient at delivering complicated messages than a regular phone call.
So video conferencing is already humanizing technology. It just hasn’t developed a really snappy way to deliver a quick joke to your colleagues.