The machines take over

Last week, I ran a Virtual Session on Negotiation. Three 90-minute sessions through the day. Twelve little windows of talking heads peering curiously into the ether. There was a moment when, having sent people off to breakout rooms to roleplay with the actors, I thought “Wow, this is just like what we do in person”. And when we wrapped, the feedback was great and people loved that they didn’t have to spend hours travelling… you know this story.

And then I wandered from my garden Man Cave into the house, made myself a cuppa and literally collapsed on the sofa as if I had single-handedly kept a herd of water buffalo at bay. I was totally exhausted.

Virtual training is like any good antibiotic. It solves a problem… but there are side effects. There’s always a price to pay.

The difficulty of digital dialogue

From a facilitation point of view, the amount of preparation is probably five times more than face-to-face. The ability to improvise, change tack, use a different way of doing something is limited. Participants are impatient – their concentration is severely tested and they don’t have a couple of other real people sitting with them to relate to. They are staring at a screen. We all know that when we’re working on a screen, we expect everything to happen immediately. So watching a facilitator redirect and mess with windows and reshuffle breakout rooms is frankly boring.

Participants need to feel heard as well as seen, but a simple check around twelve people in an online setting can take 20 minutes, and that’s without stumbling on the delegate who wants to talk for 5 minutes before allowing you to move on. And that’s if every participant has a good internet connection and hasn’t inadvertently minimised the window and is panicking because they can’t see anyone.

Human-machine-human interfacing

The main issue for all is the brain drain. Research tells us that your brain needs to work overtime when communicating online. This is because all the visual and intangible cues we get from other people during face-to-face interaction, which we use to work out how we feel about them or they may be feeling about us, are no longer there. The result of this is that, after less than an hour – even if the engagement is interactive, with breakouts, etc – people are mentally exhausted.

Remote facilitation has some powerful advantages that don’t need repeating. But it does severely compromise something that the virtual world is continually eroding. Humanity.

It makes me think of the frustration I always feel when I can’t talk to a human being to get something sorted. The automated messages that do everything they can to funnel us into a press-key solution rather than revealing the option that puts you through to an advisor.

I’ll be back…

My fear is that this crisis has been a game changer for the robots. Just like in Terminator 3, we’re coming to realise that we’re slaves to the machines, rather than their masters. That ticking a box is more important than making a human connection. That cost efficiency trumps care and support. That fortune favours the technically competent and the dinosaurs will lumber off into oblivion.

So here is my plea… when we emerge blinking into the sunlight to try to recover the best bits of the world we lost, let’s remember the value of all things human, and not socially distance ourselves into a digital approximation of reality.

And remote training? Make it serve a higher purpose as part of a blended solution that keeps the humans in the loop… but that’s another blog!

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David Solomon


Managing Director, Sun and Moon Training