Harvard Business School Prof: You’re Probably Over-Using Zoom

By Lilly Milman |  May 14, 2020

According to Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley, one of the earliest documented successful remote work experiments was done by Cisco Systems in 1993—before WiFi was invented, and when most people did not have access to cell phones or laptops. What they found was that productivity actually went up. 

Tsedal Neeley, Harvard Business School

There are decades of research available about best practices for not only acclimating to remote work, but elevating it, that are more essential now than ever, Neeley says. 

Neeley is an expert in organizational behavior and has led the digital transformation effort for a number of companies. She is the head of the Leadership and Organizational Behavior course in the Harvard MBA program. She is also the founder of the consulting firm Global Matters.  

She shared ways teams can work together to continue to level up their work from home experience, communicate more effectively, innovate remotely, and prepare for a transition back to the office one day. 


Communicating Effectively Is Key

Many people that I’ve spoken to…have been so pleasantly surprised at how effective work from home can be. … I don’t think that this is going to be the norm in this scale, but I do think that people will be open to giving employees who wanted that option [the opportunity]. That’s great news, but individuals need to know how to be effective. 

People are learning, as remote employees…how to remain connected with your internal and external stakeholders regularly, how to have informal connection and contact with people — from virtual lunches to coffee to, “I’m going to take my phone and take my daily walk and have a conversation with someone,” [to] selecting the right media in order to communicate.

People are over-indexing on this Zoom, visual thing. The cognitive load is excessive. 

People are overly using Zoom and video conferencing. They’re saying, “I’m so exhausted. I’m so tired at the end of the day.” At some point, I said, “Tell me about all these Zoom meetings.” You hear them and you’re like, “Three of those you could have done through three emails.” 

Media selection and media choice is actually a sophisticated thing that people begin to learn over time. There’s a lot of studies about how you combine the various media I’m talking about, from email to Slack to instant messaging. People are over-indexing on this Zoom, visual thing. The cognitive load is excessive. 

Launching and Relaunching Your Remote Team

Every manager [has to] do a work-from-home team launch. These are critical team launches, since they set the course of the team in this particular time and space. It gives the team a shared agreement among members of how to work together most effectively. 

What’s going to be our shared purpose? … What is in the technology infrastructure in your home? What do you need to be successful? … What are the barriers that get in the way? For some, it’s a family. When the team is in agreement…individual identities tend to meld into a shared team identity, which in turn, motivates great investment…and people work harder on the collective goals.

If we’re still at this in June, you need to do a relaunch. Check back in with your team. How are things going? You initially agreed about these things. Is that realistic? Is this working for people? What can we do less of?

If we’re still at this [remote work] in June, you need to do a relaunch. Check back in with your team. How are things going?

Sophisticated and smart managers know that it is problematic to have people burn out… If I send an email to someone after hours or on the weekend, I always say, “When we’re back in action on Monday, can you please tell me your thoughts about this?” You have to make sure that you model this as a leader, and you give people permission to understand that we’re not asking you to work 24/7. 

Part of what you do during your team launch is talk about these things. Make them explicit. Otherwise, everyone is just trying to figure it out, and we’ll over-index, overcompensate. We are in the middle of a global pandemic. People are stressed and worried, and many have loved ones who are affected. We’ve got to be really attuned to those things.

Maintaining Innovation Without Physical Interaction

You can brainstorm using Zoom. You don’t need the physical location. You will need more frequent contact and more frequent meetings to achieve your innovation goals. 

[If you work in R&D], you have to rely more on and learn digital tools that you can share with others. You have to think of creative ways to generate your prototypes… There are many things that you can do in your home using digital tools that are extraordinary. It’s time to learn some new [digital tools] and be very creative in how you prototype and how you demonstrate to others. It could mean [that] you video yourself or others that are in your household, showing them a prototype. 

Creating The Right Workspace

[I use a] USB microphone and I have my earpiece. Not everyone needs this, but there’s so many things that you can do to make yourself feel comfortable. 

The second thing is lighting. … [You need] lighting that is right in front of you. Those are some external things that people can get. You don’t need all of it, it depends on what you are doing. If you meet a lot, or if you speak a lot and if you have customers and clients, I would absolutely recommend this. It elevates your sound quality, the professionalism…

Transitioning Back to The Office

It’s not [going to be] one day, and everyone’s going to start going from home to work. You’re going to have these mixed settings. Then, you have to make sure that neither [the in-office or the work-from-home] group feels that they have more access to power, resources, leadership…The equity piece has to be very carefully managed.

You need to reinforce again…and again through messaging and through your actions that we’re actually part of the same team…This is going to be very important to explicitly emphasize.

[Once certain people begin to return to the office,] what can easily happen is just by the sheer fact that you have your employees who have gone back to work…and those who are still home…you can get the “us versus them” psychological state. It takes very little for the “us versus them” thing to emerge.

What this means for leaders and managers is that you need to reinforce again and again through messaging and through your actions that we’re actually part of the same team…This is going to be very important to explicitly emphasize.