Remember that time you saw Bill Gates laughing until he cried, slapping his a buddy on the back and ordering shots for everyone? Or remember that time you saw him in that coffee shop with his other friend, his eyes locked on hers, as she told him about something that she feels has been happening inside her lately? Or that time you and Bill stayed up until four a.m. just talking about everything?
All those scenes are inconceivable, because Bill Gates’ warmest personal relationship appears to be with Warren Buffett (and vice-versa). Like Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniaki, Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Elon Musk and pretty much every person you’ve ever seen run a tech company, Bill Gates seems to want to relate to human beings about as deeply as I want to dig into the innards of my Mac. It’s not easy, being green.
Then why in tarnation are we reading articles like this, on CNET recently?
Microsoft founder Bill Gates predicts that half of all business travel won’t return after the coronavirus pandemic ends and that people will also work far less often from a physical company office, Business Insider reported. …
“My prediction would be that over 50% of business travel and over 30% of days in the office will go away,” Gates reportedly said, adding that from now on, businesses will have a “very high threshold” for traveling to conduct in-person meetings.
Gates, and so many other tech heads and number crunchers who we put in charge of our largest institutions, think that this year Zoom has proven that actually seeing one another in person is largely unnecessary.
I think Zoom has proven that relationships originally built on seeing one another in person can withstand a hell of a lot of distance before the bonds of affection finally snap.
Yes, companies have performed amazingly well these last nine months. That’s because they drew on two things: 1. Employees terrified to lose their jobs and determined to make this work. 2. Relationships well-established IRL (in real life)—and remembered, and drawn on, and given the benefit of every doubt.
But try to build these relationships on Zoom, from scratch?
The Professional Speechwriters Association’s virtual World Conference was a spiritual success this year not because the tech made it like a real conference full of spontaneous human energy in a shared physical space. But because the tech (along with the program and the friendly emcee) was just good enough to remind the people who attended it, the vast majority of whom had attended previous events in person, of what that felt like. They wanted to remember that feeling, wanted to rekindle their real relationships they’d made.
And they did; the achievement was as much theirs as ours.
But it spoke to the profound meaning of those established relationships much more than it did to the social possibilities of Zoom Life.
And if we have to do another virtual conference in 2021, they’ll probably return, to remember that feeling again. But I would not want to draw on those memories for a third year. And to try to hold a first event as an online-only thing and create bonds like these? Couldn’t happen, wouldn’t happen, in a million years.
I fear the propeller heads who now have so much sway over our economy have taken precisely the wrong lesson from how successful we’ve all been at holding it down via Zoom. They’ll learn, as the always do—the hard way.
And then the Nerd Kings and Queens will write “insightful” pieces in Harvard Business Review with titles like “High Tech vs. High Touch,” about how there’s no substitute for human interaction, which the rest of us knew all along.
And then, they’ll forget all over again …
For environmental and social reasons, I do hope and believe that what we’ve learned in Zoom Year can and will give us options to reduce truly unnecessary air travel, and eliminate air quotes from the phrase, working from home. But the laws of human hearts being immutable, the reductions will not be as draconian as Gates thinks, and other changes will have to be made in how companies organize themselves.
More expensive changes, Bill.