Where’s the body? On the physicality of virtual leadership / by Christoffer Andersson

YouTube clips visualizing what a virtual meeting would look like ‘in reality’ pop up in my flow from time to time. Those short clips visualize what it could look like if we transferred our digital meeting room to a physical conference room where our Skype-images, camera captures and microphones would be represented by our physical appearances.  One example is the commercial for the conference service provider Zoom, where physicality plays a significant role in the somewhat turbulent meeting that is taking place.

Physicality may not be a top priority, or even considered, when companies discuss and train in virtual or remote leadership but the perceived non-relevance can be contested. In the book The Physicality of Leadership: Gesture, Entanglement, Taboo, Possibilities, edited by Donna Ladkin and Steven Taylor (2014), there is a chapter called Disappearing bodies in virtual leadership? by Donatella De Paoli, Arja Ropo and Erika Sauer. In the chapter, the authors oppose the technocratic view of virtual leadership as non-bodied communication by suggesting that physicality indeed is a constituent in virtual meetings. They use their own research project as an auto-ethnographic study and, following the tradition of organizational aesthetics, value sense-based paths to knowledge, meaning that e.g. seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and feeling are the instruments when developing knowledge. In terms of leadership, the authors view leadership as “an emergent process of relating and negotiating where the physical aspects are inherent and entangled with the issue at hand”(p. 72). That is, they do not view leadership through an entity perspective where leadership is tied to an individual, a leader, but rather as a process occupied by a spectrum of contributors to the relating and negotiating that provides direction. Furthermore, they highlight the paradox that research on virtual leadership view technology as the troublemaker in terms of communication and leadership but, at the same time, view technology as the solution to these issues.

With the epistemological and the ontological foundations in place, the authors argue that most virtual leadership literature neglect the physical body. They suggest that physicality should be taken into consideration in virtual leadership, although physicality in a digital form (camera images, voices through microphones, Skype photos). They argue that paying attention to the bodies can have an even greater impact on leadership in the virtual room than in the IRL conference room and hence should be given greater attention. From their own research process, they provide numerous examples of how the physical body is present in virtual meetings. They conclude that the sensitivity to relating to coworkers or managers physically increases in the virtual context and give examples such as how attention to the camera images is high, which means picking up multiple cues based on the physicality of the participants in the virtual meeting room.

One take on this is that in the physical conference room, we are unable to pay that sort of attention to the other participants’ physicality. This may partly be due to greater competition for attention in the physical room. In the virtual meeting room, ‘everything’ is experienced on screen; we even see where the noise is coming from by looking at the sound indicators in the shape of e.g. blue bars attached to the participants’ images. The authors further highlight the awareness of the own body, the own physicality, arguing that in a virtual meeting, one becomes aware of one’s own body in a manner not experienced in a face-to-face meeting. In the face-to-face meeting, you simply do not see, hear or experience yourself the same way. That is, in the virtual meeting one constantly views one’s own physicality in relation to the other participants’ physicality. So, on the one hand, technology limits the physicality by for example poor resolution, on the other hand the same technology intensifies it.

The authors conclude that “The recognition of the physicality of leadership opens up possibilities and widens the understanding of leadership by revealing the hidden and unrecognized sensuous ways in which we relate to each other. Emphasis on everyday mundane actions while being in a virtual team meeting includes the physical practices of speaking, listening, gazing, touching (even virtually) and acknowledging emotions and feelings” (p. 77). They argue that these practices are sources to the emergent process of relating that includes physicality, which is what they define as leadership.

Paying attention to the physicality of the co-creators of leadership, that is to the physicality of all contributors to the relating and negotiating that provides direction, may change the experience of the meeting in the Zoom commercial or, for that matter, the experience of any virtual meeting. The neglect of physicality in virtual leadership is challenged, a challenge that should be taken seriously given the widespread virtual nature of contemporary worklife.

 Anna Uhlin