Zoom: the bigger picture

Should out of office be permanently on and other post-lockdown questions? Nick Skelton explains why digital isn’t the only pointer for the future.

I’m an IT person by background but a sociologist at heart. A few years ago I had the opportunity to lead a Digital Workspace programme for a large university. We introduced new tools and more importantly we introduced new working practices. We helped people work from any location, paper-light and digital-first.

I learnt how to change the culture of an organisation through the introduction of new technology and new ways of working. This was something important and interesting here and I wanted to help others on the same journey. So in 2019 I went freelance, as a consultant helping organisations work better using digital tools.

To start with things were pretty quiet. Then the world went into lockdown and organisations switched to remote working. Suddenly I was in demand. Since then I’ve been part of the team in organisations from small charities to large universities. I’ve had the opportunity to study how they work and I’ve provided advice to shape those working practices. So what have I learnt? How can we all do this better?

When the world started working remotely, days were full of Zoom meetings. People were desperate to stay in touch. We used to do face-to-face meetings in a room, now we do face-to face-meetings on Zoom. Some call this practice mirroring: replacing what we used to do, but changing it as little as possible

This Zoom meeting culture was mainly driven by managers, who thought that if they weren’t systematically checking in with their team every couple of days no work would get done. In reality the opposite was the case. When everything was synchronous, your day is full of interruptions. It’s exhausting and you have no time to do the real work.

This Zoom meeting culture was mainly driven by managers, who thought that if they weren’t systematically checking in with their team every couple of days no work would get done.

Thankfully many people have cut back on these live video meetings. But we can go further. Mirroring existing practices into a new medium rarely works. Instead we should look at the affordances of the new tool, and understand what it offers us.

Consider replacing a live video meeting with a collaborative document shared in Teams or Google Docs. People can comment on the proposal asynchronously, at a time that suits them. This way of working reduces the waffly discussion, people having their say for the sake of it. It focuses attention on the output, the contents of a document.

Making activity autonomous and asynchronous increases productivity. It allows us all to reclaim some time to concentrate and be productive. But this requires real discipline. We need to think about intentional trade- offs between the time we choose to spend on focused solo work and the time we make ourselves available to colleagues for collaborative group work.

Many digital tools are intentionally designed to steal your attention. Social media will pop up alerts to suck you in and spend time looking at adverts. Even workplace tools like Teams or Slack can distract us into multitasking, with a fraction of our energy and attention on what matters most.

The world wasn’t always like this. I can just about remember when people in large organisations sent paper memos through internal mail, in special reusable envelopes. Back then you couldn’t copy half the department into correspondence, just in case. You couldn’t get into a flamewar with a colleague, as you had time to reconsider your hasty words before they left the out tray.

My ‘to-do’ list is low tech: each task is written on one post-it note.

Don’t use your email system as a ‘to do’ list, as you’ll constantly be distracted by the new messages. Store your tasks in a ‘to- do’ app, or even on paper instead. My ‘to- do’ list is low tech: each task is written on one post-it note. There’s something very satisfying about crunching it up and throwing it in the bin when complete.

Go into your email app and reconfigure its alerts. Do you really want it to flash the title bar or make a sound for every new message? Even better, sign out of your email completely for a period. Almost all of us can manage to sign out of email, Teams and the rest, for two or three hours before we check in again. Try to conquer your need for presenteeism and your fear of missing out. Honestly, you’re not important enough. There are very few problems that can’t wait. If it’s a genuine emergency someone will dig out your phone number, call and speak to you the old-fashioned way.

This is in danger of sounding negative. But I’m a huge believer in the power of digital collaboration tools to bring people together. Digital provides flexibility. It overcomes barriers of time and distance.

Conferences used to be something the lucky and the privileged attended. People with caring responsibilities simply can’t be away from home for a few nights. In the last year I’ve attended virtual conferences from Athens to Brisbane. I’ve got to know people I would have never met in person, made connections and learnt so much.

As we plan to come back to the office, what elements of lockdown working do we want to ditch, and what do we want to hold on to? A good starting point is to realise that we all still have a lot to learn. Experimentation is in order.

Be wary of imposing simplistic solutions on everyone, like no-email Fridays. In a large organisation what works for one group won’t work for another. Allow each team leeway to discover what works for them. But this is the time for organisations to have a conversation about etiquette and ways of working. Try to develop a shared understanding of each other’s needs. If I send you an email at 9.30pm does that mean that I want an answer at 10pm? Or is it because I took a break at 3.30pm to pick my child up from school?

Digital collaboration tools are blurring boundaries between work and personal life. We have learnt to be more tolerant when personal life and work cross over in new ways. People have enjoyed seeing a new side to their colleagues in a home environment, complete with pets, children and everything else that makes us human.

Digital tools allow us to stay in contact with our employers even when home. The same tools also strengthen our connections to the rest of the world. People’s ties to their work via Microsoft Teams are as strong as their ties to social and professional groups via Twitter and LinkedIn.

This could lead to a fundamental shift. What do you really need to do your job? Could you do it without the apparatus of a large organisation around you? Organisations that insist on staff being physically in the office 9-5, five days a week will be in danger of losing their most talented workers. It will become increasingly common to have a side gig in addition to a regular job. More people will be tempted to go freelance completely, as I did. Whatever path we each choose, we are all in for an interesting time.

Nick Skelton

Nick is a strategic consultant advising universities, charities, and other organisations. He works at the intersection of technology and organisational cultures: using digital to improve ways of working. Nick makes …

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