Written by Marc Bolick
These past weeks have been challenging. As the world struggles to cope with a virus that has spread faster than anything in living memory, many of us have been thrust into a new way of living and working. We have new constraints on our private lives, and our work has been severely disrupted.
As I write this, I am acutely aware that almost everyone who reads this will be, like me, amongst the most privileged and fortunate of people living on the planet. So, I want to acknowledge upfront that what I will discuss here is primarily about the impact that COVID-19 has had on the work of educated, professional class people that have seen dramatic changes in the way they work, live, and play. And, while our problems are real and cause lots of pain and suffering, they are nowhere near as severe as those less fortunate than us for whom this pandemic is likely to cause immeasurable damage for years to come.
Many of us are saying, after hours of back-to-back video calls, “I’m Zoomed out!” This is a genuine expression of mental and physical exhaustion that comes from being on countless Zoom calls, day after day, for weeks on end. We get fried. Our brains—wired to interact with others in a three-dimensional, in-person world—are overloaded with inadequate, two-dimensional stimuli from a glowing laptop screen.
The “suddenly remote” world has thrust us all into new ways of trying to collaborate, communicate, and connect that were primarily the domain of freelancers, workers-from-home and the odd future-of-work organization prior to “the virus.” Everyone has now gravitated to new ways of connecting remotely by video call using Zoom or Skype or FaceTime or whatever, trying desperately to re-establish some sense of connection with our colleagues and clients. We are all trying to get our work done and keep the lights on until we return to some level of what we used to call normal.
A WAY FORWARD
At DesignThinkers Group, our business was immediately and drastically impacted by the coronavirus. Like most of our fellow design thinkers, facilitators, and consulting practitioners, we realized that leveraging technology to help teams collaborate virtually would become a necessity for the “new normal” of a pandemic-impacted world. The crisis suddenly thrust us into a reality where facilitating co-creation sessions, helping leaders establish strategic plans, teaching people how to think like designers, and everything we use to do in person suddenly needs to be done remotely.
“Adapt or perish” is the ultimatum our businesses face.
After some initial shock, navel gazing, and confusion, we quickly realized that we are perfectly equipped to deal with this unprecedented situation.
“I wonder if there is a structured methodology to solve complex, multi-stakeholder problems that we might use,” we mused. Aha! Yes, indeed there is: it’s called design thinking. And what do you do first in design thinking? You do research. You ask questions. You listen. And, you develop empathy for the people for whom you are designing solutions.
So, that’s exactly what we have been doing for the past four weeks: Researching and connecting with customers, peers, and colleagues across the globe.
LEARNING BY DOING
What lessons have we learned so far about how to work and collaborate in an online-only world of work? We finally made time to sit down, take a deep breath, and articulate some of our main takeaways. With every webinar, online design session, large scale interactive meeting, and even our internal team meetings, we continue to learn and iterate. We hope some of these lessons will help you up your online game.
Time dilation effect: Be generous with the amount of time allowed
You simply can’t get the same collaborative productivity from working online as you can get from in-person interactions. There are two reasons for this.
First, people need to get familiar with the connectivity and user interfaces of the technology platforms you ask them to use. There is an initial investment of time required to get people familiar with the features and functions of the video conferencing, webinar, virtual whiteboard, and other applications you are using.
Second, this perceived time dilation is simply a product of the limited ‘bandwidth’ available through a 2D screen. Think about it—we have gone from an ability to scan a room, taking in a 360° view of people in a particular environment, to a limited tunnel vision of the virtual workspace that is revealed through your laptop’s screen and speakers. As a facilitator or workshop session leader, you have to take this into account and meticulously plan the minute details of your collaborative activities.
The result is that most things you do online will take longer. So, to get the same amount of work done collaboratively, you’ll need to trim things down and leverage the advantages of technology to move people from step to step as quickly as possible without leaving people behind.
Mental exhaustion: Prioritize breaks and down time
We are all familiar with the basics of one-on-one video calls, but many meetings now include multiple people, filling our screen with small moving thumbnails that our brain has to process. The resulting cognitive load of paying attention to other people on a two-dimensional screen is orders of magnitude higher than if you were in an in-person meeting.
Think about it this way: when you’re in a Zoom call, each additional thumbnail video is its own mini-movie that your brain is trying to watch. Combine this with a general lack of informal chit chat, continuous screen time, and the social deprivation that comes with endless days of isolation, it’s no wonder we are exhausted earlier each day, ready to throw in the towel on the work week by Thursday!
Lack of soft feedback: Be aware that nonverbal communication is hampered
Humans have evolved complex means of social signaling that are part of our survival mechanisms and cultures. These signals are part of what we as leaders, facilitators, and collaborators use to ‘read the room’ and sense what others are thinking that they are not expressly saying.
“Slow-motion film analysis,” writes Thomas Lynch, Ph.D., “has robustly revealed that we react to changes in body movement, posture, and facial expressions of others during interactions without ever knowing it. Indeed, we are constantly social-signaling when around others (e.g., via micro-expressions, body movements)—even when deliberately trying not to.” [Psychology Today, July 24, 2017]
When we are not physically present with others and our interactions are bandwidth-limited to—at best—a low resolution video thumbnail and distorted audio, we can’t sense where our colleagues are emotionally and what they are thinking. For facilitators, teachers, performers, and anyone who is ‘on stage’ in their work, this lack of social signaling presents one of the biggest challenges to working online.
Technical tools: Conduct careful, thorough research to determine what works for you
There are countless technology-related challenges to this new online-only way of working, from basic internet speed to the quality of video and audio from your desktop, tablet or smartphone. In time, most people will overcome these basic connectivity issues.
The bigger issue, especially for reproducing the collaborative experience of a workshop or something like a co-creation sprint, is the choice of what technology platforms to use. The two key requirements are a videoconferencing application (Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, etc.) and some form of interactive whiteboard service (Mural, Google Slides, Miro, etc.). There is no perfect solution, and we are experimenting with many of the platforms out there.
We are acutely aware that there is a lock-in effect once you start using a certain setup. Your team gets used to the hosting features and your participants get used to the user interface. Plus, your data and the artifacts you produce with these platforms begin to rapidly accumulate within the walls of their application, increasing costs should you decide to switch. The technical choices we have to make are clearly the most obvious, they are not simple to make, and they have long term consequences.
Born out of a desire to help our friends and associates across the globe thrive in the face of many COVID-19 disruptions, we’re advancing two initiatives.
Wednesday Web Jams
Together with our colleagues in the DesignThinkers Group and DesignThinkers Academy from around the world, we’ve been hyperactively leaning into all things online. We started by running weekly Wednesday Web Jams, a free one-hour online session each week where we explore different topics and experiment with different live-online collaboration techniques. You can see all our Jams in our backstage YouTube channel.
In our past four sessions, we have held two webinar-format sessions with over 1,000 people in attendance, and we have run two interactive meetings with 100 people actively participating in breakout activities (using a mix of Zoom, Mural, and Google Slides).
This series has provided a vehicle to experiment with large-scale live-online meetings, which is super important in our industry. What is it that you need to do to push your knowledge of online technology and collaboration for your unique business?
Friday Office Hours
With our DesignThinkers Group USA team, we have been holding Free Friday Office Hours during which we invite anyone to join our group of innovators for an open, unstructured hour of conversation. These are being held at 1:00 pm ET (10:00 am PT). So far, we have had people from the USA and as far afield as Malaysia, India, and Belgium in attendance.
Last week, we helped a senior experience designer think through how to perform research remotely, and helped a corporate employee examine ways to engage skeptical leadership in design thinking efforts toward positive change. The week before that, we helped a healthcare system marketing professional think through how to pivot their campaigns as a result of COVID-19.
This has been a fruitful, fun way to connect and reconnect with our customers, fellow design thinkers, facilitators, and generally anyone who wants to chat with our team.
The idea of holding virtual office hours grew from a need to listen to our customers and get a sense for what their needs and pain points are. This is certainly something you can do with your customers. It is all about listening, building relationships, and researching the people you are serving.
TIPS AND TRICKS
Through all this activity, our team has learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. We are still learning, and our Wednesday Web Jams and Friday Office Hours sessions will continue to be places where we create, experiment, iterate, and learn together with the rest of you—our fellow humans—on this difficult journey.
Here’s a collection of advice so far:
- Set norms – As any good facilitator will know, it’s essential to establish the ground rules for how you want your participants to work. Online, this takes on a new level of importance. Make sure you establish norms for how you will use the mute feature of a conferencing application, how people should signal that they want to talk, how you will replace the subtle nodding heads you would normally see during an in-person meeting, etc. While some of this will be a bit foreign to some initially, it will help reduce a lot of frustration in meetings.
- Add rituals – In our second and third Wednesday Web Jams, we delved deeply into the concept of rituals for online gatherings. These serve as a kind of signaling and signposting for groups that saves time and creates connection. Invent some opening and closing rituals (check out some ideas here from our friends at MURAL).
- Get up and move around; add fun – In this time of shelter-at-home, many of us are shackled to our computers for hours on end. Make your meeting a bit more dynamic, less stressful, and more productive by taking a moment to introduce movement into the process. Have everyone do the equivalent of the seventh inning stretch after you’ve been online for a while together to get the blood flowing.
- Turn off your own video – Reduce your exhaustion by disabling the thumbnail of your own video if you’re in “gallery view.” It’s hard enough tracking everyone else on the screen—turning off the self-obsessive switch is like turning off your ego. You get to concentrate on others, which is what the video experience is all about.
- Have some meetings without video – Yes, video helps you connect with people better and is generally better for building relationships. It also helps when doing highly collaborative and interactive work. But if you are only doing a team check-in, or if it’s later in the day, consider doing an audio-only call to reduce the stimulus fatigue.
- Complement the tech – Just because you are connecting via technology doesn’t mean all your interaction has to be through technology. Encourage participants to use pen and paper, sticky notes, hand signals, whiteboards—whatever works—to help add a more physical aspect to your meeting. For example, if you’re using a virtual whiteboard you can take a photo of a sketch you have on paper and upload it to communicate your idea in a powerful, visual way.
This article certainly does not contain exhaustive lists of tips, advice, and things to think about. What can you add that I’ve missed here? In a comment below, please help us all by sharing your own lessons learned from moving to online-only collaboration.