Here we are. Three to six months into CoviDistancing – call it lockdowns, social distancing, isolation, shutdowns – and, really, there’s no end in sight.
Let that sink in for a few minutes. It’s possible that there’s an effective vaccine just around the corner – which generally means a year of human trials so we know it’s reasonably safe. It’s possible that a cocktail of treatments which make CoViD-19 no worse than a common cold is also just around the corner. I hope and pray that one, or really both, of those is true.
But hope is not a strategy. And prayer is most powerful when it accompanies action.
Let’s also acknowledge that just about everyone has been wrong about CoViD-19 at one point or another. Most people and organizations waited to distance their employees or isolate themselves until far too late. Almost everyone – from the US Surgeon General down – has been wrong at one point or another about masks. Treatments that we hoped were promising weren’t. Institutions that we trust to guide us demonstrated their fallibility. Ideas about how to “work remotely” ran headlong into the reality of juggling crisis-schooling.
But really, none of that matters today, except to demonstrate one powerful lesson – we’re learning. And that’s the best option for the future. To continue learning. Because if there is no end in sight to living with CoViD-19, then it’s on us to learn how to live with it. Because the world we end up with where we don’t learn to live with it is a nasty place – we will accelerate inequality while we degrade the quality of life for so many people.
My recent experience is mostly in white-collar industries and the office world, although I grew up on construction sites. So my thoughts are going to be filtered and colored by those lenses – you should take them with a heavy grain of salt, and reason for yourself if these ideas might hold for you.
The Office of the Past
Sitting where I do – at the peak of my career field – it’s easy for me to opine that the office is dead. In the Before Times, I was only in the office less than half the time anyway; I worked from airports, hotels, convention centers, and my home office more often than I was at my office desk; and most of the time when I was in the office, I was in conference rooms and meetings.
We used to wonder about how to better incorporate remote staff into meetings. I liked to say “distributed,” but I suspect the reality for most people was that if you weren’t in the location with most of the people in a meeting, you were “remote.” As someone who spent many meetings staring at the backs of people who would circle around a conference table, generally ignoring the large heads on the screen, even when addressing a question to them, I can attest to the othering feeling of being the remote attendee at a meeting.
Office spaces, at the guidance of architectural consultants – who, I suspect, were more interested in the beautiful photographs they could get into glossy magazines than they were in driving employee and organizational productivity – have been increasingly driven to “open plan” spaces, which provide flexibility in where to put people as organizations evolve, and economic benefits of simple, floor-wide HVAC systems, while asserting an untested vision that reduced barriers result in increased collaboration.
The Office of Now
We’re all remote now, so truly, the office is distributed. Meetings can be more effective, since participants are on more of an equal footing; although imbalances in audio and video technologies come through clearly. But we’ve lost some of the connections that were made in hallways. Employees with suboptimal home environments are at further disadvantages, whether they have to share a space, or have a small child who wanders through, or insufficient technology to make everything seamless for them. And those disadvantages pile up, often in groups that correlate with demographics that already face inequities – parents of small children, junior staff, staff from economic adversity.
Conversations about reopening in the office context are often led and driven by executives, who hear from their middle managers, and feel themselves, that they’d like to get back to a collaborative environment, where they can meet with their colleagues, and regain the social benefits so suddenly lost a few months ago.
But those conversations ignore the reality that now, for many staff, the old office layout is a fundamentally dangerous place to be. But home is also not a safe place to develop their careers.
The Office of the Future
Solving for the next two to ten years of office work is going to be a challenge, but a vision for how to do so should be grounded in identifying who in our organizations has the greatest need, and how we build for long term success by ensuring that we are providing them with the best capabilities for their growth. It’s hard to imagine that we haven’t fundamentally changed how staff and organizations interact with shared physical spaces. Organizations have a unique opportunity to reinvent themselves and how they work, and what office spaces will need. And to address that long term vision, we should start by understanding our greatest short term need. Which isn’t “getting back into meeting culture.”
We should start by understanding that we have staff who need to get out of their houses. Maybe they do have a co-parent, but their children gravitate toward them. Maybe they don’t have a desk at home, and are sitting on the edge of their bed, with their laptop on a cardboard box. Maybe they need distance from their family members to recharge their serenity. The reasons are likely many and varied, but these are the employees that we should put first in our planning. Many of them also are in danger in a CoViD world – they might also be caregivers for elderly relatives, or have underlying health issues that put them at risk.
What do those staff need? They need the same home office that many executives have, just not in their own home. They need a place to go where they can close the door, and not need to interact physically with other humans while they work. But that place doesn’t have to be in a headquarters building. A small office park, with suites of offices that each have an included bathroom? Those would be almost ideal; it might involve short commutes for increasingly distributed staff. But a headquarters building could be reconfigured by converting conference rooms to offices, and closing most common areas. Solving for bathrooms is a tad harder, as most office buildings don’t have good layouts. Single occupancy bathrooms might be improved with either a timer in between occupants, possibly augmented by a rapid cleaning and swapping of the air inside.
Everyone needs better support for distributed work, and that comes in three flavors: physical technology, videoconferencing technology, and better organizational norms.
While the cameras in laptops have gotten better, the audio quality of a standard laptop microphone is … horrible. Really, I mean it. If you’re participating in video conferences using your laptop microphone, and you can afford anything better, please stop reading right now and go fix that. You likely have no idea how much you are negatively impacting all of your colleagues, especially if you have hard walls near you, which your voice echoes off like a drum. I’m not arguing that everyone needs to have broadcast-quality technology on their desk, but a decent-quality gaming headset is a minimum that we should aspire to. And as nice as it is to not be burdened with wires, bluetooth microphones seriously degrade the experience for your colleagues.
Speakers only negatively impact you directly, although if all you hear are the whispers of what sounds like a quiet conversation, you’re going to raise your voice even further (see above). And if you’re in a place with other people, they’ll be privy to both halves of your conversations. Moving to headphones, or in-ear monitors, will greatly improve your experience.
Screen real estate is the next most important feature of a distributed office. Staff members need to be able to see their colleagues, a presentation, and take notes at the same time. With modern conferencing software, that likely means three displays would be useful, including the laptop screen, for optimal productivity. But you should start with at least one, large, external monitor.
While I say “you” in the above paragraphs, this should be seen as a charge to IT teams: how can you best enable your staff to effectively operate in a distributed world? In addition to the above, should you look at providing networking equipment to help people shift from wireless to wired technology? Do you support the wide variety of collaboration tools needed for the different styles of work, or just one “unified” collaboration toolkit that only works for some of your processes and staff? Do you have a guidebook for your staff who are looking for assistance, that helps them improve their situation?
I’ve gotten to use just about every major video technology in the last three months, and the only thing worse than any of them would be not having them at all (I’ve talked to colleagues in organizations that don’t use video at all, relying on phone and email, and they have nothing but envy for those of us trapped on video all day). Unfortunately, none of them seem to have a design principle organized around collaboration; instead, they mostly seem to have risen out of the need for distributed presentation. And while that need exists, the user experience of having multiple users trying to share information, while keeping a predictable interface, is beyond where they are today (note: if you’re a product manager for any video technology, I will volunteer my time brain-dumping all of my complaints, and wishes, for your technology for the future).
But we need to seriously understand how to use videoconferencing technology; and how to make sure it is being used in a way that meets the needs of our staff and our organizations. And at the same time, we need to push our vendors to implement solutions that help our staff collaborate, rather than forcing them to fight with the technology to get the job done.
And we need to understand that videoconferencing isn’t just a stop-gap replacement for the in-person meeting. It should take a lot to drag us away from video; so we should design around telepresence wherever we can.
Most people don’t know how to run distributed meetings (heck, that qualifier probably isn’t necessary). But we need to start settling on better norms around meetings – do they all end early to create a passing period for people to use the restroom? Do we start late and end early? Some of the drive to “get back into the office” is, I suspect, to get back to a world where some of these norms developed simply by observing people as they needed to walk between conference rooms. But that’s not a sufficient reason to expose staff to risk; we can improve meetings with:
Read-aheads. A meeting organizer should generate a written report to guide the meeting, and everyone should be expected to read it before the meeting. Trying to learn the topic while someone reads slides to you is not only slow and unproductive, it’s dangerous. You risk having staff with an incoherent grasp on a topic making real-time decisions.
Agendas. The principal goal of any meeting should be to not need another meeting. That’s hard, but an agenda helps, especially one that includes as a success criterion, “what would it take for us to not need this meeting?” Asking that question may be sufficient to replace the meeting with a distributed decision-making process; but at the least, it helps identify what makes the meeting more effective.
Timing. Managing a meeting to a wall clock is hard, but necessary. Distributed humans have a lot of needs that we can’t fathom. Some people can work for hours on end staring at a screen without apparent ill effects; but most of us should get up and stretch, visit a restroom, refill our water, or do other things. That means the meetings should stop being bound to the 30 minute increment that Exchange makes so easy. 20-25 minutes, or 45 minutes, should become the norm. Spend the first 3-5 minutes talking about off-topic issues, so that someone running late doesn’t miss important context. But alway end on time, or early. If you are two minutes ahead of schedule, before inserting a new topic, ask yourself, “can this be wrapped up on time?” If not, save it – or send it in email.
But act deliberately, to create an organizational model that will serve your employees and their productivity in a distributed world; not one that orients itself around the schedules of the executives.
Not all of our business is oriented around a meeting in an office. For workplaces, we should recognize that on-the-job training, even when informal, is a critical activity in the development of future professionals – whether they are medical students or programming interns or office assistants – and identify ways to connect them into a training program that will develop their skill. This is “easier” for businesses that can’t move to videoconferencing technologies, because they have to solve for in-person execution anyway.
For those businesses, I’d posit we should aim for three goals, which are in tension: we should aim to maximize mask-wearing where it is needed, we should try to reduce the total need for people to wear masks, and we should enable people to get to work.
That’s a really hard set of goals to put in tension; especially since it implies good judgement: am I transitioning from a scenario where I don’t need a mask to one where I do? The goal should not merely be to eliminate the need for a mask, but to reduce the systemic harms that can happen when individuals fail to wear masks. As our knowledge of CoViD-19 transmission has grown, a rough consensus seems to be that close, confined contact is problematic, and that breathing based activities – public speaking, singing, and exercise – are all riskier.
So as we evaluate any activity, we should first look to reduce its overall risk: move it outdoors, reduce the number of people involved, and spread people out. We need to better understand the dynamics of airflow indoors, so that we can make wise decisions about activities when winter approaches. Any indoors, multi-person activity is likely to require masks for a long time, but should be augmented with physical distance. Which has interesting implications on real estate; because now businesses need to pivot from maximizing utilization of existing spaces to almost minimizing space utilization. That includes not only addressing square footage per human, but also trends in energy efficiency (reduced air exchange to reduce cooling/heating, air movement to reduce thermal variability) and sustainability (reusable utensils, which necessitate shared common spaces).
But businesses might be able to find workarounds. Perhaps personal services like nail salons can also become oxygen bars, and separate the airflow of the patrons and the staff. Maybe restaurants will create novel table layouts that allow socialization between multiple families without needing to share breathing space.
Just wear a mask. Yes, they are uncomfortable. Yes, they make it hard for some of us to read your lips, or your facial expressions. And yes, studies show that they significantly reduce the risk of transmission of COVID19 from one person to another. So wear a mask. Find ways to connect that also reduce your risk. Pick a small group of people – minimizing biomes – that you’ll take slightly greater risks with. Find alternate ways to connect.
But wear a mask. It isn’t a silver bullet; it’s not as effective as a vaccine will be, but as a prophylactic device when engaging in social intercourse with people not in your biome? It’s your best bet to not be part of the problem – to not need a hospital bed, to not need long-term therapies for lung damage, to not pass a debilitating illness on to your parent, your spouse, your child, or a person you meet a week later.
Recognize that you get to decide what activities you’re going to engage in. And you get to choose activities that can reduce your risk, while still meeting your life goals. But they might be activities you wouldn’t have conceived of a year ago.
The world we are going to enter is a new and novel one. Change usually comes gradually, and often, disruption of an old system follows a new system. But in this case, we’ve already disrupted the old system, without a new system in place to pivot to. So it’s on each of us to try new things, to learn what might work. Many of us will learn hard and painful lessons, but those lessons are no less painful than the effects of not trying to adapt. It will take some time to do the things we never did before.
The Future of Work
Here we are. Three to six months into CoviDistancing – call it lockdowns, social distancing, isolation, shutdowns – and, really, there’s no end in sight.