Over the last few weeks, COVID-19 went from being a news item to being the news. And this past week, those of us in the United States started feeling the impact of the disease firsthand. Fortunately, for most people, the impact isn’t health-related. Currently, many of us are more affected by measures to curb the pandemic than by the disease itself. For a privileged few — including myself — the primary impact in the near-term is a shift to working from home.
For software designers like myself, working primarily from home isn’t as much of a burden as it would be for people in many other industries. The stuff we work on is the same stuff that we communicate with, so moving work online is feasible. However, it still requires adjustments. Team dynamics are different when working remotely. If you’re used to working with others in physical environments, you’ve internalized ways of working and hierarchies that have emerged in (and made possible by) the environments you share. As you shift to new environments, these hierarchies become visible.
This week I participated in a recurring all-hands meeting. I’d been in these meetings many times before, always in all in the same physical space. The atmosphere had always been casual, but the structure of the room, and the way we arranged ourselves in the space, implied and reinforced a hierarchy. There was always a sense that someone was leading the meeting at any given time; the rest of us were more of an audience. Our shared attention was on a vertical surface at the “front” of the room: a whiteboard. The meeting “leader” usually stood near this whiteboard, sometimes holding a marker. Those of us in the “audience” faced this whiteboard so we could see it and the speaker.
Also, because this is a recurring meeting, we’d all internalized a regular structure. Through repetition, we’d been conditioned to expect the meeting to cover particular topics at different points in time. The objective of many all-hands meetings is to synchronize a team. Addressing these shared (yet often unspoken) structural expectations goes a long way to making everyone feel like things are proceeding in an organized way.
With most everybody in the team now working from home, this week’s all-hands meeting was remote. I found it fascinating to see how we adapted. Our leaders put in the effort to maintain our expected structure. Rather than use the whiteboard as the focus of our attention, we saw a screen shared through our videoconferencing software. The stuff we’d typically see written by hand on the whiteboard was now on this screen, rendered in beautiful typography. This change had the effect of making it seem both clearer and more thought-through than is usually the case.
You’d expect this change would lead to a greater emphasis on structure and hierarchy. However, I found the most significant difference in our first virtual all-hands was a loosening of hierarchies. With most of us represented as thumbnail-sized video avatars — some sporting whimsical backgrounds — it was no longer as clear who was “at the whiteboard” at any given moment. I saw my colleagues in little boxes of the same size laid out in a somewhat random order in my laptop’s display. It was still obvious who was speaking, of course. But I found more folks (including me) were more willing to speak up than we usually do in our physical all-hands. The tone was also lighter. I attribute these changes in part to the fact we’re all coping with the weirdness of this situation. But I think the environment where we’re meeting also had something to do with it. Time will tell if these changes stick.
I missed being in the same physical space as my colleagues. But I found some of these changes welcome. Moving the meeting online has made us more aware of its structure. It’s opened opportunities for us to work as a team not just on what we’re working on, but on how we work as a team. The new medium has also leveled hierarchies a bit, which I expect will make it easier for people to participate more. I’m curious to see how the change of environment affects our ability to collaborate after the immediate crisis has passed, and we’ve become accustomed to a “new normal.”