It’s been a year since my family and I started ‘sheltering in-place’ — i.e., staying home to help curtail the spread of COVID-19. I’m still finding ways to adapt to this ‘new’ way of working.

A post I published on March 14, 2020 covered changes I observed in my first post-lockdown all-hands meeting. In particular, I noted our physical office had offered implicit structures that now had to be made explicit. Among other things, the new medium flattened hierarchies and didn’t provide a focus point in lieu of a whiteboard.

A year on, we’ve mostly normalized this way of working. After an awkward initial period (day-long Zoom marathons!), many of us have found ways to be productive. I was about to write ‘productive and engaged,’ but in my case, that wouldn’t be entirely true.

I still find it difficult to fully engage over Zoom. Too many things compete for my attention on the screen: the email app badge in the Dock, Slack notifications, the OneNote window where I’m taking notes, etc. And then there’s the main attraction: whatever the speaker is sharing. No wonder I’m often exhausted at the end of the day. Meetings shouldn’t be a three-ring circus.

I’ve found a few ways of cutting down distractions. Hiding all windows except for Zoom. (This one isn’t very effective, since the Dock is still available.) Creating a separate desktop space that splits the screen between only Zoom and OneNote. Turning off my camera’s own view, so I can only see the others in the meeting.

Recently, I’ve also tried a more low-tech approach: taking notes on paper with a pencil.

I find I’m able to listen better when writing on paper. Ideas flow faster in the simpler medium. Moving my hands helps me focus, and my tired eyes get a break from the screen. Every once in a while, a lull allows me to sharpen the pencil. The process keeps me on my toes. Later, I scan my notes into OneNote, where they’re OCRd. So I don’t lose that benefit of ‘being digital.’

The main downside is that I don’t look at the camera while taking notes on paper. Every time I look down, I wonder if the others in the meeting think I’m not paying attention. (I’ve been called out on this before and during the pandemic.)

Ironically, I’m paying more attention when I’m not looking at the camera. But social cues are hard-wired. After a year of this, it still doesn’t feel natural.

I enjoy some aspects of our ‘new’ way of working: seeing more of my family, greater flexibility, no time wasted commuting, lower impact to the environment, etc. But I look forward to meeting again ‘in real life’ — not all the time, but at least sometimes. I suspect that when that happens, I’ll be a better listener than I was in the ‘before times.’