The Informed Life With Abby Covert

Episode 33 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with my friend Abby Covert, aka Abby the IA. Abby is a senior information architect at Etsy. She wrote How to Make Sense of Any Mess, an excellent primer on information architecture, and co-founded World IA Day. She’s also taught graduate students and curated global conferences. She’s done many of these things remotely over the last ten years, which makes her a great guide to our new reality.

Unsurprisingly, our conversation focused on what it takes to collaborate effectively at a distance. We delved into particular styles, processes, and tools for remote work, teaching, and event management. One common thread: when you’re spending lots of your time online, it behooves you to create a physical environment that keeps your body healthy:

Herman Miller chairs with the best chairs. Ergonomic chairs, man! There are two things. There’s the ergonomic nature of your chair, but there’s also the, “how are you positioning your tools on your table?” So, the laptop riser is a really good example If you are sitting at a table and you are typing on a laptop keyboard, you are not ergonomically sound. And if you are doing that all, day every day, for the rest of your career, you will be very hunchy and not very comfortable in life.

So yeah, the laptop riser is a big part of it, the external keyboard is a big part of it. I also have this really puffy-like foot riser thing. I don’t know; it’s kind of like a pillow but it’s meant to sit on the floor for your feet to be slightly elevated. I’m also a short person so I think that has something to do with it. But, yeah, ergonomics! It’s a thing. I’m not an expert, but it’s a thing.

I also loved the idea that Abby’s physical workspace is separate from the rest of her living environment. Alas, setting up a separate office space in our homes isn’t something many of us can do. However, we discussed an intriguing alternative: establishing little routines (i.e., changing your shoes) that signify the shift from one mode to another.

We’re all trying to cope with the weirdness of the current situation. As of Saturday, it’s been a month since I’ve been working 100% from home. I can’t say it’s become my new normal — but some things are getting a bit easier. I hope this conversation with Abby helps you as you ease into this “no new normal.”

The Informed Life Episode 33: Abby Covert on Remote Work

Worth Your Attention

These links appeared previously in my newsletter, which comes out every other Sunday.

Remaining Relevant When Markets Disappear

This morning I got an email from United Airlines. Under a headline that says “Explore the world from home,” the message offers a reminder:

We know you may not be traveling soon, but our award-winning inflight magazine, Hemispheres, is still here to share incredible destinations with you.

From the dunes of New Mexico to the Scottish Highlands, we hope this month’s Hemispheres provides a bit of inspiration for when you’re ready for your next adventure.

Our collective response to the COVID-19 pandemic has radically changed many aspects of “ordinary” life. For one, self-isolation means little or no travel. Airlines and hospitality companies are suffering as a result. As noted in National Geographic, the World Travel and Tourism Council projects that the pandemic will cost the industry 75 million jobs and $2.1 trillion in revenue.

Companies like United, and their employees, are suffering. But people and organizations are resilient. We look for ways of continuing to provide value even when facing such tremendous disruption. Reading about visiting the dunes of New Mexico or the Scottish Highlands isn’t the same as actually being there. But can I imagine a meeting that went something like this:

Manager A: How can we remain top-of-mind when nobody’s traveling?

Manager B: Let’s think… What assets do we have that can remind folks of what they loved about travel?

Manager A: Well, our in-flight magazine has stories about exotic destinations…

It’d be foolish to think United will pivot to become a publisher of travel stories. I don’t expect Hemispheres is a big business under normal circumstances, and it’s probably much less so now that companies are pulling back on advertising. However, I appreciate the airline’s effort to remind me of the role they usually play in my life. The connection helps sustain loyalty.

Like United, Airbnb also sees its business impacted by the reductions in travel. They, too, are trying something different. This week, the company announced a new service called Online Experiences, “a new way for people to connect, travel virtually and earn income during the COVID-19 crisis.” These “experiences” — which you do through your computer — include baking with a family in San Francisco, meditating with a Buddhist monk in Japan, and taking dance lessons in Ireland.

I don’t think anyone at Airbnb believes this new service will replace the revenue they’ve lost from the decline of travel. But as with the United email, it’s a gesture that reminds us of the company’s spirit. Both cases are examples of companies looking to remain relevant when their primary markets have disappeared. I expect we’ll see many more over the coming weeks.

A New Normal

Tom Warren writing in The Verge:

Microsoft is revealing more about how people are using its Teams app, and it predicts the novel coronavirus pandemic will be a turning point that will change how we work and learn forever. Demand for Microsoft Teams surged worldwide last month, jumping from 32 million daily active users to 44 million in just a week. While usage continues to rise, Microsoft is releasing a new remote work trend report to highlight how work habits are changing.

The article offers some details about the increase in usage of Microsoft’s Teams and Stream remote collaboration tools during the pandemic. No surprise there; we’ve seen similar reports from Slack and Zoom. But more interestingly, the article also speculates about our technology landscape after the crisis has passed:

“It’s clear to me there will be a new normal,” explains [Microsoft 365 head Jared]Spataro. “If you look at what’s happening in China and what’s happening in Singapore, you essentially are in a time machine. We don’t see people going back to work and having it be all the same. There are different restrictions to society, there are new patterns in the way people work. There are societies that are thinking of A days and B days of who gets to go into the office and who works remote.”

As a result, widespread adoption of remote collaboration technologies will become a more permanent feature of the workplace, with less of the stigma they had before the pandemic:

Microsoft is also seeing cases where remote workers can no longer be an afterthought in meetings, and how chat can influence video calls. “The simplest example is how important chat becomes as part of a meeting,” says Spataro. “We’re not seeing it as being incidental anymore, we’re actually seeing it be a new modality for people to contribute to the meeting.” This could involve people chatting alongside video meetings, and coworkers upvoting suggestions and real-time feedback.

I don’t have firsthand experience with Teams. However, I’ve used competing systems — including Zoom, Webex, GoToMeeting, Slack, and Skype — for a long time. Many offer the ability to chat alongside video calls. Invariably, the chat feature feels tacked on, with little thought to the integration between it and the video stream.

Mixing synchronous and asynchronous communications is a tough challenge, but it also has lots of potentials. For example, I’ve been in remote meetings where team members collaborate to write meeting minutes using Google Docs in real-time. With enough people taking notes, the result is a powerful augmentation of everyone’s cognitive abilities. Still, the tool isn’t designed to do this. There is no connection between the words in the document and what’s said in the call.

Such new work modalities have been around for a while, but the pandemic is accelerating their adoption. We’re likely to see innovations that will be with us long after the crisis subsides.

Microsoft Thinks Coronavirus Will Forever Change the Way We Work and Learn

“We Will Meet Again”

Leaders move us to action through skillful speech acts. Their words are worth studying, which is why I’ve written before about extraordinary speeches by President John F. Kennedy and NASA flight controller Gene Kranz. Last Sunday, Queen Elizabeth II broadcast a rare televised speech about the COVID-19 situation. It’s the best message I’ve heard from a national leader about the pandemic. You can hear the entire message here:

What makes this speech so effective is its framing of the situation in context of the broader history of the UK. The Queen highlights the resilience of the British people by referencing her first broadcast to the nation, which she delivered with her sister during World War II:

We as children spoke from here at Windsor to children who had been evacuated from their homes and sent away for their own safety. Today, once again, many will feel a painful sense of separation from their loved ones, but now as then, we know deep down that it is the right thing to do.

She closes with a message of solidarity and hope:

While we have faced challenges before, this one is different. This time we join with all nations across the globe in a common endeavor. Using the great advances of science and our instinctive compassion to heal, we will succeed, and that success will belong to every one of us. We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return. We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again.

At 93 years old, the Queen is part of the segment of the population most threatened by the virus. As a result, the assurance of meeting again strikes the right tone of resolute yet straightforward optimism in the face of hardship. It’s another reminder of the British response to World War II.

Until now, I hadn’t fully understood the role of the monarchy in a modern democracy. According to The Royal Household, the Queen “acts as a focus for national identity, unity and pride; gives a sense of stability and continuity; officially recognises success and excellence; and supports the ideal of voluntary service.” In other words, the Royal Family is an important part of the “institutional memory” of the nation.

This speech is a perfect articulation of how the monarchy can do this, by broadening our perspective in time. Electoral cycles are relatively short, but kings and queens have life-long roles. As the world’s longest-serving head of state, Queen Elizabeth has lived through a lot of history. No other world leader could evoke her people’s courageous and stalwart response to events that happened eighty years ago as credibly as Elizabeth II. She was there, after all.

Nostalgia for the Future

This week, NASA announced the return of its mid-1970s “worm” logo:

The retro, modern design of the agency’s logo will help capture the excitement of a new, modern era of human spaceflight on the side of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle that will ferry astronauts to the International Space Station as part of the Demo-2 flight, now scheduled for mid- to late May.

NASA logo
Image: NASA

NASA had retired the worm in 1992, when the agency returned to using its late-1950s “meatball” insignia:

NASA logo
Image: NASA

Most organizations change their identities in an effort to remain relevant to continually evolving popular tastes. People tend to be conservative about changing beloved products and institutions, and identity changes can seem jarring at first. (Consider the negative reactions to BMW’s recent logo redesign.) Still, I can’t think of many organizations that repeatedly restore their old identities.

When changing an organization’s identity, designers must balance familiarity with freshness. Abrupt changes risk alienating people, but modest variations won’t generate excitement. The right balance depends on how the organization wants to be perceived. The logo for a Silicon Valley startup can change abruptly. In contrast, the logo for a stalwart brand (think Coca-Cola) will likely change more subtly and slowly.

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A Tune For These Times

Art helps us understand and deal with reality — whatever challenges it throws at us. Here’s Paul Simon doing what artists do best:

And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
or driven to its knees
But it’s all right, it’s all right
We’ve lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
we’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what went wrong

And I dreamed I was dying
And I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
Smiled reassuringly
And I dreamed I was flying
And high up above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty
Sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying

Not a new song, but one that acquires new meanings in this intimate and vulnerable performance that’s both timeless and of the present. (A medieval bard would’ve understood the stringed instrument, but not the technology that allows Mr. Simon to sing to the world from his home.)

Reevaluating How We Use Social Networks

Home-bound for three weeks, I’ve come to rely on the internet for social interactions with anyone except my family. Now more than ever, I’m thinking about the role information environments play in my life. Some are helping make things better, and others, not so much.

Among the helpful ones, I count the information environments that are essential to my work: Zoom for synchronous communications and Slack for asynchronous ones. I’m a longtime user of Zoom, but the lockdown has nudged me to learn somewhat obscure features that make it more valuable to me. I have some concerns about Zoom’s privacy and security policies, but overall I’m satisfied with the system. Slack is something of a mess (I often have trouble finding older stuff or orienting myself within threads,) but the company is working to make it better. And in many ways, it’s an improvement over the most obvious alternative, email.

Both Slack and Zoom are environments that enable private social networks. They make it possible for people to collaborate remotely in (relatively) small groups. These days, most of my interpersonal interactions happen in either of the two. But not all; I’m also spending more time on three big, public social networks: Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. I’ve been using these places for a long time, but the lockdown is leading me to reevaluate how I use them.

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