Working on Work

Classes started this week and faculty and students have returned to campus. After fifteen or sixteen months of online and remote instruction, the hallways and classrooms are abuzz with conversations, lessons, and activities. While everyone is wearing masks according to the university guidelines, I’m finding it weird to interact with people in the face-to-face world again. After more than year of communicating with people primarily through Zoom, these face-to-face interactions are offering an odd mix of the familiar and the novel. And that combination is honestly causing me some personal dissonance.

My dissonance is magnified by news articles, podcasts, and posts I’ve seen which are challenging our traditional views of work. After a year of working online, lots of people are questioning what work looks like after the dust settles on this pandemic. Take this opinion article that appeared in the New York Times last week. Priya Parker is the author of the Art of Gathering and the host of the Together Apart podcast. In her Times article, Parker writes:

After the pandemic hit, we began to sense what we can do even better virtually (the use of chats, breakout rooms and polling), as well as the limitations of not being in the same physical space (lively unmuted brainstorming, complicated coordination, spontaneity). With millions of hours of virtual meetings under our collective belts now, we can pose a question too rarely asked of workplaces: What is worthy of our collective time, and how should it be structured?

So, while the campus is stirring again, there seems to be this unspoken collective questioning of “Do we need to be here? Could this be online?” Thankfully, Parker offers some guidance. Parker references an article written by Rae Ringel that appeared in the Harvard Business Review last July. In the title of her article, Ringel asks the question directly “When do we actually need to meet in person?” To guide our decision making, Ringel offers a series of questions we should consider before scheduling a face-to-face meeting. Of the questions, the one that stands out to me is when Ringel asks: “Are my meeting goals relationship-based or task-based?” Digging deeper into these contrasting goals, Ringel writes:

Relationship-based goals, which involve strengthening or repairing connections among team members, are usually accomplished most effectively in person. People should be given difficult feedback face-to-face. Challenging group conversations should also take place in person, where destructive and distracting parallel side chats can’t overshadow the central discussion.

I’m sure after a year away from our colleagues, many of us could benefit from spending some time “strengthening or repairing connections.” Beyond focusing on the goals of the meeting, though, Ringel also includes a question which helps individuals evaluate the complexity of the meeting’s objectives. To Ringel, complexity includes “emotional complexity, the range of interdependence, or the need for intervention.” Like relationship-based goals, Ringel recommends that meetings that focus on really complex objectives should usually occur in person. Ringel also includes a graphical tool to assist with deciding how the meeting should be offered.

While examining the goals and objectives of a meeting is important to consider when deciding whether to meet online or face-to-face, Ringel also challenges us to evaluate how inclusive our meetings will be. An in-person meeting requires that people are actually able to travel to the site to participate. This requirement may create a burden on working parents or people who have sick family members or other responsibilities that may limit their participation. I think the pandemic has opened a lot of eyes to the personal challenges with which some of our colleagues have to deal. And we should definitely consider these as we move forward in this (hopefully) post-pandemic world.

As I’m wrestling with the nature of our work moving forward, another quote has been bouncing around in my head for the last week. It’s from an unrelated podcast on “How to Forgive.” In the episode, Elizabeth Bruenig says that she grew up in an environment where “my virtues could flourish, and my vices could be contained.” And maybe that should be another guideline as we move forward. I know virtues and vices aren’t things we typically discuss when talk about work, but I’m betting we could identify a bunch of “workplace vices” and “workplace virtues.” Let’s choose modalities that contain our “workplace vices” and help our “workplace virtues” flourish. I know it’s not a simple metric, but what about this last year has been easy? Moving forward isn’t going to be simple either.

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