Workplace technology evangelists often prognosticate about “The Future of Work,” a blissful state in which all barriers of time, space, and misunderstanding between coworkers will vanish.
For a long time, the future kept receding for one prediction – the idea that remote work would become commonplace, thanks to technologies like online video meetings. Yet suddenly, here we are, thanks to a worldwide pandemic that made in-person interaction risky. I’ll guesstimate we’ve jumped ahead ten years.
To be clear, I don’t want to “thank” COVID-19 for anything – no technological advance is worth the death and distress – but the fact remains that businesses around the world were forced to run a massive natural experiment in remote work. In tech, we still haven’t gone back to “normal,” as in having most of our workers toiling away in offices or cubes. Yet productivity hasn’t suffered. Many of my peers and I think it has improved.
That’s remarkable, considering that many of us wound up with distractions on the home front. My wife is an operating room nurse, which means work-from-home is not an option for her. That meant I was the one looking after my two little boys, 6 and 11, while schools were closed. I had the “pleasure” of keeping them out of trouble and trying to get them to pay attention to virtual school while still getting my work done.
On the other hand, recapturing more than an hour a day (on a good day) commuting through stressful Bay Area traffic more than made up for time spent kid wrangling. With remote work, commute time becomes our time – time we can spend accomplishing something, whether in our work lives or our personal lives. That’s one way we become more productive.
That’s not to say the past year's events haven’t also exposed the shortcomings of today’s virtual meeting and collaboration technologies, but the more significant issues are management issues. In particular, I see an opportunity to rethink the value of meetings, whether in person or remotely.
Meetings are one of those things we traditionally did face-to-face, but are in-person meetings necessarily better?
By no means do I underestimate the importance of face-to-face time. I value people and personal interaction above all else. Humans are social creatures. We crave in-person interaction, particularly when we can’t have it. I do believe we aren't getting enough quality face-to-face time in the COVID era.
Still, there are other important things like freedom and respect. When I join a company, one of the first things I do is remove nonproductive rules, including rules like limits on work from home, mandatory in-office days, core hours, etc. Instead, I focus on empowering people, fostering autonomy, and offering my people incredible flexibility. If they deliver for the company and me, I let them work however is best for them. In short, I treat my team as adults.
In other words, Tact.ai’s culture was already well-suited for the arrival of COVID-19. The outbreak drove us to new extremes, but remote work wasn’t a foreign concept.
Face-to-face meetings and events were also a big part of our culture and were incredibly useful. Remote workers can get virtual face-to-face time, and eventually, that may be almost as good as actual face-to-face, but remote working technologies have a long way to go. You may have noticed we seem to spend at least 15 minutes out of a one-hour online meeting on “Can you hear me?”, “Let me turn off the video,” and “Sorry, I was on mute.”
These issues must be fixed, but a much bigger problem is making the most of the time we have together, whether in person or remotely.
Ah, meetings - the heartbeat of businesses. If we crave human interaction, why do so many of us hate meetings? Not all meetings, and not all of us, but there is definitely a sense of "ugh!" when someone says, "let's set up a meeting to discuss it." Most of us would agree we have too many meetings, and too many of them are poorly organized.
Then along comes COVID-19. One effect has been to turn face-to-face meetings into virtual meetings – often with poor engagement since even the best video call is not the same as being in the same room. Many employees don’t/won’t turn their webcams on unless strongly encouraged to do so by the meeting leader. And if the meeting revolves around someone sharing slides anyway, is it really worth the trouble?
Rather than debating etiquette, maybe we should be rethinking the purpose of meetings. Ask yourself, is this meeting necessary? Does what we’re trying to accomplish require real-time interaction?
The alternative is asynchronous communication, which is equally vital to the Future of Work if we want that future to be an improvement. Compared with our work lives, our personal lives seem to have adapted far better to modern technology's new possibilities. We text people or use messaging apps far more than we talk to them. Then, when we speak in real-time, those conversations can be more meaningful because we’ve gotten the preliminaries out of the way.
Before scheduling a meeting, we ought to ask ourselves whether we need a meeting in the first place. If the answer is yes, meetings can be more productive if we go into them knowing exactly what needs to be decided. That means getting more organizational and planning work done ahead of time, outside of the meeting.
How do we know if a meeting is required? I am going to oversimplify it. Does a meeting require audience members or participants? If it requires audience members, you can accomplish the desired result without a meeting. If it requires participants, meet. That’s it. Apply what I call the participation test. If you need an active participation (back-and-forth discussion), then a meeting is more efficient. However, if you gather people together to deliver information, using recorded video and screen sharing (show-and-tell) is more than sufficient.
That means no “status report” meetings—reporting your status and progress toward goals is absolutely something you can do with asynchronous communications and good project management tools. If a process breaks down, whether because someone isn’t doing their work or because you as the project leader didn’t define tasks and goals clearly enough, then, yes, that might require a meeting to get the project back on track. Having meetings to discuss bigger milestones and what’s needed to get to them certainly can be worthwhile. But don’t waste meeting time on things that could more easily be accomplished asynchronously.
Don’t consume time on other peoples’ agendas unless there are decisions to be made by the group or roles to be assigned to its members.
The remote face-to-face virtues over video do not apply if the people you invite listen passively with their cameras turned off or tune out and check Twitter in another window.
When you have work to accomplish together, and everyone’s engaged, that’s different. And of course, the Friday happy hour, product launch celebration, or team member appreciation event that brings people together over video can be particularly important as a bonding opportunity for virtual teams. “Bonding meeting” is the only exception to the attendee or participation test. Wait…wrong. It is imperative everyone participates during bonding meetings; that’s the whole point.
Work on fostering better asynchronous communication and try to avoid one-way meetings. It’s not easy (we’re still working on this), but it’s worth the reward.
Without quite intending to, I suspect many businesses have made gains during this period of compulsory remote work. Meetings take a little more work to set up when we can’t just grab three or four people in the hallway and drag them into a conference room. As a result, we hold fewer meetings and focus on them more carefully.
We’ve relied on asynchronous tools by necessity, learned them better, and built processes around them. Naturally, we have come up with long lists of ways we would like collaborative software vendors to improve remote work tools to make our lives better, but meanwhile, we are making better use of what’s available.
The productivity improvement is remarkable, considering what an unplanned, wrenching change we have undergone in our work-life balance. For many of us, that includes having to work at home with kids, a test of any parent’s concentration, patience, and sanity. Now, consider what we might accomplish once the kids go back to school. And imagine if the technical challenges have been addressed – improved voice latency (i.e. source of “Zoom fatigue,” I argue), reliable uninterrupted connections (Wifi 6, 5G?), GAN-based video streaming (thanks Nvidia!), AI-based background noise cancellation, etc. What will productivity look like then?
When I say we’ve jumped ahead 10 years, maybe it’s 5 or 15 – who cares? There will always be a next-level Future of Work somewhere up ahead, but it no longer feels like we’re stuck in second gear. We’re moving!
Karthi Swaminathan, Head of India operations @Tact.ai pens his experience on navigating the future of the workplace in India amidst the pandemic.
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