I’m feeling virtually human

Hello everyone. The GameShift community ran a “pop-up” inquiry event on 18 March, bringing together 60 people for a couple of hours to explore experiences of various forms of ‘on-line’ working. I’m writing this blog as a personal account, very much a “first person” statement of what it was like for me to be part of that event and what I took from it.

First thing to say is this. I was delighted that the event happened, and that so many people joined in. It all started with a tweet from Siobhan Sheridan several weeks before, in which she noticed the difficulty of being really “present” in some online meetings. This felt very important to me, because I’d been mulling on a similar issue at the time. We all spend a lot of time in meetings on Zoom or Teams just now, and many organisations have announced the intention of moving full time to some form of “new ways of working” – with significant elements of virtual operation continuing into the future.  So it raises for me the issue of what it means to work well in this way.  How do we create virtual gatherings (of any scale) that are effective, and that allow people to thrive physically and mentally?  The question felt very real to me because of a handful of experiences I’ve had that pull in different directions. I’ll give you three snapshots by way of showing you what I mean.

Snapshot one. We were contacted by an old friend at a large company about helping to design a big conference they wanted to run later in the summer, for 200 or so global leaders. They were really clear in their message to us – assume the event will be a physical gathering, in a conference hotel somewhere. The message also asked for a “reserve option” of holding a shorter virtual event in case a physical event couldn’t happen. This is interesting. Why would you even consider flying leaders around the world, with all the costs and risks involved? Clearly, virtual is seen as “second best”.  Why?  And must it be so?

Snapshot two. I took part in an experimental programme with a major training institute – famous in its field, and I paid a lot to take part. The on-line work was pedestrian, and for me at least the group never gelled online. I never felt able to be fully myself in that group in that space. I am curious as to why that was and what could have been different?

Snapshot three. Our regular GameShift Zoom “Hangouts” have been in themselves an ongoing experiment over the last year in creating a virtual community. The current configuration of partners has never met physically, yet we’ve enjoyed some very close human connection and done some very powerful personal work that has made us feel very connected as a group. What made that group work together so fully, and the one in snapshot two much less so? What is the difference that makes the difference?

I realised that I don’t have a reliable answer to any of the questions I was holding, so I came into the pop-up event in a spirit of curiosity, to see what light a group of folks holding a shared question might shed on it all.

 

I was delighted by what happened. It was great to be part of an event hosted so well, by Siobhan, and by the facilitation team of Julie Drybrough and Alex Steele. I’ve know both Jools and Alex for years, and it was so good to have them bring their skills to this session. Jools is well known for her work hosting communities of OD/L&D and other HR folk – including her legendary “shindigs”. Alex is an organisational consultant and facilitator who is also a professional jazz multi-instrumentalist. They are both part of the GameShift collaboration hub.

The pop-up event started off with Alex offering a musical meditation –a few minutes of improvisation on the keyboard to allow people to ground themselves and arrive well into the gathering. Alex framed the meditation simply – just to notice how we were during the few minutes, and then he started playing. I noticed that I felt physically good, very calm, having just done a long walk on the moorland near my home. My face was warm, and alongside the gentle notes from Alex’s piano, there was a steady wall of birdsong from the woodlands outside my cottage. I noticed that some people were responding to the music in the live chat – and I enjoyed the sense of people being grateful, arriving, greeting people they knew, some happy birthday wishes for someone. There was some very everyday humanity in these simple messages.

 

There were then two rounds of breakout conversation, each with a plenary session for sharing. I’ll simply report here the main things I took away from all of the conversations, without reporting round by round.

 

I noticed that there was a wide range of reactions to virtual working, from those who prefer it to “in the office” working, all the way to people who are far more averse. One man spoke about being on the autistic spectrum, and how he found that virtual work made his life easier to control. Others spoke about how either they, or their colleagues, had not adapted to virtual work, and that it was a myth to say we have all adjusted to it now. I noticed how viscerally people experienced the difference to be. Some people do not have home situations that suit virtual working and can be very disadvantaged by this. I noticed my own privilege here, the extent to which I prefer Zoom to the constant travel of my pre-lockdown life. The pop-up event was a sharp reminder that digital advantage is not evenly distributed.

I was very struck by people noticing what was often “missing” in virtual gatherings. Much of this came down to the lack of any “informal” spaces. Virtual work can be very full-on, “efficient but linear” one person said. There just isn’t the space in a Zoom meeting to chat to someone in the margins, to see how they took something you said, to see how they are doing. I noticed immediately that this was one of my principal reasons I’d found a particular on-line course so deeply unhappy – not only was there no informal space in the course, but informal contact outside the sessions seemed to be resisted by some group members as “splitting” the group.

The variety of these reactions led to some very interesting sharing of ideas for creating deeper personal contact online, and for creating some informal spaces. We noticed that the creation of “coffee room” channels in Teams didn’t necessarily seem to do the job, as this often felt like another “formal” space. But we did notice that spaces with music or art often did create a different on-line mood, a different quality of invitation. I mentioned Doug Shaw’s work on “zen doodling” that we have used with groups, and found that doing simple art with cameras and microphones on, led to some lovely and gentle connections. We also noticed that invitation was the key – this wouldn’t work if people felt coerced into it, but if we chose to do it, the contact could be warmly human and open.

People were very cautious about the informal use of the chat bar and side conversations using WhatsApp or SMS. Although these could be very helpful, they are also excluding as much as including. People expressed a real hesitancy towards these as there is a lot of danger to genuine inclusivity in moving some of the conversation “outside” the meeting.

Some people spoke about the value of having meetings where the purpose was solely to connect, making any other task secondary to this purpose. Others said that they also appreciated the deeply incidental occurrence of peoples’ personal lives cropping up as “moments of magic” in on-line meetings – the children and pets that became part of work life, the cat that dominated one participant’s camera at various times, the coaching session that was “interrupted by my client getting bread rolls out of the oven, I could almost smell them”. Several people also talked about taking the advantage of technology to do “walking and talking” – that there was often deep connection to be had from shifting the venue, and including movement in the call. There’s something about changing the pattern from always being on video to sometimes just doing a phone call or a conference hook-up that can be very valuable too. Not everything has to be on Zoom or Teams.

There was appreciation for both the deliberate act of “designing for connections” and the importance of appreciating the moments of humanity that inevitably arise. I noticed that for myself in the pop-up event itself. I loved the designing for connection that Jools and Alex had done – the music and the use of small group work – and I loved the incidental humanness of the meeting, the birthday wishes, the glimpses of people at home. For me the connection didn’t reside in just one of these factors, but in their occurring together. But I was conscious that without the “design for connection” the latter may not have happened, or may not have been so fruitful.

 

I was also very struck by a theme in the conversation about the impact of online spaces on some particular kinds of intervention. People spoke about how they found it harder to “read the room” in a virtual space – how the visceral sense of energy that many of us rely on may either not be there, or may be harder to read. This struck me as particularly insightful, as I personally hadn’t realised previously that this might have played a part in my own personal experience as a participant, where I’d found an online group very difficult to be in. This suggestion that I may have missed, or misinterpreted, the usual energetic signals on which I rely was useful, and I will continue to explore this in my reflections. Another participant spoke about the particular impact of this factor in deciding when and how to have “the more difficult conversations” in virtual meetings. Both in the sense of judging when and how to raise issues, and also in the impact of a lack of informal spaces in which to have them, or to check out that a challenge has landed well.

 

I found the whole pop-up event fascinating, and it was great to be with such a diverse group of people exploring a shared concern. This is clearly work in progress, and it is our intention to offer a follow up event, or events. These may be around some of the specific questions and challenges that arose, or to explore some of the ways of creating vibrant, welcoming, and fully human work. Hopefully, we will have the chance to do both. I for one will be looking forward to what comes next.

 

Chris Nichols