Contributed by Ronald Baecker, who is an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, author of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, co-author of thecovidguide.com, and author of the forthcoming Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do.
My blog post of February 11 shared the account of four people who, despite COVID, have preserved and in some cases enhanced family connections and communication through the use of teleconferencing technologies. This essay will look at the present and future of distance collaboration for work.
It has not been easy, especially for couples who both have jobs and who have school-age children at home. There have been severe stresses in maintaining concentration and balancing work time; periods helping children with schoolwork; and time for chores, exercise, play, and being alone.
Yet the inability to come to the office forced most white-collar workers to do computer-supported collaborative work (CSCW). Individuals working together, at the same time or at different times, while being in different locations, became critical in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic crippled societies all over the globe. The activity could also be called communications-supported collaborative work.
Workers during lockdowns rarely or never meet face-to-face or work side-by-side. They must instead collaborate via electronic meeting and document creating technologies. Many large firms and innovative high-technology start-ups have done this for decades. Yet now many firms do so to survive.
Such work consists of four kinds of activities: meetings, non-meeting communication and correspondence, document creation, and informal communication.
Meeting together from home: Meeting room technologies provide a virtual space over the internet in which participants in the meeting can speak to one another and where bandwidth is sufficient to see one another. This happens in real-time, i.e., there is no appreciable delay between when one person makes a statement and the other meeting participants hear it. Zoom is a good example.
A convenor invites people to join and admits people to a virtual meeting room. They can schedule meetings in advance and send out invites in advance. Zoom allows screen sharing, such that everyone in the virtual meeting room can see a document, spreadsheet, or presentation. This capability supports informed discussion. Zoom also allows large groups trying to collaborate to meet in small groups in breakout rooms. Video recording of meetings is supported, as is closed captioning of the meeting.
There are challenges in the use of virtual meeting room technologies; I shall discuss one.
In a traditional meeting, the meeting chairperson may call on people to speak in turn. Speaker coordination is aided by tone of voice, eye contact, posture, and gestures. These help us know when someone is finished speaking, or amenable to interruption. Researchers have long experimenting with such capabilities, yet most commercial products do not have such features. The result is that we are frequently speaking concurrently, or interrupting others prematurely. The result is auditory chaos.
The problem is called floor control. Zoom provides one assist to avoid chaos by allowing participants to raise their hands. Everyone can see who has raised their hands, and then defer to the person who first indicated a desire to speak. Supported by care and politeness, everyone gets to speak, one at a time, but this procedure still slows down the exchange of ideas and can lead to awkwardness. Another way to reduce the magnitude of this problem is to allow and encourage speaking via text chat.
Message management: Not all discussions, exchanges of ideas, and decisions are made by a group using real-time audio and video communication. Often asynchronous communication is used, for example, email, texting, and other more sophisticated systems for sending messages which may be viewed right after they have been sent, an hour later, or the next day. Almost all users of digital technologies are accustomed to one of two approaches. Email is excellent for sending text messages that could be lengthy, and in many cases are accompanied by attachments that could be documents, diagrams, photos, videos, or internet links. Email messages can be sent to single individuals or to large groups of people. Text messaging is ideal for sending short messages to individuals or small groups.
Sophisticated message management systems support team collaboration by combining the best of email and messaging with tools that allow large exchanges of messages on a topic to become the basis of corporate knowledge and to support discussions and decision-making. Slack is a good example.
Document creation: Productive work is more than talk and meetings. White-collar workers must prepare plans, reports, and other documents. Online collaboration technologies have evolved over the past fifty years to support the latter activity.
Imagine that your document is displayed on both your computer’s screen and on someone else’s screen. The document is stored “in the cloud”, at multiple servers somewhere in the world. The other person can see changes you make to the document as you make them. Even more interestingly, you can both make changes to the same document concurrently. For example, you might be improving the title of the document, while your collaborator is working on the first paragraph. A good example is Google Docs.
Communicating informally: Skype, Estonian start-up bought by Microsoft in 2011, offers similar but reduced functionality as compared to Zoom. Skype does make it easier to start a meeting, with actions that are similar to placing a phone call by pointing to a screen icon of the person with whom one wants to speak. In essence, you can place a phone or video call over the internet.
Skype has one interesting feature that most other systems have not had. In physical buildings, you can walk down a hall and see if someone’s door is open and if the person is not meeting with someone or on the phone, which provides you the opportunity to knock on the door and have a serendipitous conversation. How are you doing? Has your 12th-grader heard yet from any universities?
Have you spoken to our boss recently? I’m struggling to keep up: Is the schedule realistic?
Such statements and questions are essential for coordination and for the maintenance of team cohesion, especially in times of stress. Skype supports this because you always see a list of your Skype contacts and if they are online and potentially available, as a green light is shown besides their name. For this to be effective, members of a team must be disciplined, that is, they must remember to only allow the green light to show when they are there and available to communicate.
These tools have helped teams work together despite everyone working from home during the pandemic. There is little agreement about the desirability, speed and extent to which people will return to the office post-pandemic. Yet there is a general consensus that some changes will be permanent. Large companies will shrink their office space footprint. Landlords will suffer economically, spaces will be vacant, and prices will drop. Many employees will work at home far more frequently than they did pre-pandemic. Many employees will no longer have a permanent desk; rather, they will grab a free desk when they are in the office. There will be less business travel, with more business conducted via teleconference. Progressive conferences will allow for both on-site and virtual attendance. Reductions in travel by car, train, bus, and airplane will all be good for the environment.
FOR THINKING AND DISCUSSION
What have been your experiences with working at home during the pandemic? Will you go back to the office five days a week post-COVID? What are the salient issues for you and for your employer?