Managing the Workplace in a 2-Dimensional Environment


I recently
 came across an essay I wrote a few years ago for graduate school, in which I argued for and against the idea of virtual teams. This was before COVID-19 when the concept of remote work had not yet been widely adopted. If you were part of a global organization, and your role required collaborating with a cross-functional team spread across the world, you would have had to spend a portion of your time video conferencing with your teammates. For most people, however, hopping on a Zoom call wasn’t essential to getting work done.

When the pandemic hit, many establishments in our society had to shift to fully or partially remote work. According to a survey from Owl Labs, roughly 70 percent of full-time employees in the U.S. today are working remotely, having to adjust to a brand new work environment: two-dimensional space.

In a way, we are lucky to live in an era of cutting-edge technologies, which have enabled businesses, governments, and economies to stay afloat amidst a global pandemic. Those of you who were around in the early 1990s, before the dawn of dial-up internet, might remember the painful experience of trying to phone a family member overseas. I used to watch my grandmother sitting for hours next to the landline, trying to contact relatives living on the other side of the world. Making one international phone call might take up an entire afternoon, and it came with a steep price tag. It would have been difficult to conceive of a world where we could connect with anyone, anywhere, using a voice-activated mobile device: “Siri, call my brother.” Today’s everyday communication is yesterday’s science fiction.

Despite all its blessings, however, working virtually comes with its own unique set of challenges. These challenges are defined by the inherent gap between the speed at which technologies are accelerating and the capacity of institutions (organizations, societies, systems, etc.) to pivot and adapt to new social and cultural behaviors.

Consider Britannica’s definition of a social norm: “[A] rule or standard of behavior shared by members of a social group. Norms may be internalized — i.e., incorporated within the individual so that there is conformity without external rewards or punishments, or they may be enforced by positive or negative sanctions from without.” Humans are a social species, and we have long developed and employed social norms to guide our interactions. Many of these predate the Fourth Industrial Revolution, today’s period of rapid advancement in AI, robotics, quantum computing, and more. This presents a problem: Technologies have been improving and accelerating rapidly in recent years, but our social and cultural norms have struggled to keep up.

Virtual meetings are a prime example of this discrepancy. A lack of in-person interaction can make it challenging to develop team norms. These team norms, in turn, are reinforced through nonverbal cues, which indicate a person’s state of mind. The geographical distance breeds additional distrust, and the anonymity of virtual meetings creates pressure to conform. These factors can discourage the sharing of opinions and ideas. This hesitation is amplified over virtual connections, creating additional challenges for team decision-making.

Adapting to a New Era

As we adapt to a new, two-dimensional workplace, it will be crucial to address the potential pitfalls of virtual interaction head-on. This means being proactive about the ways we interact in the virtual workplace, where effective communication is essential to a team’s efficacy. Honesty, timeliness, openness, and candid feedback all influence trust, creating an environment that is conducive to success.

With that in mind, here are a few strategies for overcoming the challenges of communication as we adapt to this new virtual workplace phenomenon:

  • Agenda: Effective meeting agendas lead to productive meetings by guiding the audience and keeping the focus on the important topics. Prepare your audience by sending a brief agenda ahead of each meeting. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it often goes neglected due to the sheer number of video conferences filling our schedules. However, your agenda doesn’t have to be an elaborate plan. It could be as simple as a bulleted list of items you intend to address, along with your expected outcomes. This will let your team know what to expect going into a conference, and help them feel more comfortable participating by giving them time to prepare. Your meetings will be more focused, concise, and productive.
  • Meeting Notes: Many of the informal chats that we used to have in the office hallways or break rooms have now become stacked colored blocks on our work calendars, adding to our daily video conferencing time. Each discussion breeds a new set of to-dos, and after having several of these conversations a day, it can be challenging to keep up with the influx of commitments. Make it a habit to send a follow-up note after each discussion you have throughout the day. Find a simple template that you can use for all follow-up emails so you don’t have to spend extra time structuring your notes. If your email requires a response or any other follow-up actions, Outlook and other email platforms allow you to set up reminder loops for yourself and your recipients.
  • Status Reports: If you manage a product or a program and coordinate with several stakeholders, sharing status reports is critical, because they help keep the team engaged and aligned as the work progresses. Whether you use a project management tool or manually assemble the information, make sure you have an easy-to-fill-out template with a clear structure that you can use consistently. Your status reports should provide a bird’ eye view of the entire project. They are also a platform for sharing important next steps, action items, and potential blockers so that everyone knows what to expect.
  • Don’t Assume — Ask: You frequently hear things during video conferences — comments, concerns, suggestions, or pieces of feedback — that don’t come across very clearly, leaving you confused for the rest of the conversation. You hope that you aren’t the only one who didn’t make sense of something and desperately wait for someone to speak up. When the meeting ends, you are even more confused about what happened, and you inevitably start making assumptions as a coping mechanism. This can lead to dangerous consequences and negatively impact your work. The next time you find yourself in a similar situation, do yourself a favor: Be the hero who uses the “raise hand” feature on your video conferencing platform, and kindly ask for clarification.
  • Schedule Time for Open Feedback: Get into the habit of scheduling periodic, informal huddle-ups with your teams to exchange honest feedback. These discussions give everyone a platform to share their thoughts, which is vital for high-performing teams. Revisit the vision and goals of your work as a refresher, and don’t forget to ask questions: What went well? How can we improve? Do we have a proper framework in place? Not only will this help you achieve alignment, but it will also promote openness and build trust.

As the workplace transitions from three-dimensional to two-dimensional, we will be tasked with redefining our existing norms, expectations, rules, and systems to support our social existence. This will not happen overnight, and speed bumps are inevitable, but by taking steps to improve communication, promote trust, and prevent misunderstandings, we can do more than just survive this new work medium — we can thrive within it.

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