Technology cannot rescue bad pedagogy; likewise, it can’t rescue poor ways of working.
As vaccine rollouts accelerate and change restrictions country by country, people are starting to reimagine what the future of their work looks like. While many of us have been yearning to get back to the best parts of our workplace, we’ve also been quietly mourning the future loss of the unexpected benefits remote work during the pandemic: seeing our spouses or children more often, being able to hold a better work/life balance, making more meals at home and postponing the dreaded commute. Plus the luxury of an “executive washroom” that is steps away and that we only need share with a lucky few.
Some of us foresee ourselves working from home some of the time, and some see no need in returning to the office at all, happy to remain an entirely remote employee. So, how does technology figure into decision-making of executives and employees alike when we start to consider hybrid work?
“[Hybrid remote is] the most challenging structure to execute well”No-Remote to All-Remote: Five Common Team Structures (Part 1) | Coursera
What is Hybrid Work?
Hybrid Work is defined as a mix of entirely remote and local employees, or employees who sometimes work at home, and sometimes work in the office. For many of us, this might mean the latter, with us working on-campus (in the office) several days a week and at home for the remainder. Hybrid work is a natural middle-ground between pre-pandemic office life and our current emergency remote work situation, but why is it more difficult than we imagine? I’ll try to point out some gaps in this article. Luckily some companies, have been long doing this remote work thing and I’ll be citing resources from Gitlab, Creative Commons and writing by Educause, Harvard Business Review and others.
A Metaphor: Technology and Pedagogy
We know that learning outcomes drive the content of your course, the interactions enable learners to engage, and assessments demonstrate and measure the outcome. During the pandemic, OCAD University put in place guidelines that emphasized flexible ways for learners to engage with content, and express their grasp of the material via multiple means, all to accommodate for accessibility, inclusivity and diversity of the learners. The Hybrid and Online Learning Guidelines, created in August 2020 with contributions from faculty, teaching and learning staff, and IT, is a durable resource to help guide folks in how we were thinking.
“Use technologies, tools and platforms in ways that are attentive to the situational differences of students related to geography, language, social or economic status, and ability such that our hybrid and online learning environments do not reproduce or create systemic barriers to learning; review and address new needs and barriers as they arise.”Guidelines for Hybrid and Online Course Delivery – July 2020.pdf (ocadu.ca)
The Guidelines emphasized that technology provides tools to help learners engage, create and express ideas, and connect them with one another. Slapping a thick layer of technology on the top of any curriculum without consideration to students in different geographic regions, time zones, abilities, and perspectives will always have unintended consequences. If you don’t give consideration to your learners, you create barriers when you actually wanted to lower them, alienating people when you wanted to help them. This really is the foundation of Universal Design for Learning. I often recall back to my early career learning about User Centered Design, and there is much in common: that we need to give consideration to how folks are going to use something when designing it, and involve them in the process if possible.
Planning and Guidelines are Essential for Hybrid Work
Just as the use of technology in the classroom is tied to teaching pedagogy, so is the way you use technology and the way you work. Technology cannot rescue bad pedagogy, and neither can it rescue poor ways of working. No workplace is perfect, and no one has all the answers. Can’t we just continue what we’ve been doing with remote work, and continue that into hybrid work? Not exactly. That’s why you need a plan. Gitlab and Creative Commons emphasize the importance of having a plan that outlines your organizational values, and serves your strategy and goals. Consulting your workforce and having a conversation about how we think about work advances your organization towards creating a new dynamic. Gitlab suggests documenting those ideas, with practical advice, guidelines and policies will ease the transition.
Hybrid and the Asymmetry of Presence
In my earlier blog post about creating Presence, I wrote that, during emergency remote teaching and work, all of us were missing the organic, happenstance hallway conversations, before and after meeting chit-chats, enjoying a coffee together and regular campus life. When you’re on campus, the whole notion of fatigue associated with video-conference will melt away: there will be enough fidelity in the real-world to read people’s expressions, hear them sigh, wince, or ooh with delight at ideas presented. You will be able to read the room and feel the warmth (or chill) of others. With emergency remote, we have all shared this loss together. However, what happens when some of us return to the office and have that experience in person, and some are remote?
Create Opportunities for Informal Communication
Being deliberate about informal communications can help you connect with the folks you work with or bring your presence to those around you. Conveying what’s on your mind, a problem or project that you’re working on can help make those connections. For example, I send a morning email every day to my team: it tells them what I’m thinking about, important stories in the news that caught my attention, some gratitude for someone’s excellent work and perhaps who is away that day. Somewhere in there I usually direct people to our Microsoft Planner board that describes the work that everyone is attending to, or a specific project if there is something that needs to be updated. Here are some other ways you can bring presence:
- Creating a custom background for your video calls, or headers for your emails
- Thanking your team with a custom video thank you message
- Wishing everyone well and thanking them for their work at the end of a long week via chat or email. Adding an animated GIF or graphic can help.
Many of us have met colleagues for coffee or social games sessions on Fridays during the pandemic in order to give the team an opportunity to connect. I expect that informal and formal events may continue in both modes for some time. Some special events may be only in person, and others will be exclusively online so that we can welcome a broader audience.
Hyflex: You Keep Using That Word
Sometimes called Hyflex, Bimodal or Synchronous Hybrid, it seems natural to suggest that remote learners or workers should simply join in-person meetings via remote videoconference. Hyflex embodies the idea that learners can express a preference for which mode they would like to participate in, when it suits them, which sounds great – and could be great – but it’s the most difficult mode to do well.
“I would even reassess and try to figure out if this is specifically applicable as we go into Fall where we may have to reduce time in the classroom to go, ‘What do I need to do in the classroom where I believe that this is best done face-to-face.’”Hyflex Learning, with David Rhoads – Teaching in Higher Ed
The word Hyflex is often conflated or reduced (by me especially) with in-person and remote learners in a synchronous video conference listening to the instructor or engaging in activities. This is a gross simplification of Hyflex, and really overlooks the aim of Hyflex which is to use modes of delivery to convey theory and practice that align with the learning objectives, with maximum flexibility for the learner. For the time being, we’ll ignore the flexible part, and just focus in on this particular practice: some folks in a room, some folks joining in via video.
In this scenario, remote learners are at a massive disadvantage because their instructor is in “meat-space,” and unless the instructor works hard to include remote learners and design activities that work across all synchronous attendees, remote learners get less attention, and have more difficulty connecting with the in-class peers. Why? It’s natural to pay attention to those directly in front of us, and there is not enough bandwidth in any technology to compete with the real world. I don’t recall who said this (possibly John Maeda or Guy Kawasaki), but either way, the notion that we need to carefully choreograph and divide our attention between an in-person audience and remote folks is tricky to think about, and a design challenge.
With emergency remote teaching, the most rewarding and challenging areas have been around synchronous engagements, simply because they are the most demanding on time, bandwidth, technology and attention. Synchronous events are the moments when we get to be together in a live engagement, but they are also the most brittle. The same will still be true of synchronous hybrid work meetings. Some folks are already thinking that they will simply join meetings via remote video-conference, but this might not work out how they hoped. Why?
When you look someone in the eye, you feel like they are speaking to you, and that you are connecting with them. You see all of their face, their expression and gestures. Webcams in laptops are specifically located above the display to provide good eyeline. Remember those Dell XPS laptops of a few years ago when the camera was below the screen, in the hinge? You felt like you were a tiny person, looking up the nose of the person on the remote end. Many conference rooms have cameras located adjacent to the displays, at eye level for the participants. Few conference rooms are actually designed for videoconference so that the attendees are organized in a semicircular fashion around the room so that their image can be captured square on, head and shoulders, just like a laptop web conference. The penalty is that you cannot fit nearly as many folks into a room with this organization. One of the challenges of traditional conference rooms with web cams is that they’re really organized best for the in-person attendees: people have to rotate their bodies to face the screen, away from a table, and no one person is the focal point.
Bad Audio Kills Video Every Time
Of course, we’ve all struggled with the mute button and poor audio during emergency remote work-from-home. However, the overall quality of audio in most laptops these days is pretty impressive, with many using arrays of microphones to detect noise and cancel out the bad and amplify the good. Classic earbuds with an in-line microphone are also excellent. Both of these systems work well, because they are proximate to the sound source: your mouth. The rule of thumb in most commercial sound reinforcement is to get right up on the microphone: definitely within 15-30cm (6 to 12 inches) and try not to swallow it because your audience will just be hearing a load of ‘plosives without a serious pop filter.
Conference rooms typically have on-table microphones which use directional and reflected audio, and are usually much, much further away from the speaker than 30cm. Even magical wireless mics that sit on a table (that thankfully can be muted) typically sit further than this distance: and yes, people get befuddled with unmuting themselves with these mics too. The further the sound source, the greater the mic picks up environmental sounds of ventilation, people rustling their personal items, clacking on keyboards and coming and going. There are some new devices on the market which are standalone camera/microphone array combinations which promise to address some of these issues, but they usually solve one problem at the cost of another: you’re either too far from the microphone or there’s no eyeline between you and the remote end. Ultimately, all of these solutions are be worse than the host being able to individually mute remote attendees, with mics proximate to the speakers. One can expect more distractions for remote attendees. More distractions, means more fatigue and a worse experience. Why is this frustration more of a problem with hybrid?
If you’re working from home, and you miss out on the hallway conversations, or you attend a meeting and become confused about the direction of the meeting because of some subtle cues from the in-person audience, you might start to feel like you’re being left behind. If you’re at work, and you have a quick 15 minute hallway chat with a colleague, do you bring in your remote colleague via audio so they can listen in?
Feeling secure and valued as an employee will help alleviate anxiety of remote employees. Harvard Business Review calls this psychological safety. Creative Commons alludes to this in their guides when they suggest managers “showcase flexibility, patience and empathy”. Conveying this safety to employees, should be guided by values, and expressed in the guides and documentation that employers create.
In these situations, my feeling is that it’s not unlike the choreography that instructors need to keep in mind with Hyflex. Did you have a hallway conversation with a colleague that needs to be shared with a remote employee? Jump into a meeting with them, or make a note to yourself to follow up with them immediately to fill them in on your conversation. Postpone decision-making if you haven’t consulted your remote colleague: you want them to feel that they are a valued stakeholder and that no decision has been made. Or if you know there is something they they will need to be briefed on, schedule a meeting in advance over coffee to catch up.
This is such a big topic that I can’t really do it justice, and I’m not going to cover it. Some sources underline that changes to workspace with hoteling and hot desking can result in operational cost savings or reassigning space for other purposes, but it’s a longer term prospect.
Solutions: Consider a Remote First Strategy
Thinking about organizing work around remote employees first is the first step in making an equitable environment. For conducting work, complement synchronous work with asynchronous work is a good first start. This means taking a look at your suite of collaboration apps and using all of their features. Collaborate on documents and presentations, share files and use asynchronous chat to move work along than focusing on email alone.
Hybrid Synchronous Meeting Strategies
Here are some options:
- Reserve certain days for important in-person meetings, and other days for remote work, when employees can flex their time and reserve those days for focused work. The downside is that this limits the flexibility that employees can exercise around their schedules and likely can’t address all scenarios.
- Hold certain meetings as 100% remote for all participants no matter where folks are. This means good audio and video for all.
- Host and presenters to run the meeting as a fully remote meeting, even though they may be on-campus/at work, and some folks can join from a huddle or meeting room. In this scenario, the primary people of focus will have good audio and video, and they have to rely on the videoconference tools for chat, questions and polling.
- All attendees to run the meeting software to participate in the chat and show their faces, but those proximate in a meeting room do not connect their audio or mute it. This way, you can see everyone, the conference room picks up the audio, and all participants can see the chat and polling.
- Discuss the decision-making content of the meeting asynchronously in a chat that’s held over several days.
- Or don’t have the meeting at all: perhaps that meeting could have been an email.
What about events?
I suspect that some events will return to in-person with optional streamed remote attendance, and some events will be entirely online/remote to encourage an international audience. I’ve been to some online conferences, and some have been great, and others I simply did not attend because either they were not well-run or I couldn’t bring my attention to them due to other work duties. I miss attending conferences like Adobe MAX in person because of the people you meet and the experience of being taken out of your normal day-to-day routine and being focused. Having said that, there are lots of recordings of lectures, music performances and demonstrations I’ve watched on YouTube, and they’re super engaging. Can everyone talk to anyone at the future hybrid conference? Using tools like Twitter, mostly, and it’s for that reason I still participate on the platform.
Where do we go from here?
How an organization works is driven from their values. Articulating those values in processes, guidelines and policies driven by consulting with staff, and keeping a keen eye on what is working and not will help. Using your entire technology stack, like the collaboration features in Microsoft 365 and Adobe Creative Cloud will ease your transition.
- Coursera: How to Manage a Remote Team
- LinkedIn Learning
- We’re a Fully Remote Nonprofit; Here’s Some Advice on Working From Home – Creative Commons
- EDUCAUSE QuickPoll Results: Post-Pandemic Plans for Remote Work | EDUCAUSE
- Deloitte-Strada-the-Hybrid-Campus-2-5-21.pdf (vermont.gov)
- Tele-empathy: The next big thing in digital soft skills (pearson.com)
- What Psychological Safety Looks like in a Hybrid Workplace (hbr.org)
- What Is Your Organization’s Long-Term Remote Work Strategy? (hbr.org)
- Does Your Company Have a Long-Term Plan for Remote Work? (hbr.org)
- Making the Hybrid Workplace Fair (hbr.org)
- Thriving in the Age of Hybrid Work (hbr.org)
- WFH Is Corroding Our Trust in Each Other (hbr.org)
- This Is the Future Of Remote Work In 2021 (forbes.com)