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The Virtue of Not Knowing: Adapting to Full-Time Virtual Engagement

You hate this. Virtual meetings are exhausting – all those faces staring back at you, beseeching, in multiple meetings over hours and hours. Remote work is frustrating – the formalized, single-channel of Zoom or Teams constrains how you would normally communicate with a friend at work through dozens of micro-engagements over the course of a day. Telework is lonely – seeing people from the shoulders up is a poor substitute for a face-to-face relationship.

The whole thing makes you feel incompetent. You feel grateful to have a job you can do from home when so many others do not. But if you thrive on human connection, this is discouraging. And you feel the pressure and anxiety to get good at this fast.

We think of using Teams, Slack, Zoom, Sharepoint, and the rest as a replacement for the office and the ways we worked with others when we were face-to-face. We think we know what virtual technologies can do for us. We assume these tools are a replacement and, therefore, know what they are good for. Perhaps we are mistaken.

Perhaps they are not a replacement. We use a blend of tools to help us engage with each other at work – casual chats, texts, phones, team meetings, email, staff meetings, collaborative software, impromptu coffees, and on. Reduced to just the virtual ones seems a haphazard, makeshift, solution for what we had; it does not seem to substitute or not quite yet. Or, maybe we just don’t know.

Perhaps we don’t know what they’re good for. We’ve probably figured out they’re good for sharing information, asking and answering questions, persuasion presentations, and maybe for teaching and learning some things. But what about deep problem-solving, collaborative decision making, getting to know each other and the trust that results? What about ambiguous and emotion-laden conflict? Maybe we don’t know yet.

Perhaps, these are tools we are still figuring out how to use so that we can find out what they are good for. We haven’t figured the cost of what we’ve lost or what we’ve gained. Perhaps we are still learning.

A few learning tips beyond the YouTube videos and instructional live meetings:

1. Check out, get some rest. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman shows how much energy it takes to think something through, to learn something new, to engage the deliberate “slow thinking” parts of ourselves. To learn effectively, we need to take breaks, sleep, and experience learning in different contexts.

2. Recognize where you are. Figuring out where you are in learning these new tools will help you gain confidence. One approach is the Four Stages of Competence, where the learner moves from Unconscious Incompetence through Conscious Incompetence and Conscious Competence to Unconscious Competence. Recognize where you are and cut yourself some slack.

3. Ask friends. We all know someone who has worked virtually for years. Find out what they’ve done, the transition they made, how they learned to do this, and what works for them. If they work in an entirely virtual organization, ask about how they make decisions, how they problem-solve, how they handle conflict.

4. Experiment. In a safe environment, play with Zoom, Teams, Slack: Oh, when the chat box is really active, the video and audio discussions are too! Let’s try the whiteboard to get folks adding their ideas in real-time! If I put a poll here, will it help us decide the best course of action? Stretch the limits of the tools. Maybe even find out what they can do that face-to-face interactions cannot.

5. Plan a bit more. Back in the physical world, what do you do when you have a meeting in a city you don’t know in a building you’ve never been to before? You check out Google Maps and you get there early. It is the same thing with these virtual tools – plan it out and get there early.

Remember, as Benedict Carey points out in How We Learn, learning is highly individual and idiosyncratic. What is unique about the way you learn?

When we are adept at using a particular tool, or technology, the tool disappears – we reach that level of Unconscious Competence. When you’re on the phone, you don’t think about the phone. When you create a spreadsheet, you don’t think about Excel or your laptop. When you’re hammering two boards together, you don’t think about the hammer. You think about what you are trying to accomplish. If the phone loses its connection, Excel shuts down, or the hammer breaks, you don’t blame yourself; you just try to figure out why it stopped working. When you know how to use it and what it can do for you, you take it for granted. We’re not there yet with virtual engagement tools. We’re figuring it out.

Experiment a bit. Get some rest. Ask a friend. You’re figuring out what this particular hammer can do.

Peter Bonner is an organizational development and performance innovator with expertise in federal agency assessments, leadership development and interagency/multi-sector initiatives. Peter has worked with more than 30 different federal entities and 10 interagency or multi-sector partnerships. For example, he managed and facilitated the process for the interagency team at VA, DoD, OPM, and other agencies to improve Veterans’ hiring. Peter has worked on Presidential Rank Award evaluation teams, assessing the accomplishments of Senior Executive Service members to be awarded this rare honor. He also served on the White House initiative on multi-sector leadership, an effort to use human-centered design techniques to develop leaders of the future. Finally, Peter helped design and has been a lead instructor on the Digital IT Acquisition Professional training program. You can connect with him on Twitter @PeterCBonner.

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Loretta Cooper

This is a great post Peter, you perfectly channeled my telework experience, and I am sure that of many others. I like the idea of being experimental. My team and I made a decision at the beginning of this period to think of it as a great learning laboratory– the result has been new tools, new expertise and a feeling of empowerment…. at least on the good days. 🙂 Walk on! It’s a journey!

Peter C Bonner

Thank you, Loretta! I love the “learning laboratory” idea and the “at least on the good days.”. It takes the pressure off thinking you need to be perfect in this new world and gives people the freedom to fail, learn, and try again. It also breaks the pretense that everyone else knows what they are doing when they are on the same journey. Cheers!