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Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

Despite (or because of?) the pandemic, 2020 was a very good year for me.

I’ll admit it right off the bat: the changes caused by the Covid-19 pandemic made my work better and more enjoyable. Not everything, some things degraded, but for the most part the adaptations forced upon all of us led to better, more creative and more impactful work. Despite the restrictions, lack of movement and in-person connection, I enjoyed my work more than I normally do, which is a lot. I feel reticence at the thought of things going back to “normal.”

Now I know that a lot of people have experienced high levels of frustration and disappointment at being stuck in so many poorly led digital meetings in Zoom, Teams and Skype. They felt bored to tears when sub-optimal in-person meetings moved directly online without any adjustments, offering the worst of both digital and in-person worlds. To these people I say: I’m sorry you had to put up with such dreck. It didn’t need to be that way.

So why am I so pleased? First of all, I found that meetings using digital platforms enabled groups of people to reach a high level of performance. These meetings and workshops produced tangible documented results at a level above in-person meetings.

Second, the tools offered by the digital platforms promoted better collaboration than usual. Working in small teams, within clearly structured parameters led to deeper, productive conversations and co-creation.

And third, the controls offered to me, as a facilitator, design leader and teacher, enabled me to create an unlimited number of structured environments that made it easy for people to create and innovate. Win, win, win.

“My head hurts from being so creative in a short time. I’m not used to participating in meetings like this!”

Let me elaborate.

My tools of choice during 2020 were Zoom, Mural and Miro (I use them both, interchangeably, and sometimes in the same workshop series). The shift to digital forced me to be more intentional in my workshop design. That meant I needed to timebox activities more carefully while making sure to take care not to ignore personal, non-digital needs. I’ve always strived to work very structured in my in-person work but once we moved online I saw a lot of tentativeness. This was mostly due to peoples’ unfamiliarity or even fear of the new tools.

On the other hand, that gave me more opportunity to create clear parameters in which to work. Let’s face it, a lot of what we say we miss with in-person meetings is the idle banter, the elongated transitions, and the slow starts. These are all personal interactions that many people claim is the relational glue that holds people together. I disagree. I think most of this is learned behavior to reduce performance and responsibility. Most of the longer lasting relational glue that builds culture through human conversation happens in between meetings or through producing good works. I’m not saying meetings or workshops shouldn’t be fun. I’m saying that I’m seeing stronger relationship being built through higher levels of work interactions and results in digital meetings than I see being built through idle chatter in in-person meetings. The clearer parameters that the online meetings demand make it easier, not harder, for people to meet.

One of the reasons that I’ve come to prefer the combination of Zoom and Mural/Miro over in-person meetings is the ease and flexibility of creating small groups and giving each of these groups a dedicated work room. The groups themselves have come to the conclusion that three (3) is the optimal number of people in a group. This small number forces people to be active throughout, enables better and more direct conversations, builds rapport quicker, and helps them produce in short periods of time.

In Zoom and Mural/Miro I never run out of workspace; I always have great rooms to design in with limitless whiteboards and creative materials; I can quickly check in on individual groups seamlessly; and I can call people in to the larger meetings and then send them back out with no transportation times or disruptions.

Most of this is impossible in real life. We have limited space in which to work. There are never enough good rooms to design in. We spend (waste) lots of time in transitions. We are then forced to increase group size and watch as a small subset does the work, while others have the ability to look on passively. This isn’t to say we don’t waste time online or that everyone is highly active. But it happens less in the newer meetings.

And so, we end almost all of these meetings with people declaring that they feel inspired, energized, ready to take on new things, have more confidence and feel more creative. My favorite quote was from a participant who, half-way through a workshop, grabbed her head and claimed “My head hurts from being so creative in a short time. I’m not used to participating in meetings like this!”

All of this happens because of more intense planning and rituals. One ritual is that we have to take at least a 10-minute break every hour. People can’t sit in front of computers for too long. The break, for coffee, bathroom, exercise etc. gives people a clear picture that they will work hard for a bit, and then have a breather. It works wonders.

Not everything is better. Some things suffer. I noticed in my introductory design thinking classes that the experiences suffered from lack of physical presence. Usually, these classes are very high energy, the room is buzzing with activity, conversation, designing. The participants are practicing interviewing each other (loud!), building prototypes (quiet and laughter) and testing them (loud, laughter, smiles). The participants build off of each other’s energy. That’s all gone online, especially when I put them in break out rooms. The classes work fine, they are just not as fun nor memorable. I wish I could figure out a way to capture this energy online.

To sum up, I enjoyed moving online and out of the office in 2020. I helped more people, with greater impact, than usual, which is my goal every year. I enjoyed doing something new, I liked how the crisis forced me to shift my own ways of working and supporting others to do the same.

I think what I thought was most interesting was that all of these digital tools and ways of working that I started playing around with ten years ago and that I talked (then!) about how they would transform everything came to fruition in 2020, due to a horrible, destructive pandemic. I wish it didn’t take catastrophe to force us to change.

I’m looking forward in 2021 in figuring out how to blend the best of in-person and online meetings and workshops. Let’s hope we all can resist the pressure to revert to the status quo.

Design Director and co-founder of Savvy Design Collaborative, design-driven entrepreneurship at YALI Dartmouth, VPR commentator, now playing in Sweden.

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