The global conversation is familiar, "will things go back to normal"? The collective answer is "I hope so...and I hope not". I think we all hope to travel, see friends and family, and move through the world without fear of getting sick. I think we also hope to continue to spend time with our kids and pets, wear more comfortable clothes, and hop on to a meeting with your camera off so you can get your kids or pets their breakfast. Disruption is a time for change. And if we think beyond skeuomorphism, we can find ways to do things better. Starting with meetings.
The old way was to schedule a weekly (lab) meeting. You have an hour blocked; maybe more. Everyone shuffles in and has a seat around the table. Who, again, is giving an update this week? Over the next hour, you get an update on a project: some things worked; some did not. At the end, you give some feedback and all nod in agreement. Sometimes people offer suggestions; sometimes not. But the pandemic has changed everything. Now we can ask, "what's the point of the weekly lab meeting? What do we hope to accomplish?" It's time to redesign meetings from the ground up.
Meetings usually run in one of three different styles.
1:many. These are the typical meetings, with one person presenting to many, and information flows in one direction. These are prime for disruption.
1:1. These meetings have a two-way flow of information, but it's only between two people. You've been in these meetings before, wondering why you're there, as the presenter has a conversation with another attendee, usually the boss. If these conversations need to be a meeting, they probably don't need the entire group present.
many:many. These are special and rare. In this setting, a meeting member sets the stage, but then the conversation is an exchange. Work is done. Communication flows in so many directions, you're not really sure who said what. And you leave the meeting feeling like a problem was solved. This is meeting nirvana.
When the pandemic started, I canceled lab meetings entirely. I figured that if the lab was going to have only a few hours each day for work (because of childcare, mental health, or whatever), then I was not going to ask them for those few hours. So, no meetings. We instituted weekly check-ins, to let people know what each was working on, but mostly to maintain a sense of community. I felt like switching lab meetings to a virtual format wasn't a good use of synchronous time.
And that's when it struck me: we need to start thinking of time in terms of synchronous vs. asynchronous. What do people absolutely need to be present for, compared to what they can watch/learn/update on their own? The time-bending powers of asynchronous communication open up a new world of possibilities and efficiencies.
Lab meeting now has two distinct parts. The first part is the update part. Each month, we ask 4-5 people to record a short presentation that gives an update on their projects. These range from 15-45 minutes, depending on how much people have to talk about. We post these to a shared project (called Virtual Lab Meeting), and give the lab 1 week to watch them. We then start threads below them about questions, comments, ideas, and the like. Some of the immediate and obvious benefits: watching when you want, where you want, on your own time; watching at 1.5X to speed up the slow Southern drawl; pausing to write a comment or look up a concept; rewinding to catch something you missed; getting feedback from all voices in the lab, regardless of personality traits.
The second part, at the end of the week, brings the entire group together where everyone who made a video that month (~1/2 of the lab) will present future directions only. They will address the comments and questions that were raised in the threads. We focus our synchronous time together on solving problems that move projects forward.
Splitting our time in this way leverages a disrupted, distributed workforce. We give people back their time. I don't think we ever would have landed on this format if it weren't for the pandemic requiring new ways of communicating and new approaches to work. But I can't imagine going back to 'normal'. The future will be filled with new experiments in communication and efficiency. All from the comfort of our stretchy pants.