Education

5 Reasons Why I’m Struggling with Working Virtually

Before sharing my virtual working struggles, I want to stipulate a few points.

First, I believe in remote and flexible work. The only way universities will attract and retain top talent is to decouple employment from geography. If you are a teleworking higher education professional, you have my full support and admiration.

Second, I see some very good reasons why, post-pandemic, higher education should be fundamentally rethinking its use of office space. We need more private offices for adjunct and contingent faculty. We likely need fewer private offices for many staff. Particularly those staff that would prefer to work primarily at home and are comfortable with desk swapping and hoteling

Third, my job is that of an online learning evangelist. I should be all for aligning academic workplace practices with those of teaching and learning. If we can design and teach high-quality online courses, we should be able to figure out how to work virtually as well.

For all these reasons, I’m having a hard time squaring my struggles with virtual academic work with my deeply-held beliefs about how work should evolve.

I should also say that these in-between pandemic days are likely not the time to draw any conclusions about the future of the academic workplace. The reality of going to campus only to have most meetings on Zoom is likely not a place in which clear thinking can occur.

Still, I think now is the time to be having at least some conversations about the academic work cultures and structures that we wish to create in the new normal to come.

Why am I struggling with virtual work? Five reasons:

1 – Too Many Zoom Meetings:

Virtual meetings are the superhighways of the digital workplace. Superficially, eliminating the friction of meetings by virtualizing them should have made meetings more efficient. With no more travel time, we thought we’d gain back minutes and hours of our day. With no need to find a physical meeting room, we would not waste time on the logistics of meetings.

Anyone who has studied transportation, however, knows about the phenomenon of induced demand. For highways, building more lanes can lead to more traffic — as more drivers choose to drive on the newly expanded road.

When meetings went from in-person to Zoom, we started scheduling more meetings. How many of you spend your days in back-to-back-to-back Zoom meetings?

In-person on-campus work adds friction to our daily lives. Meetings are harder to schedule, and there is travel time to consider, so we have fewer meetings. None of us can get anything done because we are always in meetings.

2 – Too Few Opportunities for Informal Information Exchange:

Meetings, it turns out, are imperfect vehicles of information exchange. Meetings are, in some ways, a form of theater. There is always jockeying, posturing, and the management of impressions. Nobody wants to look dumb in a meeting.

Higher education is a knowledge industry. Maybe the world’s pre-eminent knowledge industry. We rely on the free-flowing exchange of information to run our institutions.

Meetings as a form of information exchange work well if our goal is to keep doing things the same. But if we want to do new things, we need other ways to exchange information. We need informal conversations. We need spontaneous and unplanned opportunities to test ideas and exchange thoughts.

Some colleges and universities, and departments and schools, have tried to virtualize informal information exchange. Slack has been rolled out. How well is that working for you?

3 – Too Much Screen Time:

Remember when we used to worry about screen time? Living in pandemic times, those worries about how many hours we spend interacting with screens seem sort of quaint.

We could not have maintained academic continuity during the months of social distancing without our screens. Today, during these in-between pandemic times, we rely on our screens for most of our higher ed work.

How much time did you spend this week not looking at a screen?

Working from campus at least forces us to spend some time looking at people and not screens.

4 – Too Few Social Interactions:

Students of learning have known for a long time that learning is social. We learn best from people, not technology. We learn from each other.

Any teaching environment that is not designed around the recognition that learning is social is destined to be impoverished.

Therefore, why is it that we have a hard time internalizing that effective and productive work must be social as well? We need to accept that the social aspects of work are not “add ons” but essential to the work itself.

Here, I’m not talking about holiday parties and foosball tables. A walking meeting can be both social and highly productive. Chatting with a colleague in the hallway about pets, children, or a TV show can build a bond that translates into more productive future collaboration.

Social ties can be maintained digitally and virtually between colleagues who already know each other well.

5 – Too Few Energy Recharging Gatherings:

Finally, I had no idea how much I depend on on-campus events to provide intellectual recharging. One of the joys of working on a college campus is the sheer number of talks and events that one can attend.

When you go to an in-person campus event, you are (hopefully) not multitasking. Your phone is in your pocket. Your computer is back in your office. You are fully present for the event. Why else would you go?

How many of us give our full attention to Zoom talks and events? There is just too much e-mail to answer and too many things to do.

The future of academic work will be a mix of in-person and virtual. Work, like education, will be blended.

Now is the time to start figuring out the higher education work of the future that we will want to create.

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