WFH: Covid-19 silver lining?

Let’s get this straight, right away. There is nothing good about Covid-19. I wish every morning that none of that has happened. We have to fight together as much as we can to put Sars-Cov2 back in its box. It’s killing tens of thousands, wiping out the most vulnerable, the more venerable, and will leave families in tears. Economically, we’re still falling, and we don’t even know yet when we will actually hit the ground

Even for those who have not fully or partially lost their income with lockdown and what’s a tremendous economic shock, even “working from home” is not really the benefit it once was. When you have young kids around (as schools are closed), it’s an exhausting challenge to keep things going… with the two of us working, we end up working inefficiently in small time capsules from 5 am to 11 pm, intertwining life, meals, work, school, working-out for sanity and keeping the kids occupied — they are 3 and 5 1/2 year old. Saving commuting time is a small sweetener for the blurry state of exhaustion we seem to navigate through in the last few weeks.

But there are couple of silver linings: leveling the playing field, and increased empathy.

For once, everybody’s at the same page. This is leveling the playing field. I’ve been for many years working in global positions, with semi-virtual teams, and it’s different from the fully remote world that we are currently in. In a semi-virtual global team, I had so many of these meetings where the leadership teams sits in a room at the headquarters, 10–15 people in a meeting room when you include direct reports and people not really directly involved but would not miss a “free exposure”opportunity. There would be 3 or 4 people scattered around the world, calling at inconvenient hours from home, or a car in a parking lot if you’re in sales, or from a hotel room with poor Internet connection.

In normal times, you, the presenter would be one of the ones outside of the meeting room.

The first 10 minutes will be mostly rumbling in of people gathering in the HQ room, sharing anecdotes and jokes, complaining about the poor quality of the audio, typically blaming the poor “remoters” for it. There will be lots of advice floating around “try calling on your cell”, “can’t you move to another place in your house where WIFI is stronger”, “shutdown skype and restart”. Great. It’s then 10:06 pm in Asia, and you’re sitting in a hotel room after a 15 hours flight, and you sense that before you have even started to get to present, you’ve irritated people who have all power on your career and your project. But you get yourself together and get right back in. The next 15 minutes are typically better. With technical glitches behind you, until 10:22pm you have full attention of your audience and can go through your deck. Then someone high up in the HQ room might ask you a question (in well organized groups, the highest ranked in the group or someone who wants to show off). You might be given the chance to answer the question… or maybe not even, before one of the person in the room interjects and wants to show he’s on top of things. Before you know it, what was supposed to be your opportunity to get things done turns into an HQ contest, where everyone tries to outsmart the others… and you become an observer of this chaos, totally derailing you presentation, not even being noticed, sometimes nearly forgotten. It’s hard to get back in, as with most rooms audio set up, you only hear half of what is said on the other end, and if any one is laughing, coughing, talking, rumbling, typing, tapping on the table, the one-way polycom speaker phone will not give the mic back to you . You hear laughter following jokes you don’t get…they ask “can you hear us? can you speak we can’t hear you”… it’s going nowhere.

It’s 10:52 pm in Shanghai and someone would notice that “there are 10 minutes left, and we’re only 3 pages into a 20 pages deck… Maxime, can you please push the pace”. It’s actually 5 very inefficient minutes that you have left, as they all need to go back to your flow after having covered wild areas of “strategic” interest…and you know that they are checking the emails they got in the last hour, and where is their next meetings. At 10:58…”Maxime, great discussion but we need to close now as someone else has booked the room. Let’s have a follow up discussion in couple of weeks.” It’s 11:05pm in Shanghai, and you’re incapable of sleeping with combined effects of jetlag and frustration. It got nowhere, and you’re bracing for the usual feedback: “it was a good conversation (we were really great here at HQ) but it’s true we did not get to the bottom of it (you’re lack of leadership is too blame)”.

Everybody dialing in from home is leveling the playing field.

A more recent meeting was a totally different experience, with 3 regions being confined. That meeting was not supposed to be easy, with politics, controversy, a touchy topic, multiple levels and organizations, and 35 people on the line. But it was life as it should be. The meeting was much more civil, organized in the ways all meetings should be. People seem to get it… let the presenter present, and then ask questions that are relevant to the topic. It’s harder for someone to talk through the presenter to make a joke or derail the conversation. There was very good use made of the “chat function” of skype to capture ideas, comments, encouragements and “side thoughts”. The debate afterwards was also much more conclusive… we got a healthy debate, good list of decisions, well documented too.

A much more balanced and inclusive discussion. Doing what’s right, not what seems right to the person closest to the microphone in the HQ room.

I’ve sensed also a heightened sense of empathy. All around. I remember we tried to implement a “check in” couple of years ago in my company, where you you would ask people to say at the beginning of the meeting what they were expecting from it, and if they had anything that would prevent them from being “fully present”. That was forcing empathy…understanding the range of situations of the participants. The extreme would be someone who sits in the room, fully energized and “in the now”, to someone else who tells you it’s middle of the night, and he tried to find a quiet place to call in his small apartment — and had trouble all day as his kids are both sick.

This is happening quite naturally now… people seem to care more. With everybody dialing in, sitting in their home office if they have one, or on their couch (when they don’t have a home office or when their kids are actually working on Zoom in there), all gets a good glimpse of the difficulties of working and interacting remotely. And this empathy is critical to achieve better business results — it’s not only about caring for the individuals, it’s also about understanding the filter of context and set up on perceived performance. When you struggle with kids, when you’re worried about your parents being sick, when you’ve fought against an erratic Internet connection all day long, your ideas might not be less interesting — but you might not be as convincing. Understanding the backdrop, being open about it, actively inquire about it, supports inclusion. It helps defeating the “proximity bias”, when we tend to favor the opinion of the ones who are closer, that we can hear more easily (literally or metaphorically).

So let’s hope we get through this as quickly as we can, saving as many souls as we can. And let’s hope too that we’ll retain some of this proximity and inclusion that we’ve paradoxically built by being apart. Getting out of here more human.

Stay healthy my friends.

Singapore, April 17th, 2020.

Husband and dad. Engineering a better world. Putting things on paper.

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