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What Is This Meeting For?

I’ve had two ridiculously awesome work events in the last two days, and want to share them with you, because in some ways the excitement I have about them is a bit unexpected, a bit counter-intuitive. And it’s got me rethinking my approach to remote work and team building.

The first of these events was a Zoom Q&A session that formed part of the review being done for my potential reappointment as Director of DH@MSU. This session was stressful to prepare for, in part because of its interview-like structure. The committee overseeing this review asked me to provide a current CV and to prepare a range of statements and reflections, both looking back on the last five years and developing a vision for the next five. Under normal circumstances, we’d have scheduled a time during which I’d give a brief talk hitting the highlights from those documents and then would field questions from attendees. Given all things COVID, they instead asked me to record the brief talk part, which was made available with the written materials, and then we scheduled an hour on Zoom for Q&A.

A huge number of colleagues from across DH@MSU, as well as from my research unit, MESH, were invited to read/watch the materials and then come participate in the Q&A. I had no idea who would come and what they’d want to ask, whether it would be a grilling about my failures or a questioning about my vision. It could have been anything. In fact, I joked with the committee chair before the event that we’d missed an opportunity to call it an AMA. It turned out — not surprisingly, given the general levels of over scheduling and burnout on campus — to be a smaller group than it could have been, but those colleagues who came had fantastic, generative questions that wound up turning what could have been a test for me into a highly collegial conversation in which we thought together about our collective future. It was enormous fun, and I came away with some great ideas for work that we might do together in the year ahead.

The second of these events, which took place the next day, was a meeting of sorts of the MESH team. We’ve been wrestling with some issues, including that team members working on one of our projects often don’t have the opportunity to learn about what’s going on with other projects. Some of these issues are just typical growing pains, as a new unit expands and matures. Others of them derive from the challenges of remote work, and our inability to have some of those informal hallway chats that would be part of a more standard co-located working arrangement. And our typical response to these communication issues of late has been to apply MOAR ZOOM, but it’s become less and less clear over time what exactly all our meetings were for.

As a result, we agreed to meet up in our team channel in Teams for several hours on a Thursday afternoon to have a semi-asynchronous text-based chat about team culture and how we want to think about our work together. The team channels in Teams (sigh) are both conducive to this kind of conversation and not; the fact that a top-level post is called a “conversation” and that one “replies” to that initial post lends itself to a multi-threaded discussion. On the other hand, new replies change the order of conversations and notifications can bounce you out of a window you’re typing in, and keeping up with what you’ve seen and what you haven’t is uneven. The interface, in other words, is a little chaotic.

In fact, our experience was utterly, utterly chaotic, and yet the most energizing experience I’ve had in some time. New questions and replies flew so fast that it was a bit dizzying, but I found myself more focused and engaged than I’ve been in a meeting in the longest time. Even more importantly, we got far more input from far more voices than we do in a standard video-based meeting, and we’ve come away with a record of a ton of new ideas for things we might try.

Together, these experiences have me thinking about the ways my colleagues and I connect with one another, and in particular the reasons that we default to meetings as means of communication (and the reasons we then dread those meetings), and the times when other channels of communication — written documents, real-time chat, etc — might be better ways to go. I’m also pondering — with the help of GitLab’s crazy extensive guide to all-remote work — new ways to ensure that our increasingly dispersed team can keep the collaborative energy that I felt this week going.

I don’t have any brilliant conclusions as yet. This post is mostly a placeholder for my own very much in-process thinking, which I’m looking forward to continuing to explore in the weeks ahead.


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