Zooming beyond time and space
Old offline patterns lead to lacklustre online approximations—we can have better virtual meetings & conferences.
Since the start of the pandemic, many more people are experiencing remote teams, online conferences, and collaboration through technology. It’s a strange and wonderful world of cat lawyers in courtrooms and robot graduations. We’re meeting everyone’s kids and pets, attending meetings in pyjama bottoms, and enjoying more flexibility and less commuting.
However, as a long-time remote worker and online facilitator, I have to ask: have we truly made the mental leap to digital space? I see many copy-pasted offline patterns, followed by complaints that they’re not as good as the in-person versions. Conferences without serendipitous hallway connections. Meetings where someone has to be up at 3am. Classroom lectures amounting to a talking head on TV.
The online space isn’t just a sad 2D reflection of our lost 3D world. It has unique powers all its own.
I’m here to tell you: we can do better. The online space isn’t just a sad 2D reflection of our lost 3D world. It has unique powers all its own. If we work to the strengths of virtual space, we can not only be on par, but go beyond what’s possible in-person.
While face to face interaction is generally synchronous (at the same time), online interaction can also be asynchronous (at different times). This opens up a whole new powerful toolset, enabled by technology—if we understand how to use it.
I’m going to share two examples: one process I recently tried with my own team, and one experiment I wish someone would invite me to participate in.
Holding an impossible team away day
My team at Open Collective is 13 people across Brazil, Mexico, United States, the UK, Canada, Germany, France, Spain, India, and New Zealand. We’ve been fully remote for years, but before the pandemic we had quarterly team retreats. Though not everyone could be at each one, they helped create a rhythm of connection, alignment, and shared context.
Like for everyone else, COVID19 meant we couldn’t gather anymore. We carried on, working from home, doing video calls, chatting on Slack, and updating GitHub issues. The team stayed very productive in terms of day to day, sprint to sprint collaboration.
I could feel interpersonal connections and strategic alignment eroding.
But over time, as we hired new people and our product evolved, I could feel interpersonal connections and strategic alignment eroding. Something important was missing, a certain kind of deeper communication.
So, I tried to call a team workshop. If we couldn’t get together in person, surely we could at least get on the same call? But the time zones were impossible.
What if we could have a conversation outside of time?
As a facilitator, I felt defeated, like I was fighting the clock and losing. I had to get creative and experiment.
So, I designated an upcoming week in the calendar “team retreat week” and sent everyone invitations to Loom (a video recording tool) and a #retreat Slack channel.
I explained, in the context setting document:
We need to see online collaboration not as a limitation or compromise, but as an opportunity for new ways of interacting. We need to take advantage of its unique strengths.
And I set a theme: dreams. We’d start with our individual dreams, and weave them together into our collective dream by the end of the process.
Ahead of time, I assigned pairs, intentionally matching people who don’t usually work closely together. I asked them to book two 30 minute sync sessions, one early in the week and one toward the end, whenever their two calendars aligned.
All together, we created and watched 85 short videos, and each had two 30-minute pair calls, the equivalent of an 8-hour team away day.
On Monday, I kicked off the first of a series of daily prompts, inviting short video responses (5 minutes max). Since it was designed to be asynchronous, everyone could record and watch at any time of day.
- Monday: “This year so far, what has been your highlight and lowlight, personally and for your work?”
- Tuesday: “What’s something you’ve learned, or a way you’ve grown, in the last while? What learning and growing do you still feel you need to do?”
- First pair discussion (30 minute synchronous session): “How does the growth and learning you shared relate to your bigger dream for yourself? How does working for this company relate to that dream?”
- Wednesday: “How can the rest of the team support your pair discussion partner with their dream—what’s the call to action? And more generally, how could our team better work together and support one another?”
- Thursday: “Out of all the things you could be doing in your life, why do you choose to work here, on this project?”
- Second pair discussion: “What do we collectively need to achieve in order to do justice to the choice we’ve each made to dedicate our time to this company?”
- Friday: “What should be our real focus and strategy as a company, our collective dream? What is one risk, something that makes you worry we might not achieve it, and one advantage, a reason you’re hopeful we will?”
All together, we created and watched 85 short videos, and each had two 30-minute pair calls—the equivalent of an 8-hour team away day.
Some changes started before the week even finished. Just as I was logging out for the evening one day, a team member in the opposite time zone messaged on Slack requesting to have a call. I asked her to record a video instead, which I watched and responded to in the morning. Easy!
We’re thinking more deeply about optimising communication modes: sync/async, text/video.
We’re shifting work in progress demos from a synchronous weekly meeting to a partly asynchronous process. Instead of a synchronous live screenshare, short videos are posted in a #demos Slack channel throughout the week, then deeper discussion happens at the weekly call. Those who can’t make the sync session can comment on Slack and catch up on the workshop recording afterward.
We’re thinking more deeply about optimising communication modes: sync/async, text/video.
The interpersonal and strategic alignment impacts will show themselves over time, but I’ve already noticed better connection among team members who are part time, newer, or in distant time zones.
After the retreat, I asked for feedback and reflections. My colleague Alina summed it up perfectly.
Now, let me tell you about my dream conference….
If I could have just watched it on YouTube, your conference is pointless.
I’ve long disliked traditional conference design. Bring lots of amazing people together, with common interests and expertise, who are keen to make connections, and… sit them in rows, facing front, not talking to each other? Even if you’re there in person, it’s functionally the same as watching a video recording. At least in person, you might strike up some good hallway conversations, connect at the coffee break, or meet a speaker after their talk. But online? No chance.
I haven’t seen an online conference make full use of asynchronous time.
Many online conferences basically amount to watching YouTube, except worse production quality because it’s live. You may be watching at the same time as 100 other people, but it makes no difference if you don’t interact with them.
There are many creative facilitators who make better use of precious synchronous time by hosting cool interactive Zoom sessions (more power to them!). What I haven’t seen is an online conference that also makes full use of asynchronous time, really living into the possibilities of virtual space beyond trying to recreate in-person experiences.
My proposal: an asynchronous/synchronous conference
- Invite speakers and participants without limits
Who would you invite if time and space were no object? If traveling were instantaneous and free, and infectious viruses were magically all gone? If no one had to worry about what to wear, hire a babysitter, or print business cards? No venue to hire, no occupancy limits, no catering.
It’s not only more convenient, it’s more inclusive, both for speakers and participants. Caring for young children? Need more time to process information? Health or mobility challenges? Can’t afford time off from the day job? Less fluent in the language? Night owl? Early bird? This conference is for you!
As someone who often turns down speaking invitations due to a combination of small children, disability, and time zones, it would be a game changer. How many more amazing and diverse people could we hear from if we radically widened the field?
2. Pre-record the talks
No one has to be a video pro to record a talk. These days, most everyone can work the camera on their laptop or phone. A few simple tips—lighting, sound, and resting the device on a stable surface—is enough to enable a decent take.
Remember, the quality comparison here isn’t with a TV documentary, it’s with a live talk. When speakers can take their time and start again if needed, the final result will only improve. It’s not the case that the people best at speaking on a stage have all the best ideas. Imagine how many more people we’d hear from if we removed the anxiety of live public speaking.
It has benefits for the organizers, too. Instead of futzing around with bad internet connections and muted mics on the day of the conference, they can help the less tech-savvy trim their videos or insert slides in the lead-up. If a talk comes in that’s not great, give some constructive feedback and ask them to re-record it—or fix it in post! No one will notice if you edit out some rambling audio if you time it with a slide change. Bonus: every talk will end on time!
3. Watch the talks asynchronously
Conference participants get access to the videos and a program guide, to explore in their own time. Just like watching YouTube, except better. The first video can even be an MC welcoming you in with a few corny jokes if that’s your bag. Then you’re free to roam about the conference, outside of time and space.
Baby crying? Pause the video. Need to stop and take notes? No problem. Speaker too slow? Watch at double speed. Tiny text on a slide? Freeze frame. Didn’t hear a sentence? Rewind. Night owls can catch the first keynote and early birds can hang in for the closing. There’s no such thing as FOMO in asynchronous time.
Everyone watches their fill of videos within a particular timeframe, such as one week. Wait… why, wasn’t the point to be free of time constraints? Here’s the cool part: it can be both synchronous and asynchronous.
4. Now get people together at the same time
At my hypothetical conference, each pre-recorded talk has associated synchronous sessions, like a Q&A with the speaker, a moderated panel with topic experts, an interactive workshop, or a small-group discussion. Everyone signs up for the sync sessions most interesting and relevant for them, which they can identify based on the talks they’ve watched.
Synchronous is not better than asynchronous, or vice versa. Each mode should be used for what it does best.
These can also be complemented by spaces for general networking or socialising, which will go so much better once people have already watched the same content and connected in small-group interactive sessions.
Synchronous is not better than asynchronous, or vice versa. Each mode should be used for what it does best. It’s a power combo that’s been used in book clubs and university seminars for centuries: absorb the static material on your own time, then come together to engage with it dynamically.
The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed
Maybe this is a big leap from workshop design but…. We’re on the cusp of a new era of human interaction through technology. Future historians will debate whether it started with the Snowbot or the hidden library in Minecraft, but they’ll agree a watershed moment was the pandemic, which showed the whole world that we don’t have to be in the same place and time to work together.
Asynchronous communication will be a necessity with human colonies on Mars. My kids’ generation will be free of many constraints of time and space, both in their practical tech tools and in their own minds. Their conferences will be in virtual reality, or some new medium I can’t even dream of.
Right now, as a species, we’re all just taking the first baby steps (me included). So let’s play, letting go of the baggage of the old ways, and explore what new modes are possible.