Blog for March 2021 Seminar: Working during the Covid pandemic
The theme for this seminar was Working during the COVID-19 Pandemic: sharing insights and experiences and was a break from our normal seminar format. We had eight speakers, and each spoke for ten minutes or less.
Paul’s personal reflection was not necessarily about the pandemic – rather, on the last 20+ years. (He’s worked from home as a base since 1998.) He presented five slides.
There’s something Paul does that he calls ‘a walk to work’. He thinks having a routine is really important. From discussions with people in the last year, he’s observed that those people who have difficulties around social interaction have had the biggest problems. Having a routine gives your day more structure. Secondly, you should go straight for the big tasks – it’s all too easy to do the most banal things to put off dealing with the difficult stuff. That’s always been true, but has been amplified by remote working.
Paul has a concept he calls ‘peripheral virtual vision’. When people gather in the same space, you get a sense quite easily of what is going on in the room, but it’s challenging to do that in a virtual environment. So, we shouldn’t let people wander off camera, because if we see each other, you can pick things up from faces and body language. Having two people running the meeting works better, as he and Chris Collinson experienced during the year.
One ‘trick’ he uses in virtual meetings is to get people to talk about their proudest moments. At the start of any interaction, people are naturally nervous, especially if they don’t know each other. So one practice he’s transferred from the physical to the virtual environment is to get each person to describe something they’re proud of to one other person – and the second person then tells the whole group. Firstly, this makes it easier for the first person to open up; and the second person really has to listen well. Paul finds that listening in a virtual environment is pretty challenging.
Another technique is to get people to talk about objects. When he was doing work at the Asian Development Bank, he asked the chief executive to bring an object to the meeting, and he brought a pebble. Paul asked him to tell everyone about the pebble, and the CEO described in great detail one of the ADB’s dam construction projects.
In the course of the last year, we ‘lost the water cooler’. In assignments in the past Paul actually used to stand by the water cooler and it was a good way of observing how conversations flowed in an organisation. In some work with AstraZeneca, a colleague used this idea of a virtual water cooler for get-togethers around learning. Each week there would be a set time, and somebody would be persuaded to talk about something they had been doing in the field of learning. This got conversations going and revealed deep insights.
He ended by referring to a presentation GitLab made at a CILIP conference on virtual working. They run ‘virtual coffee chats’, which Paul has done as well. You select half a dozen people from around the organisation, who then have ‘virtual coffee’ with a senior member of the organisation. By rotating membership of these groups you develop a cadre of people who can all ask questions of each other.
Finally, Paul said that running virtual meetings means working harder; and you shouldn’t assume that the person who was good at running physical meetings will always be the best to run virtual ones. If you are in a knowledge or information management role, now is the time to brush up on your facilitation skills.
Dion’s theme was Recruitment. But first he remarked that this pandemic has been helping him to react purposefully to changes that he hadn’t seen coming – and how to enjoy the ride!
In January 2020 Dion was on the planning committee for the UKeIG’s annual study day. Because of lockdown, they had to change this rapidly into Zoom webinars. He was so ‘paranoid’ about getting the presentation right in Zoom that he overdid the preparation, invested in bits of technology that he’s probably never going to use, and became a bit of a ‘know-all’. He started to develop a reputation as the person to go to for making a success of Zoom meetings.
He also found himself working in a pool of trained assessors for police recruitment. That was a bit of a surprise, and he finds he is enjoying it immensely. It’s a good example of how in response to COVID the careers that we pursue can become more ‘portfolio’ in nature. Two years ago he underwent a week’s arduous training, and passed; but nothing happened for a long time thereafter. He got security-vetted, then just as he was about to do some assessing in real earnest, he was completely retrained to deliver it online.
The start of the pandemic accelerated the change to online, but that change was going to happen anyway, he thinks, because of the new target to recruit 20,000 new police officers. Dion can’t see how those targets could have been met if the assessors (and those being assessed) had to turn up to physical recruitment centres. He hopes there will be some study of how COVID changed working practices, including in the fields of knowledge and information management.
Dion likes doing this recruitment work in part because he finds the candidates fascinating, in how they work things out, how they present themselves, how they se the world, and what they tell Dion about the parts of the world he doesn’t get to see.
Towards the end of summer 2020 as we slid again towards lockdown, Dion interested himself in digital products for knowledge management. He started with an assumption that the vendors of such digital systems might be misrepresenting knowledge management to sell their products, but he’s more of a fan now, and the two questions seem to be (a) do knowledge managers recognise what we are trying to do in what the suppliers are talking about? And (b) how much can we learn from the start-up and beta versions about what we might want knowledge management to look like in ten to thirty years?
He’s also involved as a ‘critical friend’ for Knowledgeplace which is a meeting place, marketplace and a mini-Wiki for knowledge management designed by Lukasz Rozinski. He’s involved in a lot of the beta-testing and trying to explain concepts. He’s also enjoying designing workshops with David Byrne to help teams discover what non-workplace skills and aptitudes team members have that the workplace will need in the next few years.
All told, said Dion, his experience of the pandemic has been really interesting and sometimes exciting.
Perrine told us how her company changed their entire Intranet during lockdown. She’s been working for two years at CRU, which specialises in market analysis and price assessments within the global metals, mining and fertilisers industries. They have about 300 employees spread around the world, with the HQ in London and offices in seven countries, and major time zone differences.
The intranet platform is the only place where all employees can share knowledge and collaborate wherever they are in the world. The decision to replace the platform was taken for efficiency and cost reasons. They had nine months to complete the project before the contract with the previous intranet supplier ended.
As in any project, it’s important to establish a strict and realistic timeline. At the beginning of 2020 they managed at least to select the new provider, but then came lockdown, and everything since has had to be done remotely, from the signature of the deal in April to the migration in August and September.
Communication was key in keeping everybody informed and involved. About ten workshops were held remotely, and a community of ‘champions’ was engaged early.
On the positive side, it was a great equaliser to have everybody working remotely – easier than having some people in a room and others connecting remotely. The situation also forced people to be really organised, important given the tight timeline. Perrine offered some tips – an online meeting needs an agenda, communicated in advance; teams need to have regular meetings even if just a catch-up for a few minutes. For example during the migration Perrine and two colleagues met briefly each day to see if things were OK, or were there questions or problems.
Being online means that you can record all your meetings, and write up meeting minutes after; not having to take notes during the meeting removes a distraction. Perrine also think it gives you a break to think and focus on your project, by digitally ignoring people! On the other hand, if you can ignore them, they can ignore you.
The technology allows us to act almost as if we were in the same room. A challenge is that people believe they can multi-task, but they can’t, and if people allow themselves to be distracted, you message will be lost in the process.
A final challenge is that one loses in part the human dimension, which may impact your choice of a business partner.
However, the project has gone well, and the solution was delivered six weeks ahead of schedule. By January, three months after launch, 100% of employees were engaged with the new platform. The feedback has been very encouraging and people are saying the new platform has enhanced collaboration in their teams and across the business. Obviously the overseas colleagues are delighted to be able to collaborate regardless of where they sit.
Some takeaways, which should be relevant whether you are in lockdown or not — Keep it simple, the simpler the better; go out and ask the business what they need; and most importantly, be prepared, for it will make everything easier later. This kind of project must be driven by the business and not by IT, because it is not for office automation but for knowledge management. Make use of your team of champions; and communicate – the more the better! (If you feel you are communicating too much, you’ve probably got it just right.)
Yasmin who is now the knowledge manager at CBRE spoke about starting this job at the beginning of the COVID crisis. She started looking for a new job in October 2019 and was grateful to be offered the CBRE role in November. She was on a three months notice period, so didn’t actually start the new job until 2 March 2020.
The first couple of weeks of the new job were very busy and she was fortunate to meet a lot of people around the business. Her manager was really supportive in introducing her to people, and getting meetings set up.
On Friday 13 March, Yasmin and a colleague started reading and hearing of the developments with COVID, and the possible impending need to work from home, and decided to take their laptops home that day. That weekend, an email came through from CBRE saying that they were advising employees to work from home if possible – that was a week before the Government ‘stay at home’ announcement.
Yasmin has worked from home in previous jobs, but for a few days here and there, normally when she’s had a big project on or needed to do a lot of reading. So working from home was not unfamiliar, but on the other hand, not something she’d done regularly, and especially not when starting a new job.
With a new job you expect an induction process, socialising and getting to know people face to face. Most of the relationships Yasmin built were done over Zoom. Initially Yasmin was apprehensive that she’d not be able to build up rapport with people to get her work done. But everyone was in a similar position, which helped. Everyone has understood that it is still important to cultivate those relationships.
Yasmin feels that when meeting online, it is important not just to get stuck into the work, but getting to know people too, how they’ve been feeling, what they’ve been doing. She’s fortunate that her manager in giving her time with people. She’s now on the Junior Board, which has again given opportunities to meet more people around the business.
The offices re-opened temporarily during summer 2020, and Yasmin jumped at the chance to go in for a couple of days a week. Though that doesn’t sound like a lot, it still gave her the opportunity to see people face to face. As Yasmin lives alone, she especially welcomed the social interaction, and the ability to have those small and casual conversations that you wouldn’t likely do over Zoom, which is geared around half-hour pre-booked meetings.
To start a new job under these circumstances is daunting, but you have to be tenacious, use your initiative, put yourself out there and talk to people. It helps to be self-motivated, but Yasmin confesses she has struggled with that, and she thinks many other people have too. The monotony does sap the motivation, but colleagues can do what they can to motivate each other.
Sophie is a photographer. Before COVID came along she worked at personal brand and event photography. She also had a book published, Generation Share, about inspiring change-makers. Last year when lockdown was impending, she went upstairs to sort things out. As she looked through old photos, she discovered documentation of work she’d done 20 years before as a freelance artist in healthcare environments. She also found portraits she had taken of NHS staff.
As the NHS applause events started, this sparked in Sophie an idea which grew into a nationwide photographic tribute to healthcare workers. She wondered, what if she again photographed portraits of NHS staff, and what if it could go nationwide through the participation of other photographers?
On 22 March 2020 she put up a Facebook Live post, and it went viral. The project is called ‘2020 Vision Project’. Photographers joined up – as far north as Aberdeen, also in Northern Ireland, in Wales, all over the North; 100 photographers in all.
The photographers were briefed to book sessions with healthcare workers. Initially she hoped the NHS would make the nominations, but of course they were incredibly busy. However, portrait photographers are used to communicating, and those who had joined the project were happy to contact health workers in their local area. Each healthcare worker was photographed either in a studio or outdoor spaces, and all with social distancing.
This project was created on the go and it took a lot of detailed organising with spreadsheets etc. ‘We have a collection of healthcare workers photographed behind the mask and quite deliberately not in their uniforms.’
Sophie then showed her screen with the online gallery, showing a selection of the portraits. Alongside each is some text in which they tell stories of what has challenged, what has inspired them.
As an example she showed a portrait of a Marie Curie hospice social worker. He had so many difficult conversations who obviously wanted to visit their loved ones, but couldn’t due to COVID restrictions. ‘Telling people that they couldn’t come and visit was really hard,’ he said. ‘I used virtual visiting to help families stay connected. It was a privilege to support the process and to be there to facilitate this.’
Another, from Birmingham, wrote: ‘I’m privileged to work in one of the most super-diverse cities in the country. I have worked with some of the most vulnerable people in the city, but yet they demonstrate heart and resilience. The so-called global pandemic has put the microscope on the historic health inequalities and has put the magnifying glass on some of the systemic challenges that have troubled citizens for decades. The fear, panic, isolation, death, loss, confusion, bereavement, were the biggest challenges we had to face. The invisible virus did not discriminate.’
There was an exhibition is September, in Bishopsgate in London, and to see all those photos and all those stories made them realise that these are worth archiving.
Conrad read from a prepared text and started by saying, oddly, that for him it had been a good year for lockdown and remote working – because computing and communications technologies have evolved to the point where they’ve helped him to get by. Because his work for 45 years has been in graphic design and writing and media, and freelance for most of that, he’s long been used to working alone. And he’s lived on his own for 30 years as well.
Home for Conrad at the moment is a single room in a hostel for homeless people, which accommodates about 80 households. It’s a busy place and keeping a two metre distance isn’t possible in the corridors – plus many people have come to his door asking for help. COVID has let the residents off lightly; people have on the whole been sensible.
Conrad next talked about 35+ years of personal experience with the developing capability of computers and of ‘telematics’, the old name for electronic remote working. But first he cited the philosopher Hegel who in Science of Logic (1812) remarked that a gradual but steady change of the quantitative aspects of a thing can flip over into complete qualitative change.
For about 12 years Conrad worked as a graphic designer and a preparer of publication artwork using such tools as scalpels, rubber cement, technical pens, rub-down Letraset lettering, and galleys of type that had been sent out to a phototypesetting agency. He could not see that computers would be of any use to him. But then in 1986 he and his wife bought the combined toolkit of the Apple Macintosh and Aldus PageMaker ‘desktop publishing’ software.
A few years later he bought a 2400-baud model and started to experience telematic communications, first though GeoNet and then through a university backdoor to the Internet (at the time, the Internet in the UK was open only to academia). ‘I joined a couple of ongoing international online conferences,’ he said – nothing like Zoom, of course, but in the form of email discussion lists with thousands of members. ‘Back then we were acutely aware of limited bandwidth and we behaved ourselves accordingly.’
In the early 1990s, the Internet became something that anyone could join – in Conrad’s case, though a subscription to an ISP, Demon Internet. And things got technically very exciting.
Really, the early 1990s were exciting years in which to have a ringside seat. Senator Al Gore wrote prophetically about an ‘Information Superhighway’. Tim Berners-Lee had just invented the World Wide Web. Adobe launched Acrobat, a way to move accurate images of documents across the Internet. Conrad began to learn and experiment with these technologies.
But fast-forwarding to the present day, Conrad compared then and now. His 5G cellular hub gives him download speeds of over a hundred Mbps – over 40,000 times faster than that old dial-up modem. The Internet protocols (TCP/IP) are the same now as they were back then, but the quantitative change have made qualitatively different things now possible.
‘So I can listen to Corelli concertos, write collaboratively on Google Docs, share large files, update my Web site, check the news and weather, shop online, swap regular emails with Mum,
see loads of pictures of cats [on Facebook], and join this meeting…’
How has this technology change affected how Conrad has worked during lockdown? He gave a number of examples. Conrad offers the service of recording conferences and meetings, and either editing the audio to podcast form, or making a transcript. This year he has not been able to attend events in person with his recording gear. However, he’s received audio files from an engineering company for transcript, and made a transcript of the audio of a couple of Zoom meetings.
For some years Conrad has collaborated with Bob Bater on a number of projects, one involving compiling information about future energy alternatives. Internet-enabled desk research has helped him to study e.g. wind turbine and petrochemical and nuclear technologies, often starting off with Wikipedia and then plunging into the scientific and organisational research literature. Working in a text editor, he’s made Web-page prototypes and used an ftp utility to load them to his Web site for Bob to take a look at.
He’s also done some video editing for a friend’s Indian classical dance portfolio. Riaz sent him the uncut source video via Dropbox, and given that hundreds of megabytes of video data were involved, the 5G download speeds came in handy! Rather than Zoom, for personal use Conrad has a Whereby.com video link account, and Riaz and Conrad had several editorial conferences over that. Conrad posted the finished video cuts to Google Drive for Riaz to retrieve.
The Fairholme House Garden Project is an initiative to build a community food-growing garden space at the hostel where he lives. It has pulled in support from the Lambeth GP Food Coop and from Lambeth Council and construction will start in late April 2021. Conrad hosts a resource page with publications compiled as a rolling log of developments and a knowledge repository: made with Affinity Publisher software, saved as PDF. See http://www.conradiator.com/fairholmegarden
‘Let’s turn to team collaboration in this project,’ he said. ‘Not easy because this thing has gathered more stakeholders than a vampire-hunting party.’ Email and telephone conversations and socially distanced meetings in the hostel grounds weren’t getting everyone together.
Lambeth Council IT is enslaved to all things Microsoft, so the virtual committee aimed to use Skype for Business Meetings on 4 March. ‘It didn’t work – so we flipped to my Whereby.com account. He recorded the meeting with QuickTime, prepared minutes, and emailed them to the others the next day.’
Conrad has also joined a Facebook group for home gardeners and small farmers in Ghana (45,000 members). This brings up some knowledge management issues, as people ask the same questions again and again. He used Google Docs to draft some materials for them about tropical soil improvement strategies, which involved downloading about half a gigabyte of electronic documents for study.
Thirty years ago, very little of this online research and media production and large file transfer would have been possible. Which is why, said Conrad, it’s been a good year for a lockdown. For him personally, anyway, because of how ‘the job’ has gone digital.
Melanie, who works for DWP, started by remarking that everybody’s experience of lockdown has been different. She has experienced a lot of changes. For her, the beginning of lockdown was difficult – her late partner Tony died on 9 June, of lung cancer, and in the run up to lockdown there were hospital appointments to cope with. Then in the Autumn, she had a totally unexpected whirlwind romance and now has a new boyfriend and is happier than she has been for ages. They live in separate homes, and meet up at weekends.
In the gap between Tony’s death and the funeral, Melanie learned that she and three colleagues were being redeployed to the gov.uk team, because the DWP library was offering only a limited library service, which had to be COVID-related. She started her gov.uk training, which was quite frustration – but she passed it. Through the training, she learned about HTML: the team’s job was to convert PDF documents into HTML.
The team was fantastic to work with; they were so friendly, and it helped her recovery from bereavement. Now they are back in the library, and this is mainly what she wanted to talk about. They were head-hunted by another part of the Department. This started with an IFLA conference (International Federation of Library Association and Institutions) which was held at Caxton House where she works. Trevor Huddlestone, now her boss, was so impressed with it that he was anxious to get the library on board with him. The team used to be in Digital – very nice people, but they never ‘got’ what library and information services were about. But now they are working in the Central Analysis and Science Directorate, working jointly with social researchers. It is such a different atmosphere!
One of the bizarre things is that in this time of COVID they can’t make investment in the library, so they are able to spend more time working on content. They are currently in the stage of working out what everyone’s job will be. So, her experience of lockdown has been interesting for all sorts of reasons.
Ed is in public library service in Jersey. Jersey is in a lucky space right now – there are only five active COVID cases, and from 3 February they have been able to open their central and community libraries, and the mobile libraries are also circulating. The offer is currently still fairly limited. People can browse in the library, study there, use the computers, and storytime sessions for children have resumed. They have also started hosting small third-party meetings.
Everything is still carefully managed. There is no casual soft seating; the first floor is ‘controlled space’ so they take contact-tracing details for anyone who comes to use a computer or study. They still have two-metre distancing, and mandatory wearing of face-masks will be in place until at least May.
There were some grim moments during the year. Just before Christmas, they had a thousand cases in a population of 110,000; Ed himself went down with COVID at that time.
He can still remember the first corporate SMT business continuity meeting on 11 March 2020, when their director-general told them everything would be minuted for future judicial enquiry. The expectation was that 50% of the workforce might be ill at any one time.
Twice in 2020 the central library nearly got taken over for other functions; once they almost lost it to Gold Command, and the other time it almost became a temporary morgue.
The first priority through all of this has been keeping staff safe and supported. It’s been interesting hearing people’s experiences of working from home. What Ed and colleagues have experienced has been an all-encompassing and rolling change management process. Comfort zones have been completely swept away. Most of the staff have been working from home for extended periods, and operating rules have been changing day by day.
They have tried to be as clear and as consistent as possible in the communication going out; and although it’s been time consuming, from day one they had daily whole-team meetings and senior team meetings (using Microsoft Teams). Just getting the IT in place was a nightmare, with laptops being carried around the island. Regardless of what was actually on the agenda of those meetings, they were important in breaking down the isolation of people working from home.
They have had to adjust the building plans around scenarios rather than certainties. Moving out of lockdown has been proving just as complicated as moving into it. It’s a challenge for the leadership team because people want some certainty and a solid base to work from, but things are still necessarily quite fluid. It’s quite tiring for those who don’t have much of a say in what’s going on around them.
What they found really useful was getting feedback all the time – talking to the Health and Safety people, talking to staff and customers. Just before they reopened for a while in June 2020, they did a ‘dry run-through’ with volunteers in the library, to see how it worked. They reset that and ran it again and again, so people could practice interacting with the public again, as it had been months since they’d done that.
They got cracking straight away on home deliveries, getting thousands of books out to people during the first lock-down. All the storytime sessions were moved on-line, and they’ve also seen a massive growth in use of other online resources. Lots of Library staff started to support the local government ‘Connect Me’ helpline, which was signposting islanders to practical local help, whether about finances, education, health, all those practical things.
It was the personal stories that had most impact on Ed. The support of library staff was really appreciated by those to whom books were being delivered at home, also parents with small children appreciated the online storytelling as a sort of anchor for their children, a recognisable face.
In the first opening back in June, the library operated what could be called a ‘takeaway’ service – in and out in five minutes to collect a book. It became apparent that people were desperate for computer access. In some cases, people didn’t have the hardware at home; or, they could not afford the data – either way, it turned out that a lot of people hadn’t had Internet access for three months. They’d been out of touch with their families, were unable to search for jobs. So when the second lockdown came around early in December, they ensured that that regulation was changed so that side of the library service could stay open.
The experience made it painfully clear how many of the inhabitants of Jersey live on or below the poverty line. Many callers to the ‘Connect Me’ helpline were having to make decisions between heating, or feeding themselves or their pets. So now, they are thinking of rolling out that telephone service in more of an enquiry-based way while moving out of lockdown, and have been undergoing training for that.
They find themselves having to manage customer expectations. Just the previous week they had been having a discussion about reinstating seating in the library, and expectations from the public are high. It is wearing for the staff – but chocolate helps!
There’s a new book out by Scott Galloway called Post Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity, based on the proposition that the pandemic has accelerated social and business trends by about ten years. The newly invented services such as online storytelling and the ‘Click, Call and Collect’ service have proved popular and work well, but need integrating into a more day to day framework. Finance is also a challenge, with a 50% loss of room hire charges. Priorities going forward will be around supporting education, mitigating social isolation, extending digital inclusion, and supporting the island’s economic recovery.
There had been breakout sessions halfway through the afternoon (and the first five speakers), and in the half hour remaining, David Penfold who was running the session called on people from the groups to comment. Here we note some of the points made, without attribution.
- It seems clear that things can get done better through remote working; when lockdown ends, will these amended work practices persist?
- Mental health issues resulting from isolation may be a problem.
- If there is a shift to remote working, the need for large office space in city centres will decline, which is bound to have macroeconomic effects in the years to come.
- Paul’s recommendation that in video meetings everyone should be on camera does not consider people’s different situations e.g. those with poor bandwidth or a poor mobile data contract.
- Will we understand now that broadband Internet is infrastructure as important as, say, roads?
- Perhaps the pandemic has raised the profile of knowledge management, because you can’t work remotely without efficient access to up-to-date information.
- How can we learn from these experiences, perhaps by archiving them?