May 05, 2021

Reflections on One Year+ of Online Engagement and Working From Home

Written By: Julie Bezard

 

Greetings from my living room.

Well, it’s been over a year now. You’ve probably been hearing this a lot lately:

- a year of working from home (the cool kids call it “WFH”),

- a year of Zoom, Slack, Teams,

- a year of haphazard clothing choices, choosing somewhat mindfully your tops but not caring so much about your bottoms,

- a year of cat cameos… and,

- a year of sometimes other more… let’s say, cringeworthy episodes being broadcasted to the world. 

Who hasn’t forgotten to unmute themselves when they started to speak only to hear someone say “Uh, are you on mute…?”, cupping their hand to their ear. Personally, I’ve literally evolved to exaggerating my facial expressions and laughing silently, so as not to add to the volume level. #ZoomBodyLanguage

I’m Julie, I’m an Analyst at the Centre for Dialogue. When I started working here in June 2017, little did I know that 2020 would see all of our dialogue and engagement programming be conducted from behind a computer screen.

The start was a bit painful and chaotic. The first few days, I remember the strong eye strain that accompanied squinting at the screen for hours on end. I’m definitely used to spending the whole day on a computer, but several hours in Zoom meetings just sucks the energy right out of you. Zoom fatigue is real! And even though it took time to set up and some getting used to, Zoom is now a staple work tool.

Who knew we could get so much done on Zoom?

Zoom as our go-to online meeting and webinar platform has evolved so much over the past year+ to adapt to our needs as convenors and to participants’ needs. To a degree, Zoom allows us to easily incorporate more accessibility to our virtual events – offering live transcription, or integrating with closed captioning, simultaneous interpretation as well as sign language. Of course, the digital divide persists and online accessibility and connectivity remain a challenge for too many people. It does seem as though online programming allows us to reach different people than in-person events, the latter posing other accessibility concerns.

Even though Zoom has been a lifesaver, there are still things that are doable in an in-person setting that are not feasible on Zoom, like a full-day workshop. And one vital thing that is missing from online settings is: we don’t get to break bread together! It just isn’t the same without the wonderful networking opportunities offered around a catered lunch buffet and steaming cup of coffee poured from a giant 30-cup urn.

At the Centre for Dialogue, we’ve learned a lot this year. We were able to transition most of our activities and programming to the online setting and even ended up coming up with several innovative and responsive ways of addressing our “new reality” and helping to navigate the challenges that arose. The switch happened in a pretty organic way (did we have a choice?) and for the most part, we were able to mimic in-person dialogues using online tools: whiteboard, “dotmocracy”, post-it notes, breakout groups… are all effortlessly reproductible in the virtual realm. Zoom allows for increased turn-out because we aren’t limited by venue capacity (only by Zoom license capacity) – as an example of this, alongside SFU Public Square and City Hive, the Centre routinely co-hosted 300+ attendees at the popular ‘Distant, Not Disengaged’ series in Spring/Summer 2020. Another fantastic advantage of working on Zoom is being able to call on panelists from across time zones: literally a global pool of diverse knowledgeable speakers opened up. At our recent ‘Doubling Down on Democracy and Climate Change’ event, we invited practitioners from Canada, the East Coast of the US and the UK to talk about innovations in climate engagement, and attendees flocked from all over the world, including Saudi Arabia! It makes me wonder why we were not doing this before. Business travel will likely never go back to the levels it was before the pandemic, because teleconferencing is going to be the norm - why waste time and money on flights when you can attend a meeting from the ‘comfort’ of your own home? 

This begs the question: what will the future of office work look like?

As we begin to discuss returning back to the office in the fall of 2021, navigating employees’ needs and wishes around WFH is going to take some adroit negotiation. The status quo 9 to 5 work schedule will no longer be a thing because folks have realized they are saving so much time not commuting twice a day. They have realized they can listen to their body and plan their work day around their own peak productivity times. I also believe we will see increased uptake of living quarters with extra space to set up home offices. However, work/life balance may be off-kilter when there is no longer a clear spatial separation between work and life in the home. Managing conflicting demands during WFH is one of the most challenging tasks that have emerged during this pandemic, impacting certain segments of the population disproportionately.

It’s been a long and winding drive with some bumps on the road. After more than a year, I wouldn’t exactly say it’s smooth sailing but we can definitely pat ourselves on the back. Whether we like it or not, some changes brought about by the pandemic are likely here to stay.

Me? I can’t wait to return to the office and see my colleagues in full-length flesh, as opposed to talking heads on my Zoom screen.

Virtually yours,

Julie

The views and opinions expressed in the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue blogs are those of the authors, and they do not necessarily reflect the official position of Simon Fraser University, SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue or any other affiliated institutions in any way.