Adapting to a Level 3 workplace: Workshops and experiential learning in COVID

Everyone likes a workshop, a design sprint or a learning journey. It’s a great excuse to carve out time and focus on one thing. Attention is a scarce resource, so being able to gather the people you want, to work on the problem you want, for a dedicated amount of time is a privilege.

Now, with everyone at home—remote, virtual, distributed—there’s a new challenge to add to the list; how to maintain productivity, engagement and learning.

We’ve all felt the fatigue of endless Zoom and the frustration that comes with not being physically present. Unfortunately, it’s looking likely that this is how it will be for a while. Which means figuring out how to work as part of a plethora of distributed teams.

One of the gurus of distributed workforces, Matt Mullenweg, founder of WordPress and Automattic, spoke recently on Sam Harris’ podcast, where he talked about the 5 levels of distributed teams and the future of work.

The five levels of distributed teams are:

  1. Non-deliberate action — employees do a bit at home but wait until they’re back in the office to do anything substantive.
  2. Recreating office online — people expected to be at work 9-5, workplace “spyware” and lots of big video meetings and long email info-shares. Most companies today are here, according to Mullenweg.
  3. Adaptation — companies invest in making people more productive: better desk setups (lighting and audio) because little things matter, people get used to real-time collaboration in shared docs, meetings are for decisions, personal relationship building and check-ins not broad-scale communication.
  4. Asynchronous communication — communication follows urgency, employees allowed to reach state of “flow” themselves and in their own way. Presence and productivity are decoupled and no longer a measure of performance.
  5. “Nirvana” — distributed team works better than any in-person team.

At Sonder Scheme, we’ve been working to get all our workshops and learning journeys to Level 3; adaptation. Instead of relying on recreating the virtual whiteboard or mimicking post-its, we have stepped back and thought carefully about what’s different now. What interactions matter most? What advantages can we create with collaborative documents? How can we make the group work stronger? What are the key weak points that we have to address?

In this we’ve found there are ways to innovate. For example:

  • We are less ambitious about breadth but more ambitious about depth. We’ve found that people are better able to go deep on a difficult subject, which brings big benefits when working on tough problems where ideas can be oversimplified in an in-person situation.
  • We prepare for stark differences in participation and are more deliberate when it comes to understanding individual preferences for interacting online.
  • We take the opportunity to document everything in ways that support immediate use of outputs, saving time later and enriching output and buy-in.
  • We fit the process to the medium—for example, in the image below you can see how we use OneNote inside Microsoft Teams to support the group work for deciding on personalization strategies in an AI-powered app.

This exercise helped a team decide on what does and doesn’t need to be personalized in the relationship between the AI and the user; being trustworthy and empathetic is not a personalization need as there is strong alignment on one end of the spectrum. Personalization needs to focus on tone, inquiry, energy, power and control. The tabs show where the group is in the Studio process which makes it easier to manage people’s varying attention, personal interest and expertise.

In the last month, we’ve adapted and tested our design thinking workshops and learning journeys to distributed work; maintaining high interactivity and collaboration in a number of different toolsets. But more importantly, we’ve adapted to L3, making distributed work, work.

We currently work in Microsoft Teams, Slack and Zoom. But, what’s even more exciting is that we are developing a new immersive virtual world experience. More on that soon…

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