A situation like the one we have in spring 2020 is new, at least for our generation. There are many people who are severely affected by the Corona/COVID 19 crisis, not only the people who are acutely ill and, where appropriate, relatives of people with particularly serious conditions, but all those who work in the medical sector, in sales and in the maintenance of public life, for example, but also those who work in some kind of production, which may even be closed at the moment.
But this article is for everyone else. Those who normally work in the office, who spend their working days at computers and in meetings, and who have now made their way to the home office to prevent the Corona virus spreading further .
Because I believe that this crisis is exactly what can finally bring us in Germany forward in terms of digitalization.
Table of contents
- Nerd Times
- Strengthened by the actual need
- Office tasks and file cabinet
- E-mail reduced work
- Online get-together and online workout
- Working out Loud as actual collaboration
- Finding solutions
I am writing this article from a – and I am aware of this – very privileged position of being able to work from home in a company where there is enough to do right now. Many people do it differently, be it manufacturing, all kinds of artistic trades.
Furthermore, my situation is privileged because we are not a retail business, because we are not on the front line of medical technology, and because, at least in my professional environment, no one needs special hardware to work. I am aware that people are dying, and yet I see the positive side of the overall situation. This has nothing to do with cynicism, but with pragmatism.
So if you are reading this and these facts do not or not completely apply to you, please do not be angry. There is still something in it for you if you have even the smallest amount of office work in your profession or industry.
I don’t know how many computer scientists and nerds I speak for, but I have a strong feeling that my preferred way of working has become the standard, at least temporarily, over the past few weeks.
The Corona crisis makes nerds’ work mode the standard: Online and distributed.Dr. Joachim Schlosser
To be honest, it’s splendid. The whole thing is like a liberation to be able to do a lot of meetings much more tightly, even as a mere participant. It’s wonderful when colleagues and customers are suddenly much more open to accepting a video call and even suggesting it themselves. It’s wonderful when the exchange of information and data takes place in a different way than via e-mail. It’s wonderful when more colleagues are blogging and joining forces within the company.
Especially if the organization is spread over more than one location, everyone benefits from it, even if the largest location is more or less in the home office and all colleagues there experience for themselves what it is like not to be physically “there”.
Even at school, many new approaches are emerging. Sure, it’s all rumbling and at the moment those students who have little or no support at home in terms of computer use are still disadvantaged, but things will improve.
A lot of things will disappear after the crisis when people are sitting together in the office again. According to Kahneman this means “regression to mean”, i.e. the swinging back of the pendulum. But a little bit will remain.
Strengthened by the actual need
In the following you will read 8+1 ways in which you personally and your department or your organization or your company can emerge digitally strengthened from this period. Strengthened means first and foremost resilient in the sense of event-proof and future-proof. If you and your organization can handle more types of unexpected events, this will give you a competitive advantage.
Home office, for some it is a room with a desk and a door to close, for others it is a cleared space at the kitchen table. We have to be always aware of that: Not everyone has ideal office working conditions at home. For others the conditions are even better than in the office.
Office tasks and file cabinet
When asked whether a home office is even possible for a certain job, I often have the objection: “That’s not possible here, I need my papers!”
This is precisely the problem: information available only on paper. But that does not have to be the case. In my personal life, I have been practicing paperless digital filing for years (in German), thanks to which I can access all correspondence and files no matter where I am. In my job, I have exactly one physical folder, in which about five sheets of paper are punched, and in my previous job there were no more.
Yes, it may seem like now is not the right time to start digitizing files, but maybe it is just now.
Of course, in a department, be it human resources, purchasing, accounting, etc., the digitalization of files is not something that you alone can handle, because just doing it is quite a big task for every meter of shelf.
So the one question is certainly the one:
How can we scan and file the existing files in a searchable and legally compliant manner?
Your organization is not the first to ask this question, but there are document management systems (DMS) and service providers who can take over the scanning and filing initially.
The much more far-reaching question that you can also address right now is
How can I design my process in such a way that it no longer requires or generates paper?
Think about it now and talk to each other and try things out. For many changes, I do not need a major reimplementation of business information systems for the time being, but only an acknowledgement that signatures can also be made in other ways than with the (digital) pen, and much more that signatures are simply superfluous in many cases.
E-mail reduced work
“So should I do everything by e-mail or what?”
Not at all. Schlosser’s first law of operations is:
Every e-mail based process breaks. The question is not if, the question is only when.Dr. Joachim Schlosser
This applies to all types of business processes as well as to any kind of collaboration.
I like e-mail, for all those things where e-mail is good. But for intensive collaboration, e-mail is clearly inferior to other ways – see the following sections. For repetitive processes, agreements, procedures, e-mail is always wrong. Passing around PDF forms as e-mail attachments is not a digital process, but the traditional circulation, only more cumbersome.
The ability to deal with e-mail in large quantities is and remains important. Among other things, in my post 5 e-mail folders in my inbox suffice (in German) and Where to file e-mails? Reduce decisions. Readers’ questions (in German) you can read about how I do this.
Every time you send a document as an e-mail attachment to a colleague, it is an expression of a lack of clean shared folders. Because if the colleague needs the document, there should be a proper place on some server for it. If she cannot access it there, then the access structure is not correct if she does need it.
In all companies, people who are not involved in production or other manual value creation sit in meetings for many hours every day and discuss topics that seem worthy of discussion, postpone discussions, discuss again.
This crisis offers a great opportunity to change this. Already two weeks or more ago, many companies enacted the regulation that physical meetings should be dispensed with and only business-critical meetings should be held. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to have business-critical meetings only, and then either abandon the rest of the meetings or at least come up with different ways to reach a decision?
Marcus Raitner correctly writes in his article Video Conferencing Is Not a Solution Either: “Distributed collaboration also and primarily requires written and asynchronous communication.”
There are too many superfluous meetings in companies, especially too many meetings without content or poorly prepared.
“Yet another meeting that should have been an email.”
The current situation offers the opportunity to get rid of many of these meetings. Take the inviting person aside virtually and ask if it would not be possible to distribute the information in another way at the moment because of the amount of online meetings. Perhaps in writing, but then please don’t send it by e-mail, or he may record a short video.
What’s actually harder for online meetings than real ones is that in physical meetings where everyone is in the same room, it was easier for you to wing it without preparation. You might have a whiteboard and put something together, or someone might present something anyway. See also Thinking in slides vs. document vs. sketch: My concept does not come from PowerPoint (in German). It’s easy to forget the time spent connecting the computer to the projector is time lost for all participants.
In video meetings, however, inadequate preparation of content and technical preparation becomes a much faster evident. If you haven’t thought about how to look at the agenda during the meeting and how to document the results for all to see, and above all, how discussions should take place, then it will very quickly become apparent to all participants.
So you will have to deal with the exact procedure and technique. “I couldn’t start the Skype meeting” is no longer acceptable in 2020.
So your collaboration toolbox should not be limited to email. Phone? All right. For your home office, of course, this will only get you moving if your organisation is ready to bring the phone to the computer. This can be as an explicit soft phone, i.e. a program that connects to the telephone server and can actually only make phone calls, or as part of a general communications software such as Microsoft Skype.
But there is much, much more to it. I write e-mails myself, and I also conduct online meetings. The question is: How can I clarify and pass on something without email and without an online meeting?
Many companies have Atlassian Confluence up and running, but only use deeply nested website trees. Many companies have Microsoft Office 365 up and running, but only use the tools they have always used, i.e. Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook. But there are a number of tools in all platforms that can make collaboration across locations much easier and better.
This, in turn, must be learned and must be willing to learn. See also my post The Carpenter and the Software. Professionalism begins with tools (in German).
MS Teams for many types of interaction
MS Teams is not just a messenger like Skype, but thanks to the team concept it is really a place for constant collaboration with colleagues. In so-called channels, i.e. thematic channels, you can chat, discuss online, write documents together, and much more.
MS Teams sits on the SharePoint data store and other Office365 tools as an app – whether on the local PC or a smartphone – quasi as a user interface.
While a normal meeting in Outlook only exists in the calendars of the invited people, a meeting in an MS Teams Channel is assigned to this channel, so that everyone in the channel knows that something is coming, even people who join the channel later. The unspeakable forwarding of meetings to new team members is thus eliminated.
MS Teams does not replace a reasonable structure for data storage, but can help to handle such a structure more easily.
MS Teams also has what it takes to replace most of the company’s internal email, at least those addressed to multiple people. This is because the recipients are usually all in the same organizational unit or in the same product or project, so they have a logical coherence. It is precisely this logical coherence that should be represented by teams, so that new team members do not have to dig out old e-mails, but simply have the history in the MS Teams channel.
SharePoint and OneDrive for joint editing
When multiple people need or want to co-create, in all cases tool capabilities of MS Office in conjunction with SharePoint/OneDrive beat the usual design by committee workflow that requires everybody staring to a video screen and one person typing.
Quite different, all people open the file from the server (without downloading) and can see other person’s edits almost in realtime. This makes it very easy to work on different sections of a presentation, a spreadsheet or a document, but also augmenting and commenting on each others’ edits. Just try it out. It requires a bit familiarization, and an audio channel might be useful at times, too, but generally runs well in a number of different scenarios.
Confluence as Enterprise Information Hub
Atlassian Confluence can do so much more than just display intranet pages. Sure, that too, but just the possibility to add comments and especially inline comments to all kinds of pages is good.
I especially like the inline comments. I mark a sentence or a few words on a Confluence page, and the browser offers to add a comment for exactly this section. So everybody else can see what my comment refers to without having to enter it at all.
Confluence also has a blogging functionality that allows you to store ongoing insights that don’t necessarily have to be directly incorporated into the site structure. The main advantage of this is that experiences can be separated from normative instructions in a wonderful way and even relatively unpolished findings can benefit everyone. Company internal blogging is thus definitely and necessarily in the sense of “here, I found out, may it benefit somebody,” always with the possibility that somebody gets in touch and provides a better solution.
I can also mention persons at any time by typing the @ sign. These are then informed about my post.
Many good ideas come about because few (!) people stand together at the whiteboard and quickly sketch out something. If you separate people spatially from each other, they are afraid this won’t be possible anymore. But it is. There are virtual whiteboards.
One of them, for instance, is again in the Office 365 environment, although really very limited in functionality and only really easy to use with a touchscreen device such as a tablet computer or even better a large touchscreen TV.
More power is provided by tools like Miro or Mural, which cost extra but can do everything whiteboards and sticky notes can do and much more. With Miro, you can also start out free and very small to try out.
“I can’t” is no excuse. I can’t operate a software I haven’t used yet, not even by heart and in all its facets. But I just take a few minutes to find out what the software can help me with and how it works.
Distribution of information via video
Unfortunately, many meetings are used to present or recite something that could have been communicated in writing, or to explain things without the need for further questions. For the latter, videos are the more appropriate format, because you don’t have to have several team members simultaneously logged in at the same time to watch your presentation.
Record videos, especially of what you would normally present live. Microsoft PowerPoint can also record videos of your presentation without any extra software, including connected webcam and of course with audio. So put on your headset and off you go. Don’t be shy, most others won’t be able to do better, but will be grateful if you start. But remember: PowerPoint is not for documentation, the intranet is.
If you want to make things better, there is plenty of software available for this purpose, but that would go beyond the scope of this project. And once again: We are not talking here about polished high gloss videos for eternity, but about videos for collaboration.
These videos can be uploaded and integrated in Confluence as well as Office 365.
In Confluence, you simply upload the video as a file to your blog post or to the page. Depending on the video format, Confluence will then display it directly for playback or you have to select the MediaPlayer element.
Office 365 has its own video platform that serves as a kind of company-internal YouTube. Simply go to your office.com home page and select Video, the icon with the white V on a blue background. Here again, the rule is: none of this will bite. Create a channel and off you go.
…and much more
Not everything, but most of the things that you either appreciate or simply consider indispensable in working with people can be done virtually, either synchronously or decoupled in time, making collaboration even more productive than constantly bothering each other at your desk.
Find the people in your own organization who always find a way, and ask them. A “can’t” is usually more like a “don’t want to” or a “don’t know.”
After all, everything I’ve described in the previous sections naturally also works across company boundaries if you really want to and involve the IT departments of both organizations. Here again, the following applies: A “can’t” is usually more like a “don’t want” or a “don’t know” or an “is effort. If there is a business need, you will be able to change things.
Online get-together and online workout
Last Friday evening we held the first online gathering of photographers in Augsburg, completely by video, with up to 25 participants. It was shaky, it was bumpy, but everyone was there with joy and enthusiasm, even those who are not particularly online minded. On Sunday we already had the second online get-together, just to try out another software, this time with commercial software Zoom instead of Open Source Jitsi.
My son’s gym group met on Monday for a Skype group call for strength training. All with video, and off they went. After a few minutes of getting used to the technique, the group started and the guys gave it their all for 45 minutes.
My youngest daughter played a yahtzee dice game with her grandma via Facetime today. On each side of the connection a dice cup, and yet played together.
These were just a few examples of how things can be done without a physical meeting, and that in private. Almost anything is possible, if you only want to.
Working out Loud as actual collaboration
Working out Loud may be seen as a term of a nice 12-times round of people for a certain personal purpose. For me Working out Loud is a way of working: By letting others have a part in what I work and how I work. By sharing findings, by writing personal methods and thoughts together, by looking at what we as a group and we as an organization are doing and how we are doing it and then putting my mustard on how we can do it better.
Working out Loud for me is the irrepressible interest in the way we work. The value we all create can be so much better if we not only exchange information about the content of our work, but also about the how and why of our work.
People find solutions. That is what distinguishes us as a species indeed: We are successful as people because we can adapt and work together.
In times of corona lockdowns this is more important than ever for still running office-like organizations.
- Lobo, Sascha, und Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch. Realitätsschock: Zehn Lehren aus der Gegenwart, 2019. See my book review (in German) on Realitätsschock.
- Vollmer, Lars. Zurück an die Arbeit! wie aus Business-Theatern wieder echte Unternehmen werden. Wien: Linde international, 2016. See my book review (in German) on Zurück an die Arbeit.
- Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Penguin Books, 2012. See my book review (in German) on Thinking, fast and slow.
- Training material on MS Teams
- Confluence Documentation
- Miro Documentation
- Mural Video Tutorials