COVID-19, behavior knowledge and Internet of Behaviors (IoB)
April 23, 2020 § 1 Comment
Gartner has included the concept of Internet of Behavior (IoB) in their Top 20 Strategic Predictions for 2020 and beyond (10/2019). They explain the reasons to this choice:
“The Internet of Behavior (IoB) will be used to link a person digitally to their actions.”
“IoB will also be used to encourage or discourage a particular set of behaviors”
In other words, IoB builds a digital connection to the actions of people, which allows accurate targeting and offering information and services to guide their behaviors. The relevance of this to epidemiological considerations is self-evident and here I shortly consider some of the potentials of IoB for fighting the virus.
When the aim is global and secure monitoring of behaviors, something like IoB is needed to make data collection and use compatible everywhere. Current tools and apps make up a digital Babel. I want to make clear here that this must and can be accomplished in IoB without revealing the identities of behaving people. From the perspective of an ideal IoB, a person taking the vaccination against COVID-19 (in future) is no different from another person with the same behavior (vaccination) in another part of the world. They only share the behaviors and it is a matter of interest how this information is then used and combined with other behavior information, and what these people allow, for medical follow-up purposes, for example.
To put it simply, detection of a behavior, can be accomplished either automatically by any of the current and near future personal gadgets and smart sensors or by allowing people express their behaviors, mental or physical and of any complexity. Clearly, the latter has a major potential for individuals, communities and service providers.
Why would people use IoB? It is meant to secure timely, relevant and accurate communication, offerings and services, better than any AI/ML based system can achieve when it comes to personal and situational needs. In case of a pandemium or other global, national or local threats such a situational intelligence and 100% relevance in communication matter.
I’m not an epidemiologist, far from that, so this is a look of a behavioral scientist.
Coincidentally, the original sources to IoB are my two blogs from 2012 and recently I included IoB in my book “On the Edge of Human technology – An Essay”. I had a vision we could target any ongoing, intended, imagined or planned behavior on earth (like we do with IoT, targeting systems, gadgets and devices) and approach people exactly at the right time and with relevant information and services, when certain behavior occurs – and to do this without necessarily knowing who these people are. The underlying idea was and is that often it is sufficient and beneficial to know the occurring behavior, not the identity of the behaving person. Being a psychologist, it is no surprise I used the form behaviors instead of behavior, which Gartner used.
Fighting the CORONA-19 virus, societies try to follow and predict individual and social behaviors and target citizens with relevant information, instructions and even orders.
Lockdown of behaviors
The global lockdown is meant to control human and especially social behaviors. Because there is no means to know exactly where and how these behaviors occur and will occur, the responsible organizations and specialists provide general, non-specific comments, instructions, guidance and orders. Their hope is that people will follow them. The challenge is to reach people at the right time and with the right kind of information and services.
When epidemiologists offer their specialist knowledge and politicians and journalists add their interpretations to it, media becomes crowded with stories, often conflicting, on behaviors to avoid and instructions to follow: no partying at sport bars, no participating at weddings or funerals, cancelled mass gatherings, use/no use of masks, or no crowding shops. Fresh news emerge about “super-spreaders” who have been known to e.g. share a room with others, going to a certain restaurant, to a wedding, or partying. Large-scale and accurate, real-time maps of occurring or emerging human behaviors do not exist.
The list of forbidden and restricted human behaviors is long but as of yet, there is no exact method to monitor them automatically. The uses of AI and face recognition for example, are too crude and difficult to adapt quickly to the new situation. It would be beneficial if we could get the behavior data directly from individuals, which would allow following them and targeting their virus-related behaviors early, with guidance, information and services to support the virus fight. I want to be clear here: by “following” I mean following behaviors, not individuals – unless they so want or allow it to happen.
It is not known what exactly are the most dangerous specific behaviors: they can be, for example, personal acts or styles, any forms of social and bodily interaction in sports and entertainment, or it can be about the combination of these with physical spaces and their conditions, like ventilation, hygiene facilities and practices where close contacts happen. Unfortunately, tracing such behaviors post-hoc or tracking them in real time is very difficult or impossible. For example, why isn’t there a service in restrooms that when a person tries to leave it without washing hands, it would have a way to remind of it? This would require behavior coding like in IoB: someone can visit a restroom and use the mirror only J
Schools have been closed in many countries, but now they are slowly opening and a new knowledge need emerges there, too: students and teachers are instructed to behave in certain cautious ways but it is difficult to collect data on what actually happens and what consequences different behaviors have. Specific tools are needed and IoB or similar solutions could help in this.
A flood of news mentions certain individuals and their behaviors (super-spreading) that boost the spread of the virus. For example, Dr. Hendrick Streeck told The Guardian that where there is dancing and singing, the virus spreads fast. However, the burning question remains “What exactly are the virus spreading behaviors”. There is more to our behaviors than dance and singing.
Better and informative behavior data is accumulating fast and under global scrutiny. When the most ‘dangerous’ behaviors are known, people can be targeted and guided accordingly. In many, if not in most cases, this could be done, based on their behaviors, but without knowing who these people are.
As expected, apps with standard technologies like GPS and Bluetooth have been quickly introduced to monitor the movements and whereabouts of infected or potentially infected people. Knowing where they move or when they are in the vicinity of others is hoped to help prevent contamination and spreading of the virus. Anonymity and voluntary use of the apps and tools are emphasized. People have had the bitter lessons on how their personal data is used by network giants and their networked partners and are getting now eager to protect their privacy even and especially during a crisis like this. Indeed, there are reasonable worries concerning such detailed identity data if it can be used for other purposes, for example, by insurance companies, financial services, or by any other sectors benefitting from intruding people’s private life.
Some technologists doubt the use of their location (GPS) data for tracing purposes while others have seen problems in interpreting Bluetooth –based data. No doubt, these problems will be solved, and the tools will be useful during the post-virus recovery and follow-up time and then of course, for the next crisis to come. https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-52353720.
What could be relevant behavior knowledge?
Behavior knowledge is more than what we directly observe of a person. For a psychologist, it is natural to include planning, emotional experiences, interpretations and intentions, for example, under the term ‘behavior’. IoB is meant to cover and ‘code’ any of these human phenomena. Much, if not most of our behavior is internal and relative-to-others in nature. We can know the exact location of a person, her movement patterns, or participation in gatherings but still fail to understand her or know the intentions and motivations behind the observed behavior pattern. From the outset, people can behave in similar-looking ways but for completely different reasons.
Present digital technologies monitor simple observable behaviors, which has its undeniable value in entertainment, sports, health and life-coaching apps. Interestingly, Spotify can be considered as a primitive form of IoB since it lets people express their wishes and to be rewarded by relevant music when they so want – the behavioral loop is inbuilt in it.. Much more could be accomplished with IoB there as well.
With mature IoB it becomes possible to detect any behavior, external and internal alike, that can be coded or expressed so that when it occurs, the person – her media environment – can be accessed accordingly. As human beings, we are the best experts of our minds, of our experiences, intentions, value priorities, and mental states, better than any AI/ML system. Simple and effective means to indicate this mental information has huge human and social potential and invites to accessing each other at the right time and with relevant messaging and services. By ‘accessing’ I mean the possibility to approach a person via any of her own app or tool or by directing information to her visual/audio environment.
An exceptional form of knowledge in preventing the spread of the virus would be reliable intention knowledge or knowledge of a person preparing to do something that increases the risk of infecting someone or to be infected. In web and mobile apps this can by arranged by asking the person using the app but this is a cumbersome maneuver and does not ‘live’ with acute life situations. More dynamic apps are needed to make IoB ‘conversation’ seamless and even fun.
Many would argue that people are unreliable in expressing their intention data. However there are masses of human intentions that predict certain behaviors with a very high probability, and it would be useful to have this knowledge. It’s no rocket science that a person knows when he’s going to eat something, take a medicine, visit a friend, before he is there, sometimes days, hour, minutes before it. From the virus perspective, it would be extremely valuable to have this pre-knowledge and to inform him or other people from that future or near-future behavior. In case of hospitals and health care services in general, there is much more to it – this knowledge can be critical if we had it. The benefits scale up with masses. How to get access to such data and would it be safe?
Why is behavior data linked with the identity?
Prominent public figures have expressed their fears that the pressure to track people can become a permanent social practice with dire social and political consequences. Their worry concerns technological solutions, where identity data is intimately linked with other data of the individual, as is the general practice today. However, this need not be so.
Most digital apps and tools that use our behavior data, like when messaging, traveling, visiting places, using services and exercising, indeed record both the person’s behavior and her/his identity and uses this for various purposes. Historically it was a dominant social practice in public, financial and health care services to trust our identity data to these services. This is how behavior data became de facto behavior+identity data and most analysis tools use both of these components to target the campaigns, services and any lures of life.
Interestingly, still some 50 years ago, there was not much public worry about id data, but then the net changed everything. Anonymity is now added in case the users especially want it, but it is far from a standard feature of the services we use and most of us don’t have a faintest idea where our identity data is stored, shared and how it is directly or indirectly used. GDPR helps but it is only a superficial cure to this paradigmatic trend.
Getting relevant behavior data – with IoB
Originally, when developing the IoB concept, I imagined the following:
“What if we could know, when, at a specific moment of time, certain human behavior occurs somewhere on the globe, and we could be in touch with all these people, from single individuals to millions, behaving like that, but without knowing who they are or where they are unless they voluntarily disclose their private data?”
How could we get that data and what could we do with this huge global and local pool of behavior knowledge? Internet of Behaviors is meant to support services, which systematically record, code and use behavior data, which is not automatically connected with the id of the behaving person.
In the case of COVID-19, the behavior data collected via an IoB app would allow monitoring single individual or communal behaviors occurring right now in masses. This can then be supplemented with relevant context data like geographic, organizational, process, community, medical, economic, or any other background information that allows mapping the ongoing behaviors on whatever is the context or domain of the behavior.
As a simple acute example, a pharmacy could offer its own IoB app to its customers and let them indicate (web, mp) when they plan to visit or are on their way to the store, so that the store can be prepared, especially if crowding is expected or a Corona patient’s family member is coming to fetch the medicine. There are various ways this information can be used at the pharmacy but also within a broader local context – without revealing the identity of the ‘behaving persons’. Communication is two-way which allows the pharmacy to send information to the person(s) but again without necessarily knowing who he/she is unless they have made an arrangement in the IoB to share private information. Then of course, the IoB approach has a multitude of uses elsewhere and scalable.
IoB can provide predictive information – about any intentions and plans, related to the situation at hand, like COVID-related behaviors. When a large enough pool or crowd of people use an IoB app, it becomes a tool, for accurate forecasting, This makes it different from any app aiming at following movements, tracing people, detecting locations and occurring closeness of people. Together, however, these approaches can make up a very powerful and situationally intelligent service. IoB can be integrated in these recently published tracing apps.
In practice, with the IoB app, the user could easily indicate or select from a set of alternative behavior codes or have a link to any personal QS gadget like Oura ring, or use QR devices, or otherwise indicate the ongoing or her/his intended behavior and so on. It is a matter of innovation to figure out the most feasible, seamless, automatic or semi-automatic ways to let people indicate their behavior in IoB, with a push of a button or why not with spoken comments.
IoB has exceptional power if it is developed in coordinated and standardized manner so that it makes coded behavior data accessible globally and makes it usable for any possible purposes. Apps can be designed for limited use like the pharmacy case above, but already there, the data structures should be designed so that they allow significant scaling up. Originally I imaging that IoB could use IPv6, with a pool of dynamic addresses reserved for certain behavior classes and which various service providers could then use and distribute. This is not mandatory and other forms of behavior coding is possible, for example so that it makes possible a private, even dynamic definition of behavior codes between the client and the IoB service provider.
Some aspects of design
Basic IoB features can be easily integrated or built into current web and mobile services and tools. When anonymity is required, it can be added. However, IoB could be built on its own architecture, supporting environment and protocols, just like IoT. I am tempted to imagine that because of its versatility and the way it can touch practically all aspects of human and social life, an IoB device could find its own independent place as a personal IoB-gadget – not part of a smart phone – or as an integrated part of any smart devices or ubiquitous ict. These visions are exciting.
I have given a superficial description of the IoB as I see only some of its potential value in fighting a global pandemia or other global threat . This is by no means a product or service description, but I hope it inspires design thinking for developing IoB in practice.
Gartner (2019) Top 20 Strategic Predictions for 2020 and Beyond.
Nyman, G. (2012) Internet of Behaviors.
Nyman, G. (2012) The Psychology behind the Internet of Behaviors.
Nyman, G. (2020) Behavior data in the net. In: “On the Edge of Human technology – An Essay” Amazon.
Directors’ lessons for remote workers
April 17, 2020 § Leave a comment
Every collaboration session over the net makes up a drama. Surprising enough, most network interaction and collaboration tools and services – visual, audio, text, graphic, data and communication structures – in global use do not amend from the knowledge and experiences from movie and theatre directors to secure seamless interaction sessions. The world is full of collaboration directors. This is surprising: as movie watchers we are utterly sensitive to the story and the drama, its characters and people, the style, depicted environments, camera work and the sound-scape with music.
Many of us watch movies and often recognize the director’s fingerprints, especially if the movie does not ‘work’. We are masters in judging that a movie is boring or captivating, if it feels unnatural and the characters are not convincing; we recognize the lame stereotypes and disturbing cuts or if the story development is poor or unsuspenseful. Sometimes the first few minutes of a movie are enough for us to judge the quality of what we expect to happen. On the other hand, we have favorite directors and we are every now and then positively surprised when we see an exciting story and style, a hint of a novel genre, great camera work, satisfying directing and acting in a new movie. There is no reason to assume that we are not susceptible or sensitive to similar decisive experiences and judgments when we join a collaboration session over the net.
I’m not a movie director although I have some background in theatre lighting, which was a 10-year lesson on what makes a play or a movie happen on the stage, on a screen and in our minds. Only a few days ago, Lauri Törhönen, a prominent Finnish movie director reminded me of some disturbing side effects that come from haphazard use of present communication technologies: static scenes, stiff postures of people, bad lights, poor use of camera and shooting angles, movement noise, bad audio surrounds and so on, which together generate “a bad play of their own”. In such cases there is no solid support to the story, the people, to their personalities, roles, styles, and motivations in what they do in the collaboration sessions. The message becomes unavoidably twisted or biased by this unintended drama running free. These are simple and superficial aspects of ‘collaboration directing’: there is, of course, much more that we can learn to build a story and a drama we want to happen and to pay respect to the story we want to tell and hope our partners or clients receive it with interest and motivation. We can take lessons from competent and experienced directors.
We don’t know the actors but they still touch us
Most of us have a relatively long history, more than one year, with the colleagues, partners or clients we now meet remotely. This can make communication easy even with primitive tools. Our shared history has a built-in, predictable psychology of its own – a psychological hysteresis – something we rely on, enjoy or suffer from. In everyday life, we don’t have to be consciously aware of this backbone of our shared behaviors, expectations, and attitudes.
The power of ‘relationship psychology’ is exactly this: we don’t need to put too much effort on checking the status or state of our relationship with colleagues or long-time customers, every time we start communicating. Only in exceptional situations likes crisis, in matters of opinion, or personal disagreements we must somehow consider this more deeply, when we try to find out new ways to behave or are puzzled by our own reactions to something in the interaction and the relationship. With new acquaintances this is more complicated and especially now in remote interaction we must try to ‘sense’ or know, and build the relationship.
At work, the psychology behind our behavior emerges around the drama and story concerning the task, the environment, and the people we work with. For example, you can be a member of a sporty sales team with its own work history, private behavior style and language and a set of (psychological) sales tools and concepts used when meeting customers. The sales situation, like any other work situation, from the beginning to the end can be considered as a drama consisting of familiar or routine episodes and it is played with specific roles.
Sales persons and managers alike have their roles in the sales drama and can spontaneously participate and behave according to it when meeting colleagues or customers f-f. In remote work the drama happens in different, distributed settings. The sense of presence of other people, ‘the stage’, the impact of roles, and the way the play can be guided and proceed, have all been transformed and constrained by the technology used in communication and as a result of the practical arrangements of the virtual sessions. Like in the case of movies, the technology alone does not make the play happen: the first classic b & w movies, with their primitive technology and caricature form demonstrate the power of the drama and the story and we can still enjoy fully the primitive movie form.
No need to emphasize this: building and directing a compelling story and the drama, is of utmost importance to successful interaction. When this is not deliberately done, a drama of its own emerges anyway and it may not always be what would have been hoped for.
How would directors advice us in the use of present technological means to build a compelling remote drama of collaboration and work? Could we learn to ‘direct’ the remote sessions so that they can better serve their core purpose now and in the future? Can we design better social-technological solutions by taking seriously the knowledge and experiences from directors? Have we taken our lessons now and start designing a new genre of tools with human touch, post-virus?
Here are my first guesses on the directors’ advice, based on the inspiration from the sites of Raindance and IndieWire, but you can easily find dozens of similar suggestions.
- Remote work sessions and the whole process of interaction are built around ‘technologically possible and programmable’ human behaviors and experiences, many of them familiar from the f-f- world but some new ones are introduced in the remote situations having now their own ‘life’ an indeed, often it means ‘family life’.
As an example, the family life of our colleagues, clients, teachers, and partners has never before been so intimate aspect of our interaction sessions and with this scale. Sometimes the impact of this can be seen, heard, or sensed during the interaction and even before it perhaps, but the psychological presence of the families, homes and their spirit is practically unavoidable. The members of a sporty sales team might reconsider their style of talking when there is a family member listening behind the back while the same can be happening at the remotely connected home site of the client. Ways to deal with privacy and trust must be openly and specifically declared and to make it compatible with the psychology of the remote work drama. In the present work and education context, privacy and trust have their new or transformed psychologies, not totally unknown before by certainly different now.
- Every episode, even the smallest one of them, is or becomes part of the story we tell and present. It is up to the manager of the collaboration or of other form of interaction session to decide how each remote session episode should contribute to the story. To become aware of these episodic effects it is important to know the participants, the gist and the flow of the story and its core episodes. Roles, styles, progress and the outcome must be guided, and not to forget the end – and “what next”? Before this can be done, all these elements must be defined and described, in more or less detail.
- Build a drama you want, for every session. Even a rational, collaborative process with a straightforward agenda lives as a drama we experience and it has psychological after-effecs, positive, negative or neutral. It can have any form, from extremely competitive and witty play to a wonderful, almost romantic demonstration of mutual love and respect – in business and in any other activity. It is up to us to guard and guide this, or whoever has the power and chance to make it happen.
- Make it a systematic task to follow the emergence of the drama of each remote session. This helps in recognizing what actually happened during the drama and its episodes. Elements of success and failure can be seen as well as early warning signs of problems.
- Construct a model of the way you make your team/firm/community act in the story and the drama. For a challenging, large-scale meeting or collaboration, a storyboard helps to recognize its components and analyze its functioning. Don’t do it as a bureaucratic exercise, but a form of team learning. Take time to prepare for each session or episode; it need not be hours. A reasonable time invested in it pays back.
- Help your staff to learn about themselves as acting participants in the collaboration play. We are not natural actors and a professional director or other relevant specialist can make this learning progressive and fun, even and especially when arranged in the for of a real remote session.
- Don’t forget the feel, style and spirit of the remote working drama. Often it does not happen automatically, but it can be made to happen but it requires roles from the participating people, jus like it happens at f-f situations. Music is not forbidden during the sessions and why not use it as a form of relaxation during the pauses or to signal certain events, their style or the phases of work. However, must be used with care.
- Unlike in plays and movies, there are characters that are reluctant to participate in the drama. They can be your customers, your business partners from other firms and cultures, or your colleagues who are not comfortable with such a ‘play’ or ‘role games’. Make sure they too can find their natural behavior styles, don’t use the tern ‘role’ then.
- Cultural differences matter. Take the word ’culture’ seriously, in its widest and deepest sense, from global to local aspects of human life. We have our preferences on what plays and movies we enjoy to watch.
- Finally, the prelude. When we go to opera, the prelude invites us to the spirit and atmosphere, even the drama awaiting us when the curtain opens. In most forms of music, it is an essential part and we have grown experts in recognizing the pieces from the first few notes and chords. There are no general practices to do this for remote sessions at work and in collaboration. Hence, remembering the impact of the prelude, this is an invitation for creative solutions to this, how the prepare for a remote session, and to do it properly, according to the style and spirit of the firm or whoever engage in remote interaction. It can be quick moment, lasting for a minute or less but it can be hours, even days when it has a solid purpose.
A call to network operators, service providers and app designers
From a purely technological viewpoint, transforming the families and family clusters into the nodes of local and global networks may not look much different from adding any other clusters to a working community and start using the net and mobile services. However, families living now in quarantine amplify and reorganize the human and social aspects of all network activities: home and social context becomes an inseparable part of all organizational and any personal network activities. Families are units that make choices and decisions, they maintain certain ways of behaving and they support and motivate each member. Firms and organizations must consider this as a fact of their new life and it has consequences.
Taking the family-related network transformation seriously, network operators can find guidelines for developing their tools and services and make it truly human and social technology. The present transformation should open the business-interested eyes to see the networks of life on several human and social levels, with all the human possibilities this offers, and to remember the directors’ lessons. Then there are challenges:
Firstly, current network tools and models have problems in serving user clusters working simultaneously with very different contents and in variable (dynamic) situations and contexts. Most of the tools have poor if nonexistent human-situational (contextual) intelligence. For example, parents working remotely for different firms must do it in isolated collaboration systems or ‘virtual boxes’ and tools that barely communicate with each other. They exclude any seamless and human interaction with children. There are several security, brand, cultural-historical and technological reasons that have led to dominating use paradigms, which have not been massively challenged before now.
There are no simple technological solutions to serve people when they change their ‘personal space of interest’, at work or in pleasure. The same is true with the isolated digital tools that children use in their studies and parents use for communicating with teachers and school administration. In our everyday life, we just move our focus of attention – for example, from the ongoing task to our children – and can do it in an enjoyable and spontaneous manner: “John, why don’t you come here and tell me what you’ve been doing?” With present tools this is not so. Now, during the quarantine the digital Babel of tools is revealed when all these systems must be used simultaneously, with practically no coordination or communication between them.
Secondly, many communication difficulties originate from the poor or nonexistent situational knowledge the communicating parties have on each other. This causes bad timing and targeting of messaging, lots of extra explanation on what is the situation and its demands, and then of course, irritation from these uncertainties that disturb fluent work, interaction, awareness building and prevents reaching people at the right time with relevant information and actions. We have practically no way to know the psychological state of our communicating partner, just before the remote session. The prelude could find a positive role in this.
Thirdly, instead of one or even several networks where people work at a time or in parallel, every family is a conglomeration of several, intertwined and overlapping networks that cannot be separated from each other without distorting some important aspects of their life. For example, children who now study and do their homework are not psychologically or even physically separated from their working parents. Continuous physical interaction becomes problematic and both children and parents can suffer from this. New practices must be learned and it takes time. Digital and network tools don’t support this – although they could include many family-life orientated services and features, which understand the drama of everyday life. The dominating digital paradigms do not offer tools for people ‘living’ in one network to express their ongoing (behavioral) situation to people in another environment and network. Such a situational knowledge, however, is critical for seamless communication and interaction. Messaging, document and image sending or sharing is of course easy and even seamless, but it is only surface.
The risk for family problems, even in families who have not suffered from them before, comes from the need of parents and couples to manage their jobs and responsibilities and to be tied to their digital tools and their demands that link them to their work. The tools are not designed to support our best human qualities in families and other intimate contexts. The best of the video conferencing services are rational in nature and support ‘lean’ collaboration and interaction. They are not designed for intimate and deeply personal matters of life; other tools are available for that. To exaggerate a bit, we use rational tools of a strong technological paradigm but now we can see the real value of the ‘soft’ elements in human communication. Listening to the families of this new global network can offer striking possibilities for better human-technological advances.
In organization life, these human aspects are no less important and it is only due to the digital paradigm that our tools are ‘cold’, insensitive or harmful. Many think that people have bad ways to use social media, which causes the familiar problems from bullying to aggressions. Another way to look at this is to see it as a human-technological design that helps and invites such things to happen, without constraints or control. The bad human design causes them, it is not only allowing them to happen. The globally emerging family nodes have a human message to tell to the networked world.
Let’s not forget the leaders and managers. We know they are under pressure now, but they need social and technological support, too. I’ll come back to this later.
Care is the core – distant life of firms at the time of quarantine
April 6, 2020 § 2 Comments
Moving to full remote or virtual work, and re-organizing network activities does not happen without human (psychological, social, health) costs. In addition to the firms paying for these costs, a heavy burden comes to the individuals, families, and even their relatives who help in keeping businesses and service alive. I will not deal with the destiny of the unemployed here; their suffering is different now and firms and organizations should not forget them either. It is a story of its own, how to do it and why.
This is important for managers and personnel to understand and build awareness of it: we face a months-long period to learn new habits and practices and to get rid of the harmful ones in how we communicate and collaborate within the net. It is not only a human challenge – there is the imperative to maintain sustainable business. Hence, here I introduce a sample of the many problems that can be easily forgotten and become serious hindrances to work, but which can be overcome with wise actions. Every firm must find its own way to manage the new (virtual/remote) situation. It is not wise to adopt any practices of network life without serious consideration of the specific context of the firm, and especially its recent history, culture and values. Perhaps the most important advice to the management and personnel alike is the following:
Do everything you can to preserve the best you have in your firm and your people, in the way you have lived and worked together, served the customers and committed to the common cause.
Taking the above as a base for development and care, there are simple and practical ‘human-social factors’ at work to be considered:
- Cognitive load increases significantly in remote work, for many reasons, for example because of the extra, continuous attentive burden and complex messaging practices. For example, in normal work, we are aware of the social situation and people around us, and have simple ways to take a mini-rest and well-timed privacy, have various forms of support and enjoy the relaxing predictability of communication and interaction. We can use our limited attentive resources wisely.Long-lasting remote mode makes a fragmented work environment and becomes a new burden for the personnel – there is the continuous need to follow, expect, to monitor, to be ready to react to any coming messaging. Our memory in all of its functions, from the short-term to long-term processes, to memorizing tasks and events, episodes and meanings, becomes crowded. People get tired of this multi-dimensional psychological pressure and it has consequences that are not always immediately visible. It is a good practice to take time after work to consider this and be sensitive to any signs of stress, fatigue and other psychological or physical symptoms. It is wise to share these personal experiences among the personnel and friends – proactively – so that we learn about them as a community. Discussion with colleagues is helpful and we can learn from their ways to view or ‘frame’ the situation and to cope with it. Technological, organizational, working model -related, scheduling and other actions can then be taken to relive the situation.It is not easy to see the direct causes of cognitive burden, because often the symptoms occur as a fuzzy ‘internal itch’ difficult to perceive accurately and to manage it. Sometimes these problems become tangible when several tasks must be accomplished at the same time, which requires all the available mental resources. However, it is possible to become sensitive to them and try to organize work, practices, scheduling, private life, and rest accordingly. Proactive preparation has extra value and helps to be prepared. Working at home introduces new psychological, continuously present phenomena to family matters: child behavior, all routines, interaction and many others demand their deserved attention, care and – again – our limited mental resources.
- Extra cognitive and attentive overhead of textual communication is an essential aspect of almost any organizational communication of today, either before, after or during the communication. This is caused by the simple act of writing which takes time and effort to do it properly: to correct, re-correct and read requires full attention and takes energy and mistakes and bad expressions can have major negative consequences. People have different writing skills and harmful communication styles and related misunderstandings matter, as we too well know from social media. In this sense, social media is indeed an excellent environment to learn what not to do and how not to communicate. Care is the core, at all levels.
- Isolation from the physical and social context means isolation from relevant and dynamic information and support, much of which is tacit, that is, we have learned to take it for granted and it is almost invisible to our everyday life at work. For example, a colleague in the same room is not only a person sharing the space or process with us; her/his presence means he/she is physically and psychologically available. The tacit knowledge of this is relaxing, we even enjoy it as a friendship or of having a colleague close to us, and it contributes to the feeling of trust, comfort, and support when needed.When in need for help or any other interaction, it is a simple process in f-f to initiate: we have learned to be sensitive to all aspects of such human relationship management and interaction. However, in remote work and virtual communication everything changes and extra checking, messaging, preparation for contacting and initiation of communication is needed. Present collaboration systems lack proper support for this kind of profound, human phenomena and behavior. The psychology of intimate communication changes profoundly and we must remember that.
- New problem behaviors emerge – one among many being passive style of working. A passive person in an f-f team can be easily identified and invited to take action, guided or controlled. In virtual work, this style is not easy to observe and it takes extra time and control efforts to notice it; time and efficiency is wasted and irritation generated because of it. Sometimes people are not aware of their own ways of behaving in the net and they need a ‘social mirror’ to learn. Predictability of behavior in the whole organization is worth gold because it helps people to be prepared, relieves from extra control and it is simply pleasant to work then.
- Management of virtual/distant activities requires skills, knowledge and experience. It is different from standard ways of management. It may be necessary to reconsider some organizational processes, roles and structures if/when remote work continues over long periods of time and in 100% mode. The functions and responsibilities of management teams need reconsideration since virtual communication requires extra effort and time, and a large part of it does not follow standard organizational processes and information flows. New information flows emerge and as a result, some managers are at risk to become overcrowded by communication.Interestingly, already in 1980s we found out in a study that people are extremely bad at estimating the amount of pressure their managers experience in their communication. People overestimated by a factor of 3 to 10 (if I remember correctly, it was a lot) how much information they thought they could personally send to their managers without causing disastrous message crowding. Blindness to system effects was evident and it is a common problem today, too.
- Interaction dynamics among personnel change because of the way remote communication happens in practice. People, who have had a significant positive and valuable contribution to these dynamics at the site, can lose this role and become a significant loss to the firm/team dynamics and atmosphere. This is the time to see the value of these great people who often do not get recognition for this contribution. It is good to look at other important roles in the firm as well and make sure their contribution is not lost. A psychological role inventory is extremely useful – and it is rewarding for people when they can talk about what they really do.
- In customer work, virtual tools can be a problem and even a new risk, not less because of different communication cultures in firms. Extra sensitivity to communication style, timing, and targeting is now required because of the network context – and the fact that customers, too live exceptional times in their own work and family lives of their personnel. The history of trust in these relations is now valuable psychological capital and it must be properly recognized, in all its different forms. A good advice is to offer relevant proactive information to the clients and then invite them to communicate towards you so that they have the initiative.
- Network and collaboration tools have taught us to mix synchronous (phones, audio & video conferences …) activities with asynchronous ones (emails, text messages, podcasts, printed docs…) and often it happens that people are not aware a) of the different time constants and other systemic consequences these tools have (how soon and when a response can be expected, what other communications and actions they generate), and b) of their timing-sensitivity (when is a good/bad time for certain communications) and of various interactions of these. In remote communication and work, the mixing of synch/asynch communication can become a distraction, a source of uncertainty, distress, a disturbance and introduce new negative, psychological forces that disturb seamless interaction.Simple examples: When you prepare emails the previous evening, don’t send them immediately then (and think that they will be nicely in the piles of emails waiting), but time them to the morning or some other relevant time at the office or at homes. Furthermore, your team can decide on certain times of the day (lunch break, for example) when no emails or other messages are sent or virtual chats and meetings are arranged. This synchronizes behaviors and relives people from continuous monitoring of their team-tools. It can silence the traffic for 30-45 minutes, for example, which is not a long time but can be psychologically significant when used accordingly. For people working from homes, the importance of this is magnified.
- Sleep and rest. Tune the remote work arrangements and communication so that you can enjoy proper rest, sleep and regularity of everyday life. Some have already noticed how the quarantine has allowed a surprising rest when 1-2 hours of commuting is excluded and have then observed the quality of work outcome to improve. However, this does not happen automatically and without systematic actions to arrange the work. Make sure that work does not conquer every hour or unpredictable times, and cause harm and introduce conflicts and other nuisances to good family life. Private, team-related and organization-wide schedules, even dynamic ones are need for collaborating people; this is not a matter of individual arrangements only.
The sense of presence
When we, managers and personnel alike, start working remotely from homes, we lose the strong and real sense of social presence of the people we normally work with, more or less intimately. This loss is not insignificant. The feeling or presence is like invisible or tacit ether that carries us in social life. It is where we live with our colleagues and can sense each other’s closeness and availability. We trust that many of the colleagues are ready to offer their immediate help when we need it. We expect and encourage them to approach us and we love to share the joys and challenges of co-work and existence, to help when we can. They know we are for them, when needed.
In remote work, the sense of presence becomes fragile and weak over time unless it is cared for in an effective (and affective) way. Collaboration platforms and teamwork tools vary in how they contribute to and maintain the sense of social presence but in general they massively underestimate this aspect of human life and it colorfulness. There is much to improve in these tools and services; their psychological outcome depends more on human behaviors than on any aspect of the technology itself.
Inspiration from game experiences
There is a special field of technology where the human-social aspects of human experience have matured fast and shown their power: computer games. Many of you who actively play computer games have been surprised by the power of the psychological immersion they induce in us. Now that ‘the virus game’ takes the form of technologically organized remote work, it is good to consider some of the psychological secrets behind the game experiences and see what could be learned from them to improve the remote work between homes, offices and firms.
My colleague Dr. Jari Takatalo, now at the game company Rovio Ltd, prepared and integrated a wonderful collection of known psychological factors into a systematic and holistic framework to describe the psychology of game experience. We (it was Jari’s ‘baby’) introduced the multi-dimensional model called PIFF (Presence, Involvement, Flow -Framework), which consists of the critical experiential-psychological dimensions that make an enjoyable (or terrible) game experience. The model captures the critical psychological experience variables, that is, the quality, intensity, meaning, value, and extensity of an experience and it is intimately grounded in the work of the psychology classics like James and Wundt.
In the following Table, I summarize only some of these variables, the nature of the main psychological dimensions as they occur in PIFF and relate them to the psychology of remote work. The idea is not to copy the model for describing the experiences but instead to remind of these important experiential dimensions. Together they contribute to positive (or negative) psychological outcomes of remote work if they are (not) recognized and arrangements are (not) made to serve them. Many of these psychological phenomena are relatively easy to recognize when time flies and work feels exiting and fun. Remote work has its own, complex contexts and generalization is not wise, but it is good to look at some of these psychological background elements.
Discussing the topic of movie direction with the prominent movie director Lauri Törhönen in Finland, I was inspired to think about ‘directing a remote session’ and will tell the story in the next blog.
Homes, families and the corona virus – re-organization of the global net of work
April 3, 2020 § Leave a comment
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Corona virus has forced both public and private sector organizations in Europe and US to move to remote work – to start working from homes. Surprising enough, an essential aspect of this abrupt transformation has received little attention among the world leaders and leading media: never before in human history of networking has there been such a massive, fast, and global transformation – or experiment – in the way human work is organized, managed, and made happen at homes and households. (for an early insight, see e.g. Atlantic). This is not only generating new social, work-related and network practices, but it disturbs markets, creates new ones and inspires to new businesses that adapt to the quarantine situation. Some of the new services and businesses will prevail even after the pandemia.
Hundreds of millions of families give new life to networks
In EU there are 220 million households and 130 million in US. Typically, about 20-30% of them have one or more children. About 15% of the EU households are single parent families while in US the proportion is somewhat larger. Assuming that more than 50% of people now work remotely, the number of families living this transformation comes close to 200 million homes in EU and US alone and tens of millions of children and their education become affected.
The transformation concerns practically all firms, public and private alike, even those where working at physical sites cannot be avoided. At the writing of this, EU and US – skipping the other parts of the world – are reorganizing all their networked functions and learning on the way. Questions now arise: what does this mean to work – now and in the near future – to its form, management and content; what happens to family life, its economics, everyday practices and atmosphere, child behavior. What new problems emerge, even in families which have not suffered from them before, like alcoholism and drugs, home violence, anxiety and any harmful dynamics caused by the new pressures.
Bending a bit the famous quote by McLuhan, the homes and families have now become part of the digital messages – not only messaging – and communication. The nodes of the emerging EU & US networks of work are the millions of homes, each one of them connected with one or more firms – and other families, family members, significant friends and partners. Network dynamics and the distributed value base there change profoundly. Nobody knows the exact consequences this has on the way working takes place, how people and their leaders interact, how things are coordinated and how the work output is related to the new situations at homes.
Software development has not been prepared for this. Looking at the top 20 collaboration tools available you can see that they are made to support projects, task lists, conferencing, documentation, messaging, scheduling, while they almost totally lack any features that would be aimed at building human connection, support, positive atmosphere, and care. They have nothing to offer to parenting.
There will be more family negotiations than ever before, touching any aspects of work topics relevant to the parents and other family members. New forms of conflict appear at work and at homes. This is not the place to deal with all the psychological questions and problems, and I offer only some observations and thoughts about what is going to happen next. Lancet (Vol 395, Issue 10227, March 14, 2020) has presented an extensive review on the psychological problems of quarantine: The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence.
No relevant network model to describe this abrupt development
Network technologies are now under test and they seem to manage the traditional traffic rather well as told by Anne Morris/Editor in Light Reading (23 March, 2020). However, the pandemia puts the life of families and firms in another test during this exceptional period. At the moment, there is no network model available to describe this dynamic and the new net life – its connectivity, layers of activity, behavioral constraints, work content and context, the loves and joys of family life and work, the nature of interaction within this new complex entity. It is difficult to see what happens in this new network and why, although anecdotal observations on the new life at homes crowd the media. Some parents in Finland, for example, have been surprised to note how here, in the land of world-class education, home schooling can make schoolwork more effective.
Think about the human networks of a family: it has layers and clusters for friends and relatives, but it has other layers as well, for professional activities and hobbies and then of course, the layers of the job-related tasks and information sources and the firm and so on; it is a multi-layer, local-global, interacting network system, a very complex creature indeed. Now that work is conducted at homes these layers and clusters become increasingly intertwined, and the dynamics of their interconnections are not easy to model and describe. Hence, it is unclear how to model and measure their functionality. Traditional traffic measures can be easily applied, but they miss the human point.
Padgett (2007) applied a multiple network description for modeling organizational genesis in the historical Florence. However, the scale and extension of the family-related networks currently activated, and the technology used are significantly more complex than those in Florence then. There is no methodology by which it would be possible to ‘introduce’ relevant content, human-social meanings ad interdependencies into the network of such human and technological complexity. The contents and meanings are different for the firm and the family, for school children and their parents and for the communities of their friends, for the colleagues and management at firms and other organizations. It is almost an impossible phenomenon to cover with any models. We need relevant “toy models” for research, and practically a new research field and paradigm.
This may be a surprise: there is no general network model that can represent all these layers and contents of human activity that occur simultaneously, interacting. With my colleagues we have earlier looked at a related problem from the perspective of the networked firm and evaluated the feasibility of alternative network models, from simple straightforward nets to multi-layer and game networks to describe the life of a networked firm. None of the models we considered seemed feasible to model a simple networked firm properly. On possibility we saw was to use a locally sensitive, multi-layer model, combined with game network dynamics to cover the significant psychological aspects of the network reality, the drama, in firms. (In: Big Data and Smart Service Systems, “On the Behavioral Theory of the Networked Firm, by Nyman et al., 2017). However, what happens now in the global network of families is different. In my recent book “On the edge of human technology” I have speculated about the use of a totally new type of network description suitable for this kind of complex problems, using an analogy from string theory in physics, but so far it is pure, very pure speculation.
Only two months ago, when working at a physical site, the organizational and management model, company culture and its value base guided and constrained us in our work behavior. In the present situation, families and their ramifications introduce new forces into the work context, directly or indirectly, which introduces new values, new constraints and new content into work. It may not be immediately visible at the organizational level, but at homes and in families the situation is an immediate, everyday fact of family life that must be dealt with, to reorganize the way things are run at homes. As an example, millions of single parent families having small children adapt to this, without compromising the well-being of their children. There is no standard way to do this and national and family cultures differ significantly between nations in EU and between EU and US. There is no doubt that these new inputs to work have both positive and negative potential to contribute.
Then there are the managers who must cope with this new situation. Let’s not forget them.