Directors’ lessons for remote workers

April 17, 2020 § Leave a comment


Movie_screen.jpeg             CC0

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.

Directors’ lessons

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

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