Phase 2: Virtual Meeting Space
We started our investigation wondering about the relationship between our sensory, physical environments/spaces/bodies at various scales, these "tools" for living that are often invisible to us such as the position of the body, the color of the walls, the height of the desks, and human connection. We were interested in these invisible factors because it's these factors, processed through nonconscious processes, have a subtle but significant impact on our behaviors. It's also often overlooked by other studies because it is so subjective and hard to measure.
After presenting our work to our classmates, a teacher was interested in engaging with us further, this time in the context of her company’s virtual meetings. The international remote-working company has a total of 15 members spread over 12 different countries. The challenge was both inspiring and motivating. How might we translate the work that we had done with AMT in real, physical environments to a digital, virtual one? Clearly this work would confront some of our initial human instincts methodology that we had tested in the previous rendition of the project since we had been interested in de-digitalizing the meetings, taking away computer screens and amplifying the use of the shared space of the participants.
We discussed amongst us three. What was the best way to approach this virtual context? Beforehand, we crafted a transparency agreement with the leadership of the organization which explained our purpose for contact with each of the members and requested their participation in the process. This first contact with the leaders certainly set the tone for our research. We were able to deduct what tone they usually took with the employees and how communications were formatted from leadership to organization. After receiving their consent, we began the research in a similar fashion as with AMT, first by conducting semi-structured interviews with the leadership individually and scheduling paired interviews with each of the employees. We also passively observed an All Team Call (ATC) over the virtual platform that they used to meet monthly. In the first ATC, we asked all participants to take a photograph of their immediate physical surroundings and send it to us. We also asked them to write to us about their sensory experience.
We noted a few initial understandings about the ATC situation:
- Silence was deemed unproductive and there was an effort to fill it each time during the ATC.
- People were muted most of the ATC which made the leadership nervous not receiving immediate feedback.
- The meeting was highly structured, allowing little space for emergence.
The team was energized in the meeting most around the issue of the upcoming retreat and it was the moment with the most participation. Every year they have an in-person retreat where people are able to connect, but beyond this, there is no place to feel connected to others on the team. This is because each team works in isolation and seems mostly external facing. While teams seem to be comfortable in their own small teams and the virtual doesn’t seem to be a problem, it becomes a barrier in larger groups where most people haven’t had a chance to connect 1:1. There is a need for structure to allow people to feel safe enough to know when to contribute and to feel that they are moving towards a goal. The goal of being more efficient as a team.
Our observation of where things were happening initially informed our interviews.
Semi Structured Interviews
Our semi-structured interviews with the paired team members evolved as we conducted them and reflected on how they might be more effective in getting at the perceptions of the members about the overall connectivity of the organization, on a personal and productive level. We were also aware very early on that our presence was part of an intervention already - our simply being there would affect how the members viewed and reacted to their situation and perhaps have an overall effect on the team dynamics.
- Video is preferred for connection and is used more often, but more intense for energy.
- There is a clear attention to time when the team is online. No time to just not do anything and chat without being conscious of “productivity”.
- They said there is more exertion on larger calls and a different kind of awareness.
- Each of them had different ideas about what work style they prefer during the call, one prefers listening and the other prefers to push forward and be efficient with time.
- Several people mentioned tendency to automatically visualize faces/spaces of speakers during ATCs.
- A particularly descriptive quote from one of the participants was: “Sometimes I leave feeling like an Android pretending to be human saying all the things that a human is supposed to say”
- Everything said during ATCs is thoughtful and planned.
- They had used a Water Cooler structure before where they had a designated online hangout place, but it wasn’t so successful.
- There was also a buddy system which was more successful perhaps because it was framed as something useful to team dynamics and work culture.
In a second ATC observation, we had a different approach. We had the team sketch what the feeling of the current ATC was and how they might depict the ideal ATC feeling. The leadership also incorporated a new exercise into this call which happened on a shared board where each of the participants gave kudos to each of the teams. We realized that she was trying to incorporate more emotional activities into the meeting structure, a space we felt had been missing in the past.
After our initial interviews and observations of the second ATC, we shifted to create a new framework that could explain our lens in relation to the efforts already being made by the team.
Shared "tools" — Grounding abstract thoughts through tangible tools (ex. virtual post-its, real-time mapping)
Shared emotions — Grounding abstract connection through emotional sharing
Shared sensory space — Sharing nonconscious spatial, auditory, sensory elements of connection
There is a desire for connection, but feeling siloed from other teams or each other in the day-to-day routine.
While desire for connection is expressed through frequent chats and willingness for virtual meetings, individuals still may feel isolated from others (especially those in other teams) and overloaded with conscious thinking due to abstract nature of content and verbal nature of work. Emotional interventions (ex. During 2nd All Team Call) help people feel grounded in their bodies.
The team wants to feel grounded through something tangible, an image, a touch, an emotion.
To keep things tangible, some keep their pets close, others use post-its, and we discovered that several automatically visualize a colleague’s face and context in their imagination when they would speak on audio calls and in virtual meetings. In terms of emotional connection, many take an active approach, finding ways to connect in real life or through outside social channels. The response to the August All Team Call, where personal emotions were shared, was overwhelmingly positive.
Each team works in isolation and seems mostly external facing. While teams seem to be comfortable in their own small teams and the virtual doesn’t seem to be a problem, it becomes a barrier in larger groups where most people haven’t had a chance to connect 1:1. There is a need for structure to allow people to feel safe. There is no time for extra, spontaneous conversations across teams.
- How can we design environments that shift our senses, to shift our feelings, to shift our attention in order to better connect with others?
- How might we engage the body to allow for a more connected experience virtually?
- How might we connect with others from the inside out?
Shared auditory space
Mirror virtual touch
Co-create imagined shared space
Although never realized, our design concepts were presented to the virtual team and generally well-received. We left them as open-source activities that may be used to strengthen future team interactions.
Importance to greater work culture
Beyond the significance of our research to two teams that we worked with we see that Human Instinkz might shift the focus of team meetings to ones that consider new ways of thinking about the sensory possibilities which might aid in connection and engagement. We believe that the larger implications of our research would challenge notions “normal” of team meetings to ones that consider each member’s sensory experience not as a trivial detail, but as an affordance for more humanness to the workplace and greater connections among the people that work there.