Those who have followed my blog for a while will know that for many years I worked with an amazing team of people at CORE Education. About six months ago I stepped aside to make way for a new leadership team to take the reigns, and to give me a little more time to pursue the things I want to be able to do. I haven’t lost contact with CORE, however, as I continue to do some contract work with them on specific projects where my help is required. I am enjoying that arrangement, as it keeps me connected with this very talented group of people.
As part of this arrangement I was invited today to join one of their company-wide online sessions, this one set aside for some whākawhanaungatanga – a time for valuing our relationships and ‘checking in’ with each other during this time of massive change and uncertainty. Because CORE is a distributed company, with employees located across all of New Zealand, we are very used to operating in large groups in an online environment – and this hui was no different.
We began as we always do, with a karakia – one that is often used by CORE whānau:
Unuhia te pō te pō whiri mārama
Tomokia te ao te ao whatu tāngata
Tātai ki runga, Tātai ki raro, Tātai aho rau
Haumie hui e tāiki e!
Which translates into:
From the confusion comes understanding
From the understanding comes unity
We are interwoven, we are interconnected
Together as one!
Our karakia provides an opportunity to settle the minds of all in the hui on what we’re there to achieve collectively, to pause, catch our breath and prepare for what is about to happen.
This morning that was particularly poignant as our hui began with the sharing of the news that one of our former colleagues had died just a few hours previously. It was the first opportunity many on the call had had to receive this news, and, understandably, the tone of the meeting changed instantly.
I continued on the call, just absorbed in the way that this wonderful group of people responded. The agenda was respectfully laid aside, and the leaders within the group gently led us in a new direction of sharing thoughts and memories of this amazing colleague we’d known, and the contribution he’d made to so many lives – including our own. Our session became a virtual poroporoaki filled with tears, laughter and many stories. Sharing time together like this was all the more important this morning as, with the COVID-19 lockdown in place, there will be no opportunity to spend time physically together for this process – particularly given that our colleague was a part of the Pasifika community, and such traditions are extremely important in that culture.
I’m sharing this reflection because of what that experience revealed to me about the way this group of colleagues, the whānau of CORE, were able to adjust and make space for what happened in this virtual setting. It was fluid, uncontrived and ‘natural’. It demonstrated to me the very best of what being ‘at home’ in this virtual environment can feel like. Without having to lay out the ground rules, people were muted when not speaking so as not to confuse the meeting with background noise (there were around 63 of us on the call), people took both visual and audio cues about when to speak next, the chat feature was being used effectively as a back-channel, and we were looking at people’s faces, well-framed as they looked towards their cameras (no top-of-head shots etc.) We talked, we sang, we sat in silence – all in our ‘virtual’ space.
It was only as I’ve had time to reflect on this experience later in the day that the full significance of it all became apparent. At that time we were all connected in a way that allowed us to share our feelings, our grief, our deepest thoughts and emotions – and we were doing it all virtually, and in a way that was almost ‘seamless’ in its operation. I felt deeply connected with this group of people, despite the fact that we were separated by the length and breadth of the country. What made it so? Significantly, I believe, it was the fact that this way of connecting is the ‘normal’ for this group of dedicated educators. They have been working this way for so long they don’t have to actually think about it – it all just happens. What a privilege it is to be still connected with them all.
The second prompt for reflection stems from the rest of my day’s activity – most of which was spent online, in similar environments with a range of groups and individuals. As we have all now been forced to work in this way, I couldn’t help but notice the differences in the way that many of the other calls I participated in today worked out. From the call that was postponed because one of the participants wasn’t familiar with how to connect to the awkward silences where the ‘chair’ was unfamiliar with how to manage conversations effectively without the visual cues from participants around a table (that call was audio only), the contrast with the morning call with colleagues at CORE registered in my mind. Significantly for me, most of the calls were with educational organisations or agencies – all of which mention honouring the Treaty of Waitangi in their charter – yet none of the meetings began with a karakia, we didn’t have that time to settle and focus.
I am not commenting on this to ‘blame’ or ‘shame’ – indeed, I understand that for many, unlike my colleagues at CORE, working in a virtual environment is a new experience, requiring new skills and knowledge about what works effectively. As I reflect I have become even more convinced that, as we face an uncertain few weeks (months?) ahead, where working online will be the new ‘normal’ for many, we need to take at least some time to think more deeply and learn about the things that make working in a virtual environment successful – and what don’t.
Simply assuming that we will run our business in the same way that we have always done and that the technology will simply ‘join us together’ won’t cut the mustard. The technology does matter – just as much as the good preparation of the agenda with it’s purpose and outcomes matters.
- It matters that there is a good audio connection, with people using headsets or noise-cancelling microphones, and that they are muted on the call when not speaking, particularly if there are more than half a dozen on the line
- It matters that participants come onto the call a little earlier than the scheduled time, to ensure that any technical issues with connecting can be sorted out
- It matters that there is a ‘back-channel’ so that people can feel they are able to contributed within the ‘flow’ of the meeting rather than having to ‘wait their turn’ – and it matters that someone is monitoring the back-channel to feed in comments, questions and observations as appropriate
- It matters, in the case of video calls, that people’s faces can be seen, positioned so that there is light on their face. It matters that they are framed well in the screen, and that there is not a window behind them causing their face to appear simply as a shadow.
- Most of all, it matters that whoever is leading the call does so with an empathetic and listening attitude. That they are ‘tuned into’ the way people are feeling and responding – not simply wanting to rush through an agenda to get to an outcome. Those things are important, but will only be achieved if participants in the call feel listened to, included and involved.
For years now future-focused thinkers and writers have been telling us that ‘connectedness‘ will be a defining feature of how we operate into the 21st Century, and our ability to successfully navigate the uncertain future we face. It would appear, to me at least, they are right. And as we face the next few weeks and beyond having to communicate, relate, work and play in a virtual environment, now may be the best opportunity we’ll have to engage deeply with the affordances of the technology and these environments, to emerge with new and/or different understandings of just how powerful and effective they can be in helping us towards a more connected state of being.