Uncategorized #15 – Asynchronicity

April 13, 2020 in Uncategorized

Happy Monday! This email is a day late, but that’s ok, we’ve had some holidays, and are there even days of the week anymore? Yesterday I got a little consumed with hosting a Zoom Easter, which followed our Zoom Passover, and then at night I watched Zoom SNL.

Passover and Easter were different this year, but nice. At least we were all able to get together for a moment, virtually, and see our faces. It reminded me of the importance of face to face interaction. The Seder we a very coordinated, choreographed event that my Uncle put together. We were only able to stay online for the first bit, but afterwards I realized that we had nearly all the cousins and their kids online at once, which is actually pretty unusual for a regular Seder. Makes me wonder why we don’t offer video support for these kinds of family events on a normal year.

Easter was also nice, and it caused me to start Googling the story of Easter, which I don’t really know much about. I’ve actually walked the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, and I’ve been to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where most of this all went down, but I never paid much attention to the story itself, and I started to realize that Easter and Passover are incredibly intertwined events. It’s sort of fun to celebrate both of them with the two sides of my family as it kind of makes me think about how intertwined we all are, even if we sometimes seem so different.

I keep threatening to make tomato sauce from scratch. I now have all the proper ingredients—tomatoes, an onion, butter and salt. It doesn’t appear to require much attention other than throwing it all in a sauce pan and stirring it while smoking a cigarette and talking frantically on the phone like Ray Liotta. Everyone on Twitter is making sourdough bread. Everyone all over the world is doing projects, learning hobbies, working out in strange ways, or doing internet challenges. Being on lockdown is really weird, especially in this city. You stay inside, cooped up, stir crazy, cabin-fever, and then you go outside for a walk, and everything looks pretty normal. It’s a really odd feeling.

On Being Asynchronous

OK, I wanted to spend a little time this newsletter talking about all the remote working going on, and some of my initial observations and thoughts. First, it’s important to know a few things. Most of my interactions with people doing remote work are with our clients. These are mainly museums, which are mainly public institutions, universities, or non-profits. They aren’t startups or tech companies with huge budgets, and they’ve been doing their work in a non-remote kind of way, in many cases, for decades. It’s pretty incredible to all of the sudden ask them to do it all from the comfort of their own homes, and it’s impressive to watch all the IT departments mobilize and get the tools set up quickly to make it all happen.

But, I’ve noticed a few things. And I should also mention that these things are only coming to light because of all the remote working going on. In other words, these things were there before the remote-ness. The remote-ness was the easy part, and if it has done anything, it’s brought some of these issues to my attention.

The way we all think we are supposed to work together is really bizarre.

Let me explain. In most museum-ish settings, a whole bunch of people gather at a building and work together to make the museum happen. Scratch that — in most businesses, this is what happens. We gather, we talk, we organize, and we do. This is a perfect model for getting work done when a lot of that work requires people to actually do things with their hands, and with the environment where they have gathered. It’s very much a product of industrialization. The business pulls together the workers and the management, and before you know it a railroad appears.

At a museum, there is definitely work that looks like this. Museums typically have buildings and they typically have visitors, and they typically put on shows, which typically means that a bunch of people have to be present to make all that happen. But, not all of them. For a lot of them, the folks we sometimes call “administrative staff” much of their work can be done from anywhere, and much of it can be done in isolation and with limited interaction with others. There’s just a ton of work that can happen anywhere and anytime.

The pace at which we do all the work is also really bizarre.

Ok sure, the museum has hours, people come in, people walk around, people leave. There is a cadence to that which requires attention that is connected to time. Someone needs to be at the museum during its hours to greet the visitors. But, again, there is just a ton of work that happens behind the scenes at a museum that doesn’t matter if it happens between the hours of 9-5.

I’m talking about working asynchronously here. The idea that we can get everything done at our own pace, on our own hours, regardless of where we are in the world. But if we were to do that, how would we gather?

This isn’t just having to do with museums. Since we’ve been home I’ve been able to be a fly on the wall to how my wife’s company operates a little—it’s still very 9-5, synchronous behavior. Everyone gathers in the morning, sets up the work for the day, and frequently meets and interacts throughout the rest of the day until the “day is over” or “COB” as they say.

Now that we live in a world that has all the technical tools to free us of this 9-5, gather, work, repeat hamster wheel, why do we continue to do it this way?

The big secret of the coronavirus pandepmic is… Zoom was already a product long before the pandemic hit. Teams have been working fully remote and asynchronously for years, and it’s been working just fine.

Our little studio has a location in Manhattan where I have a desk and Meghan has a desk. But we don’t really need it, and our network of contractors and partners are in their own locations all over the world. It works really nicely, because we have learned how to communicate and to NOT gather. We don’t do morning meetings, and we are not constantly interrupting each other throughout the day. One of our engineers is in San Francisco, and the other is in the U.K. They work together as a team on projects with clients in Hong Kong, Sweden, and all along the East Coast in the United States, and we very rarely need to do a single video call. We almost never do an “all hands” meeting. More often, I will write up some thoughts about the business or about a project we are working on and paste in the main channel in our company Slack. Sometimes Meghan and I will work through a document together in real time, but more often, we will use the comments feature to communicate back and forth until its done, without the need for us to know when each of us is “on.”

I feel like museums and many other types of businesses out there in the world have a great opportunity right now to break the cycle, and shift their water-cooler culture to a new way of thinking about work. We’re all sort of forced to at least play with the tools that have been around for years now, so maybe it’s also a good time for us to re-invent how we use them, how we talk to each other, and re-think how wee gather, discuss, and get our work done.

On the other hand, learning to make my own tomato sauce seems like a good idea too.

I hope you have a great week!


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