Why return to the "old normal", why not a "better normal"?
As vaccines get distributed, people are looking forward to getting back to "normal", where for most people, that's the "old normal"; restaurants and socializing, going to work, travel, and on and on. I feel it too; I'm looking forward to having a nice meal at one of my favorite restaurants, having dinner parties, and a host of other social activities.
But I'm not looking forward to all the "old normals." I'm not looking forward to wasting an hour each day going into an office, and as the impacts of climate change continue to mount, I'm most certainly not looking forward to work travel. I can do without conference travel, if we can find other ways to share knowledge and build relationships. And I can certainly do without flying across the country for meetings and events.
As Vanessa Moss and her co-authors put it in their article in Nature Astronomy ("Forging a path to a better normal for conferences and collaboration")
Does the future of scientific progress (our conferences, our collaboration, our communication) really rely on a rush back to in-person interaction?
Digital-meeting fatigue, loss of serendipitous hallway conversations, impersonal interactions, challenging time zones: these have been commonly cited as reasons why virtual interaction fundamentally falls short of its in-person counterpart and as justification for a speedy return to ‘normal’. But what kind of collaborative future could we, and should we, be aiming for?
For all the challenges faced in 2020, the disruptive nature of lockdown rapidly accelerated many trends that had been predicted and visible for years5,6. We are now at a critical turning point where we have the opportunity to benefit from these experiences and define what we want the future of scientific collaboration to be, but only if we actively choose to resist a return to ‘normal’ and strive for ‘better’ instead. We consolidated our core learnings from TFOM in a short list that can be abbreviated to DAISERVE: Digital-first, Accessibility, Inclusivity, Sustainability, Experimentation, Right tool/approach, Value and Evaluation. If these aspects are considered when designing interactions including but not limited to conferences, then this will facilitate our proposed template of current best practice.
I know many of my colleagues in the sciences are very tuned into the need to reduce work and conference travel and start taking our impacts on climate change seriously. But rather than thinking of these changes as sacrifices (losing the fun of travel and socializing with colleagues), we should be thinking about how to leverage new technologies to make science and work better.
The pandemic has been exhausting, and it's been hard to do new things when many folks are just struggling to do the things they must do. But as we emerge on the other side, we should look back at the experiences we had with an inquiring eye, and think about what could be changed permanently, what might have worked if not for the pandemic, and how we can fundamentally improve work.
For example, were those online meetings tiring and hard to attend because remote meetings are inevitably bad, or because being at home with children was exhausting, and making time to get the most out of them was impossible? Most conferences I attended remotely had spaces for socializing built into the program, but few people took advantage of them. It's understandable for many people (those with the aforementioned small children, for example), but how many of us really tried? How many of you reading this made time in your schedule, canceled meetings and classes and commitments as you would have done if you were traveling? I know plenty of people who clear their schedule the week before a big deadline, but who wouldn't cancel a meeting to attend a conference session or make time to attend a social gathering at that conference.
Right now, the technologies we used for online events and meetings was pretty poorly suited to handle them. Zoom fatigue is a real thing, and many of us find it too easy to let our attention wander to other windows and tasks. Immersive 3D platforms are still ill-suited to handling large events properly.
I am personally still optimistic about the potential of immersive technologies for remote meetings and conferences. This morning I had a 2 hour meeting (or, rather, a 1 hour meeting that ran long because we lost track of time) in VR, and the experience was so much more pleasant that even a 30 minute video call. These technologies are promising but the current software is limited by a many problems and pitfalls, and current immersive displays are still unpleasant to use for too many people.
But this will change.
Speaking for myself, I will continue to work on solving these problems to reduce work travel; it's the most meaningful way I can see using my skills and expertise to have an impact on climate change. Along the way, we can also change the nature of these meetings and gatherings, opening them up too many more people and "making the world smaller."
I see a "better normal" in the future of work, if we only want to make it happen.