what does “in-person” mean for teams that aren’t all in the same location

I’ve been on a hybrid/distributed team for a long time. Immediately before the pandemic our team worked in the following arrangement (everyone worked 5 days a week regardless of location). Since this team was originally all in NY, I was very conscious of the language I used so NY wasn’t “the center of the universe.”

  • 3 people full time in the NY office
  • 2 people in another office in a different city
  • 1 person in yet a third office in a different city
  • 1 person in the NY office three days a week
  • 1 person in the NY office two days every three weeks
  • 1 person full time in her home office

During the pandemic we all worked from somewhere in our home. Some people had nice home offices. Some people worked from a creative arrangement in the middle of their apartment. I used language about myself like “I’m leaving work now” even though I was moving two feet away.

Right now, the NY office is doing a “back to the office” pilot and my team consists of

  • me physically in the NY office
  • one of my teammates physically in the NY office three days a week on a different floor (we weren’t on the same team when the pandemic started so our seats aren’t currently near each other.) It’s a pain to move so waiting until the department shuffles everyone’s seats for that.
  • everyone else at their home offices (I think everyone except the two of us choosing to be in the pilot has an actual home office)

Last week, I was using a bunch of different conference rooms in the NY office to test the new webcams and such. When I wrote up the experience, I used the phrase “in person.” One of my teammates immediately called me out on that. Which I appreciate. I certainly wasn’t thinking of the NY office as being the center of the universe when it was only myself and one other person from our team there. (at one of the meetings; the others I was the only one in the NY office for.) I was thinking “in-person” with reference to myself.

This got us talking and me thinking about various terms that can be used and various sensitivities that can exist around them. I’m using WFH in the comments column for brevity. If you don’t like that term, substitute another in your head to get to the gist. It’s hard to fully qualify every time. Especially in a discussion about terms and subtleties.

TermComments
in-personEveryone works in person regardless of location.
homeThis doesn’t usually bother people. However, it isn’t always home. I worked for a week from a hotel. In some companies, a person could be working at Starbucks. It varies. I do like that this term is part of the WFH abbreviation. One of my remote teammates said she prefers home office or remote over home.
home officeI like this term when talking about people who actually have a home office. However, it is a term that has sensitivities to me because it includes an assumption that one has a space for a home office. (My WFH area is smaller than a cubical and not anywhere near as conducive to work.
onsiteThis is a location. If there is only one onsite location and everyone is WFH, it could work. However, in my case, there are three “onsite” locations involved so it doesn’t clarify much.
remoteDepending on the context, this could be a good term. In some ways, it has the same problem as “onsite.” However, it could also mean simply that people aren’t all together if not viewed from the lens of a common location.
distributedI like this term because it shows that there are varying locations. And it doesn’t make assumptions about a primary site.
teleworking or telecommutingI like that this is location agnostic. But it also implies that you aren’t at an office. Whereas distributed could mean any location.
virtualThis term assumes that it is replacing an in person thing. It also treats the activity as an alias.If I’m having a meeting, I’m having a meeting. It doesn’t matter if we are in the same room or on Zoom or whatever.

Finally, my teammate brought up this episode from The Big Bang Theory

Sheldon-bot : Can you tell me the specials this evening?

Penny: Sheldon, I’m not waiting on you.

Sheldon-bot: Obviously. I don’t even have water yet.

Penny: Because you’re not here.

Sheldon-bot: That’s discrimination against the otherwise located. I’m going to have to go over your head. Manager, manager. Oh, Lord, look who it is.

our first toastmasters post-pandemic hybrid meeting

Before the pandemic, our club mainly met over a video conference between our NY and NJ office. Everyone was in one of those rooms. (We had a couple other formats, but they were rare.)

Shortly before the pandemic, we talked about adding a phone option for people who would be telecommuting that day. But we shut down too fast for that to grow legs.

Last week, we had our first post-pandemic hybrid meeting. We used the same WebEx link that we’ve been using for the last 16 months. We also had a meeting room in the invite for anyone who happened to be onsite. (We are doing a pilot where a small number of people are onsite.

How it went

  • We had three people in the meeting room. (spread out). We were all visible in the pane of the WebEx representing the room.
  • We had about a dozen people in their homes.
  • Our club mascot (stuffed animal) also attended the meeting in person. He was super excited to be there after spending all that time alone in a file cabinet :).
  • When we were doing pure virtual meetings, we did introductions by having the Toastmaster say each person’s name (based n the participant list) and that person saying their group (we are a corporate club) and a quick fact. With hybrid, the Toastmaster had the people in the room go in a circle to introduce themselves and then did it based on the participant list. This approach is not ideal for a team meeting because it makes the in person participants seem more “central”, but I think it is ok for a Toastmasters meeting.
  • When we did introductions, I brought the mascot right up to the camera and had him wave so everyone could get a good view. (Anyone who joined during the pandemic was seeing the mascot for the first time.)
  • It so happened that one of the speakers (me) was in the physical room along with the Toastmaster. We also had a table topics speaker in the room.
  • We did not shake hands or touch in any way. (We had stopped doing that a little before we went virtual only)

What did I learn about speaking at a hybrid meeting

First, I learned that public speaking is like riding a bike. It came right back to me. Phew.

Additionally, I treated the conference room webcam as if it was a participant in the room. I stood in a place where I was clearly visible to the webcam. (Which was not the head of the table because it is a very long room and we don’t have zoom working yet.) I also made eye contact with the two people and the webcam. So I treated the webcam as if it were an actual person in the room.

What do I think will happen in the future

I think we will have more than three people in the room. But I think we will stay hybrid forever. The odds of everyone who wants to be in Toastmasters being in the office the day we meet seem low. And public speaking at work will involve a mix of in person and remote. So good to practice it.

We used to have Speakouts on Mondays so that people who weren’t in the office on Thursdays had an opportunity to speak. I think we will go back to something similar. Except rather than it always being Monday, have the day rotate. That way members who are only in the office once a week will still get to practice speaking in person.

I also think we will encourage members to meet in small groups at each give a speech. This will introduce more flexibility in speaking in person days they are in the office. It will also accommodate those who don’t feel comfortable being in a room with a lot of people for health reasons. Three people in a room is less risk than “whomever shows up for Toastmasters that day.” Notice I said health reasons. If someone merely doesn’t feel comfortable speaking in front of a group, that’s something to get over in Toastmasters!

re the interview question “what did you do with your extra time during the pandemic”

I turned on the television and heard a sentence about expecting a question during an interview – “what did you do with your extra time during the pandemic”. I don’t know the context or if this is a common question. I certainly hope is isn’t!

Is this an illegal question?

I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know. It feels dangerously close to illegal questions though. You aren’t allowed to ask someone at an interview if they have kids. And guess what group of people did not have extra time during the pandemic? People with young children.

Similarly, you aren’t allowed to ask if someone had COVID-19. Guess what other group of people did not have extra time during the pandemic? People with long haul COVID-19.

Is this an insensitive question?

Absolutely. Some people had less time during the pandemic. Some were upset. Some found it hard to concentrate. Some lost an immediate family member. Also, it’s none of your damn business.

Why are you asking in the first place?

I’ll assume you aren’t being nosy or trying to cleverly find out information that would be illegal to ask. And how does it help you find out that your prospective hire is now an expert in making sourdough bread. The only answer I can think of that is relevant to the job is what skills the person has learned that are RELEVANT to the job. In which case…

What could you ask instead to accomplish the same result?

“What is the last thing you learned about technology?” – this is an appropriate question to ask. I’ve asked it before the pandemic. This question doesn’t have assumptions in it about how recently you learned something. It doesn’t suggest something is wrong with you if you haven’t had time or energy during a pandemic to learn something new, you can still list something you learned in 2019.

What would be my answer

It’s hard to answer this hypothetically because it depends on how much one needs the job. Let’s assume I do and decided to answer the question in some form.

Side note: When I was interviewing for entry level jobs, I was asked “how would you handle being treated differently because you are female.” My answer was “why? is that a problem here?” (with some attitude in my tone.) I still got an offer. I declined.

“I finished writing the OCP 11 Practice Tests book with Scott, read some technical books, passed the AWS associate architect exam and served on the planning committee for the first ever JChampions conference.”

What is my honest answer

While my answer is factually true, none of that was what I did with my extra time for several reasons.

  • I would have done those things anyway.
  • I read less books in 2020 than in any of the past years I can remember. (I read tech books during my commute.) Trying to read at home, I get distracted. Most of the tech books I managed to read were when it was warm enough to sit outside.
  • I was unable to do my annual CodeRanch “JForum Day” feature for the first time in 11 years. I really wanted to do this. But I spent the finite amount of energy I had in the winter for coding/thinking on work. It wasn’t available for my extra time. So I objectively did and learned less in 2020 than in a normal year.
  • Studying for and taking the AWS exam was a mistake. I wasn’t able to retain information even in the short term. I cried numerous times trying to force myself to do so. I’ve already forgotten what I ‘learned’ and will have to re-learn it when things are better. I wish I had noticed what was going on earlier and stopped trying.
  • I spent most of my “extra time” trying to be physically and mentally ok.
  • All but one of the people I know who is comfortable physically getting together are two train rides (and over 90 minutes) away. This means it takes pretty much a whole weekend day to have any human interaction.
  • Having video/virtual contact is more tiring than real human contact. So the energy I put into trying to keep myself ok came out of my ability to do other things.

And none of this is bad. I believe expecting people to have learned and accomplished more during a pandemic is inconsiderate. Unless you believe we are going to be under stay at home orders for another year and learning during it is a requirement for your job, ask a different question!