Navigating the Hybrid Workplace

After months of working remotely full time, my office decided to implement a hybrid work model. Each week we have to work at the office for two days per week. We can choose which two days. One of the main reasons for the hybrid work model is to foster in-person collaborative work and culture. With that in mind, my department decided to have one fixed day for everyone and one flex day. That way we have one day when everybody is usually around, and one day that works best for us.

I didn’t know what to expect. I still don’t know what to expect. Masks and social distancing are still a requirement. There are so many new things to navigate in a hybrid work environment. Some people are really strict about masking. Others are more casual. Ironically, I almost feel more isolated in the hybrid environment than I did working remotely. I stay at my workstation all the time, masked and distanced.

Before the pandemic, most of my meetings were in rooms with the other participants. Now I have meetings from my desk with a headset on. I always feel self-conscious speaking at meetings knowing that the people around me can hear what I’m saying, even if they can’t hear the other participants. It’s a weird feeling. Also, it’s hard for me to gage my speaking volume with the headset on. I’m naturally a loud talker so this is challenging for me.

One thing I didn’t fully consider is hybrid meetings. I’ve had hybrid meetings pre-pandemic, where some people are in the room and others are calling in. I’ve even had hybrid meetings with a mix of in-person, video, and on the phone. Those are definitely challenging. However, required social distancing has added a new dimension to these meetings. It’s hard to see and hear everyone in the meeting room.

So far the best part of going back has been wearing some of my favorite clothes. Admittedly, I’ve been living in yoga pants and sneakers for the last 18+ months. It felt nice to wear something different and put on my favorite pair of knee-high boots. I even motivated myself to get some shoes repaired and buy a new pair of pants, in the hopes I’ll have a reason to wear them. Even if it is just to sit in my workstation with a mask on two days a week.

Experiencing the Metaverse

I have yet to experience the metaverse, but it’s coming. My understanding of the metaverse is still hazy. However, with the rebranding of Facebook to Meta Platforms Inc. (“Meta” for short), I decided to learn more about it. Based on my understanding, the metaverse will be a way for us to:

  • Experience our existing world in a new way; and
  • Connect with others in a more tangible, yet still virtual, way.

For example, instead of a Zoom call, we might be able to walk around a virtual conference room. I imagine something similar, but more technically advanced, to the conference I attended. Another example is the virtual production room BMW built to mirror its real life production room. They did this to improve efficiency. Having a simulation of an assembly line allows them to test out processes to build new models. This enables them to make changes and adjustments before investing time and resources to develop it. Or it allows them to make changes in real time after testing them in a safe and risk-free virtual replica.

Learning more about the metaverse is interesting. Especially as I’m discovering the places where it could be really beneficial. However, I’m wary of how it will be developed and by whom. One of the most concerning parts is Meta’s (aka Facebook) involvement. I wonder how the metaverse will operate. Will it be freely available? Or will we have to pay money to use it? Or pay with our personal data and information?

And the one thing the metaverse can’t provide is touch. We’ve all been missing touch and real-life human connection since the pandemic started. No amount of technology is going to replicate that experience.

As for me, if I could enter the metaverse I would use it to visit all the worlds we’ve already destroyed. I would scuba dive in the Great Barrier Reef. Walk through majestic, mystical old growth forests in the Pacific northwest. Visit the tropical rain forests, without the smell of oil and mining. Tromp through marshy, boggy lands bridging fresh water with salt water. Meander along beaches without seeing a single piece of plastic or that weird, sludgey, polluted foam. Ironic that we use technology to create an escape hatch, rather than using it to fix the problems we’ve created.

Anticipation

Pre-pandemic, I always considered part of every trip the excited feeling I experienced before leaving. Thinking about what to pack, how to fit everything in the suitcase, traveling to and from the airport, all factored into the planning. Sometimes imagining the trip was as much fun as going on one. Visualizing what I would do, what could happen (or not!) and learning about the destination contributed to the anticipation. In some ways the anticipation I felt heightened the thrill of traveling.

I have to confess that over the years globalization did diminish some of the anticipatory excitement. Part of the traveling experience also included being able to buy, taste, or drink new things. Many of these things are now available locally, or even in the grocery store! It detracts a little from the experience to have these wonderful things readily available.

The many months of lockdowns and social distancing restrictions altered my traveling anticipation scale. Now I feel excited anticipation about being able to see loved ones without a mask, and maybe be close enough to talk without shouting. The thought of actually traveling somewhere via plane or train still seems far away, but going somewhere by car is possible. My travel distances have shrunk, but I feel confident the same excited feelings will return when I make a plan to go anywhere. Even if it’s only a short drive away.

The thrill and desire to see something new and change my scenery is still strong. I know a lot of people have explored virtual traveling, or seeing the world through the computer, during lockdowns. In some ways it’s better than nothing. However, unless the experience comes with sounds and sensations, I can’t imagine feeling that excited about it.

I don’t have anything planned, but I’m anticipating making up for lost time once the good weather returns. Hopefully by then things will be more stable with the pandemic. I would love to go anywhere.

Phone Calls: The Old-Fashioned Way

Last Saturday night I was home, as per the new “pandemic” normal. I was missing friends and decided to call one of them. Without a pre-warning message or text to see if she was home, I called. No video, just the phone. I did use WhatsApp to call instead of the phone, but other than that, it felt old fashioned. Part of this is because since the pandemic started, and the advent of available video calling, regular phone calls are rare. Even rarer is to stay on a call more than a couple of minutes. We gabbed for at least 30 minutes before I had to go and do something else.

As I hung up the phone, it reminded me of a time when the phone used to just be for calling people. A time when all you could do on the phone was talk and listen. Phone calls used to be treated as something urgent, or important. Now, every beep, ding, chirp, or buzz from a phone receives the same sort of urgency. We used to wait around for calls before we had answering machines, especially ones we could access remotely. Slowly, then faster, new forms of technology arrived that made it easy to move around while waiting, or maybe not, for that call. Except now, the call can also be an email, message, tweet, post, video call, anything really.

The methods have changed and along with it, so have some of the sentiments. A phone call used to be an event. Or a focused time to connect with someone, especially if that person lived far away. Now, it’s all too easy to be multi-tasking while talking on the phone, only partially invested in any one thing. Video calls, which have become the new de facto “phone call” cause burn out. This is because people now use them so much to work, stay connected, visit others, etc. since the pandemic started.

I do love the ease of video calling. It’s definitely been a salvation during the pandemic and many, many long lockdowns. However, I still appreciate a good, old-fashioned chinwag on the phone with a dear friend, once in a while.

Attending Augmented Reality Events

A couple weeks ago, I attended “Seeing the Invisible.” It was an outdoor augmented reality (AR) art event at the botanical gardens near my house. To view the exhibits, I needed a:

special app I downloaded

fully charged phone

strong internet connection

my GPS signal turned on

Armed with my AR toolkit, I followed the map indicated on the app to the exhibits. When I arrived at the exhibit location, my phone received a message “Artwork Established.” Once connected, I scanned the ground to build the AR field. Within seconds, the artwork appeared on my phone in what looked like an empty space.

The Blank Canvas where the Artwork appeared.
Signal picked up to “Establish Artwork”
Drawing my AR Grid on the ground
The Exhibit

Signs indicated the exhibit’s location. However, I always knew an exhibit was coming up when I noticed a group of people looking intently at their devices while wandering around somewhat aimlessly. At times, other people walked through my view of the exhibit, which only added another dimension to the artwork.

The exhibits were all different and unique in their own ways. Some were interactive with spaces you could “walk” into and explore. One exhibit shattered apart and the broken pieces started moving. Other exhibits had moving parts and were constantly changing. Some had audio and some didn’t. One exhibit was so large I had to walk back about 50 feet to view the whole thing from my phone.

Here’s one of my favorites with my own embellishment. This particular exhibit was enormous. I could walk around to see it in 3D, plus it had a cool cave to explore.

Salt Stalagmite #1 [Three Bridges] 2021 Sigalit Landau

At the end, I couldn’t decide if I enjoyed it more as an augmented reality event than I would have if I were viewing a tangible, concrete object instead. Then I wondered if I even needed to compare the two. Each type of art offers its own benefits. I really enjoyed the ethereal nature of the AR artwork and the way it blended with, or sometimes enhanced, the background scenery. Yet, at the same time, I would have appreciated being able to sense the weight and presence for some of the artworks.

First Days

Sandy brushed crumbs off her skirt. Or at least she thought that’s what she was doing. She could see crumbs clinging to her new outfit. It was the first day of school. She wanted to make a good impression. New outfit, new grade, new friends? Sandy didn’t know yet. First grade seemed like a big deal, but she hadn’t ever been.

“Everything ok, Sandy?” her father asked. “I saw you fidgeting with your skirt. Does the headpiece feel ok?” He leaned over his daughter to adjust the halo of technology encircling her smooth, shiny hair.

“I guess,” said Sandy.

“I guess so, too” replied her father. Nobody really knew what to expect.

“I never sent a kid to VR school before,” he continued. “I’ve never even been to VR school myself. I’m afraid I really can’t be much help, Sandy, except for helping you get your equipment fitting right. And of course I’ll be close by, if you need anything.”

Sandy nodded. She adjusted the headpiece and squinched her eyes tight. She knew when they opened, she would be at school. Well, still at home, but also at school. Weird.

Some years ago, a virus spread across the world. Sandy was just a baby so she didn’t remember the early years. Since then, there had been too many waves to count. Constant lockdowns. Lots and lots of masks. No touching. Playing together, but separate, always outside. As a final solution to keep schools open, the district had decided to go completely virtual. Not just online classes, but everybody and everything would be online too, virtually, attending, learning, and playing together as avatars. This way they could get close, “touch,” not wear masks, and stay safe.

Of course Sandy was one of the lucky ones. She was able to stay at home to attend VR school. Some of her classmates had to go to the actual school. Once there, they remained in an air-controlled cube all day. The cubes were big enough to move around in. They all contained a desk, chair, and some hooks for coats and stuff. Bathroom breaks had to be coordinated.

Sandy opened her eyes. First day. The air felt crisp. The sky shimmered a brilliant, cerulean blue under the gleaming sun. She brushed her skirt again, for real this time, and skipped towards the door.