As we go through another week during this time of Endless Quarantine, we have plenty of time to reflect on the big things we may have previously taken for granted: life, health, groceries, education, childcare, jobs. Plenty of smart people have written insightful things about all of those, so we won’t go into those here.
When it comes to the workplace, there is another more subtle element — also taken for granted — that we have lost to some extent as a result of our current situation: Context.
“Context” is an interesting word. It’s one of those words that’s easier to intuitively understand than to clearly define.
So let’s define it. Merriam-Webster calls it: “the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning.” In simple terms, context is anything that adds meaning to a message.
Consider the following messages:
- “Any updates on this?”
- “Sure, let’s discuss further”
All common workplace messages. And all utterly meaningless in and of themselves.
How does this relate to our current state of remote work? In three ways:
One of the workplace-related benefits of an in-person environment is the ability to instantly ramp up context as needed in any discussion and wrap something up through a quick conversation with a colleague. You talk to her, she pulls up something on her computer, and you agree on next steps. Very efficient.
In the absence of in-person interactions, as we are going through now, we are left with email, messaging tools like Teams or Slack, or synchronous communications tools like phone or Zoom.
Here’s the subtle part: when using tools like these, we have to recreate context each time. If we use multiple such tools with multiple coworkers, clients, customers, or vendors — each on multiple issues — we are now recreating context each time.
And therein lies the problem. Each of these tools is not designed to enable us to recreate context at scale. Or at “bringing context back” (see Justin Timberlake, 2006).
Your best shot at recreating context is via phone or Zoom, which is the closest to stopping by your colleague’s office. But that’s synchronous and linear, i.e., one long phone call and 20% of your workday is gone. So phone and Zoom don’t scale very well in the time dimension.
Email and messaging is asynchronous, which is more beneficial in a remote work setting. But recreating context for multiple issues with multiple stakeholders leads to tangled threads that can be very difficult to parse. If you’re collaborating off of a piece of reference content (e.g., a deposition transcript for attorneys), now you have the added mess of email attachments going back and forth. So email and messaging don’t scale very well in the space dimension.
Given all this, what would a tool for recreating context at scale look like?
It would be asynchronous. A much better fit for everyone in this messy world with kids and pets and other personally valuable entities that we strategically mute and/or consciously keep out of our enhanced Zoom backgrounds.
Yet, it would immediately tie back to specific locations in reference content — whether that’s a video, a transcript, a document, or an image. This reduces the burden of recreating context, because the context is right there. And you can have multiple points of context within the same piece of content, all organized and instantly meaningful to anyone who reads it.
OK, professor. How does this work in real life?
Consider the case of a deposition transcript and an associated video. Say there are 10 moments in the transcript that an attorney wants to discuss with 5 of her colleagues. Say these 10 moments reflect specific nonverbal cues shown by the witness in the video. How would we proceed?
Pre-Quarantine: Go into a conference room, pull up the projector, talk through the moments
Post-Quarantine, Phone or Zoom: Have long, inefficient discussions about each moment
Post-Quarantine, Email or Messaging: Send email with redlined transcript and deposition video to 5 colleagues, each of them replies back with their own redlines, and now someone has to manually merge 50+ comments together (yay)
Post-Quarantine, Context-Rich Platform: Select text in transcript that corresponds to each moment in video, comment on each. Everything is cloud-based, so each colleague can instantly see each moment and react to each one individually in its own thread, on their own time. Context is fully retained and scalable in both time and space. No active organization needed, no synchronous communications, no messy email threads.