Message From the CIO: Virtual Availability Presents Challenges and Opportunities in Communicating

CIO Thomas Bunton wearing a friendly smile.As a technologist witnessing a worldwide pandemic nearly 20 months in the making, I can profess that the use of communication technology has never been more important and widespread as it is today. Just two years ago, it was unheard of that individuals would video chat across campus for a meeting and certainly never with teams located within the same building.  However today, video chatting within the same office space has become commonplace.

I, like many of you, spend several hours a day in front of a computer with a camera pointed at me while I attend various meetings virtually. Small talk, hallway conversations, and the associated impromptu conversations before or after meetings have migrated into various other communication channels – phone calls, emails, chats, and text messages – which seemingly bombard us at all hours of the day. I can rarely attend a virtual meeting without some form of interruption from the nearly half a dozen other communication tools. It feels like the concept of being unavailable or “tied up in meetings” has all but vanished from our vocabulary.

I know this challenge isn’t something unique to me. I see it among my team, with those across campus, and even with our students. The widespread adoption and prevalence of highly available communication technologies enable countless benefits such as quick and immediate access to individuals, but it comes with significant disadvantages as well. The multiple and highly redundant always-on communication technologies welcome and encourage direct and instant access regardless of location, time, or obligations. I can admit that I’ve been caught in a situation or two (or maybe a few more) where I was multitasking during a virtual meeting and had to embarrassingly ask the host to repeat the question. I’ve also been told by various colleagues that I’m apparently entertaining to watch while I multitask as well.

I’ll also disclose I’ve never had these challenges during in-person meetings and I’ve come to recognize that I strongly prefer these in-person meetings where I can more easily isolate myself away from devices and technologies that enable the nearly constant interruptions.  Unfortunately, these times likely won’t return for several more months. Additionally, I suspect I’m not alone in these daily availability conflicts and thus offer up a few suggestions to better manage virtual availability:

  1. Be mindful of the interruptions we experience and those that we cause. I can admit that I’ve texted or chatted with individuals via side-channels looking for an immediate response when I knew they were otherwise obligated to a meeting.
  2. Don’t lose sight of the importance of in-person interactions. Time is one of the most valuable commodities. Make certain the small amount of time we do share together is spent on the most important topics. This could be developing and mentoring students and staff to having conversations with your rarely seen peers. The appreciation of this limited time will pay back in spades, now likely more than ever.
  3. Focus when needed. We all have more work to do than there’s time in the day. But, when necessary, close out the email, silence the phone, and focus on the topic at hand. On the flip side, try to coordinate a meeting-free time for the team to encourage deskwork, tasks, or interaction time (I know, this is much harder than it sounds).
  4. Set aside time for fun, even if it’s virtual. At the start of the pandemic, IT Services routinely held “virtual water cooler” events every few weeks as a way to stay in touch. Although the department struggles to find time to keep up the event as routinely as we’d like, it’s always great to walk away from these brief interactions with a sense of belonging and a better understanding of our colleagues.
  5. Be nice! Despite being over 20 months into the pandemic, very few of us have become experts at reading body language or cues from zoom windows, or worse, email alone. Yet, these communication channels have become ubiquitous in nearly every bit of communication we have. The chuckle, smirk, or hard-time “pokes” that might have been easily read by the sender or receiver in an in-person interaction, typically fail to transmit through the bits and bytes of email. Candid statements sometimes have the danger of coming off extremely harsh and misunderstood by all parties involved. More importantly, understand the power of empathy.

In closing, although 2021 might be best remembered as the year of the great “coin” or “chip” shortage (or name your shortage), 2022 will most certainly start off eerily similar. We’re all going to be challenged for time trying to coordinate virtual meetings and schedules with access and availability. I encourage all of us to try to find that balance that permits us to maintain the virtual always “open door” with a routine and habits that allows us to focus when needed.


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