Here are two things about me: I work from home. And I manage teams remotely (or I have done in the past). At the start of 2020, these things – while nowhere near unique – were still rare in the circles I worked in. Most of my friends, colleagues and clients went to work each day in offices, and most of them worked with or managed people within the same buildings they shared.
Who would have thought that, merely three months later, those skills would almost be universal? That we would all be working from home, and working with others from theirs?
COVID-19 rushed the world into digital and hybrid working faster than anyone could have imagined. Many of us started working home for the first time, or at least working from home in new ways. Organisations had to (very quickly) put new plans and protocols in place to ensure business continuity, take care of our teams, clients and communities, and make sure our shows could go on.
Unsurprisingly, all of this led to a lot of reverse-engineering, working-it-out-on-the-job, and many of us getting things wrong.
A lot changed – in work and the world – and it changed really fast. We all had to be more reactive than we might have liked. Because it’s hard to be strategic when you’re worried for your livelihood or your life.
The uncertainty affected everyone, as did the inability to plan for a future we couldn’t yet know. We were busy. We were fearful. We were out of our routines. There was panic, grief and denial all around, and a longing to return to more precedented times.
How we experienced and coped with that change was different for all of us. But most had to bunker down to ways of living and working that were completely unfamiliar in our lifetimes – and not necessarily all that well thought through.
This dramatically increased the time we all spend online – and in online meetings in particular – which reduced our flexibility (at a time we needed it most) and made it harder to get substantive work done.
Just as swiftly, the internet began to overflow with online meeting fails that ranged from the endearing to the wildly inappropriate. Too-much-information trips to the bathroom and family member cameos. Unfortunate avatars and inappropriate backgrounds. Technical stuff ups and surprise hacker drop-ins. As time (and our emotional capacities) wore on, these devolved further into emotional outbursts, mid video call floods of tears, or the faking of bad connections to get out of difficult conversations.
Those online meetings were also more exhausting than those we used to have in person – both because we were still learning the different skills we needed to do them effectively, and because we had to work harder to understand and be understood without the social clues of being in the same room.
However, it also led to new ways of working and making from which many don’t want to return. Almost overnight, artists and organisations could reach more (and more significant) markets, audiences found more ways to engage than ever before, and those previously denied access to our programs and services were suddenly only a mouse-click away.
Most of us sat somewhere in the middle – in that we found both good and bad things about working online. In most cases, it has been the recent transition that has caused us most problems, rather than the nature of digital and hybrid work practices themselves. But this transition is an ongoing process, not a fixed point. We never fully ‘arrive’.
Looking back on the disruption of COVID-19, what our sector managed to achieve in such a short period of time and under such difficult circumstances is actually quite incredible – completely revolutionising the way we work in the arts in Australia.
However, just being more accessible didn’t make our sector accessible, flexible or inclusive enough, nor mean those changes stayed in place once we started to re-emerge. Organisations returning to their venues are starting to get concerned about what will happen to their new online audiences when they transition back onsite (and the potential negative impact on their brands – and bottom lines). With the impact of COVID-19 still being felt, many of us are also rethinking what we’re willing to compromise in terms of our work-life balance.
That’s why I am thrilled to launch Our Hybrid Future, a free guide to making art work onsite and online. The project received a grant through Arts South Australia’s $10.2 million Arts Recovery Fund announced last year, which aims to create jobs and fast-track recovery in South Australia’s arts and culture sector.
Illustrated by Adelaide artist Bec Sheedy, the resource includes tools, tips and templates to revisit the logistics and culture of digital and remote practices, learn from recent innovations, and develop the skills and systems needed to create hybrid work and delivery environments that more flexible and accessible for us all.