By Sarah Green,
Senior Associate Editor, Harvard Business Review
The original article is posted in the Harvard Business Review
“Virtual work” is increasingly just “work” for most of us – whether we’re dialing into a conference call with our branch offices in London and New York, or VPN-ing in from home to catch up with work after-hours, remote work is the new normal. But as Peter Hirst, director of the executive education program at the MIT Sloan School of management, told me, there’s still something special about face-to-face interaction. “The richest experience [is still] being able to get together in person, face to face. There’s millions of years of evolution behind that.” But Hirst is no Luddite. (I don’t think they allow those at MIT.) He’s helping to lead MIT into a new era of online learning, and experimenting with remote work with his own team at the same time. I talked with him about the state of virtual collaboration today. What follows are edited excerpts from our conversation.
HBR: This is an area where universities have innovated a lot. I’m not sure companies have moved quite as quickly.
Hirst: One of the advantages we have being in the university environment, and particularly being at MIT, is exactly that it’s much easier for us to try different technologies and experiments and learning models and collaboration models. I think it probably is much easier for us at MIT to say, “We’re at MIT and we really should be trying out these things, to see how they work,” and not feel that we have to make a huge sort of enterprise scale investment before we can do that.
So is the goal of virtual collaboration really to mimic real-life interaction, or are they fundamentally different — so we shouldn’t really compare them to each other
I think they clearly are different. What we’ve been doing is two-fold. On the one hand, we’ve been trying to say, “Are there ways we can use technology that don’t cause us to have to completely re-think and re-write how learning happens, how our faculty teach, how program participants interact collaboratively?” So in that sense it is trying to mimic the in-person experience.
And then there’s the very different approach. There’s a lot of activity around this now, through things like edX, which MIT is one of the founding partners of. [This approach] is really not trying to mimic what we would do in the physical world, but starting from an entirely digital form, and really being very thoughtful about what the learning outcomes are that we’re trying to achieve, and how can the technology enable us to achieve those outcomes. There are many things that are very different about how you would design learning and work, if you really are doing it from a digital-first standpoint.
In trying to do the latter, what are some of the principles you keep coming back to?
We very much have the MIT philosophy of “mind and hand.” The actual application of the knowledge and frameworks [we teach], is vital. And I think we’re all getting better at getting people engaged, creating compelling video content and graphics and animations, which are necessary to bring alive the content in digital programs. But really, we have to match that up with effective activities — whether those are digital or real-world activities that people do [when] they walk away from their computer screen – to actually apply the learning and the ideas.
Where do you see online learning going next?
If you look at a lot of the MOOC-style programs that proliferated in the last couple of years, I think their starting point was to try to capture a professor teaching a class that they’re already teaching. Just put that out in a very long-form video for people to watch. And that’s evolved into trying to break those up into something more like a collection of TED talks. [But even that is] still linear — you progress through the class through a sort of a syllabus.
What we’re seeing most recently, and what I’m very excited about, is going from that linear model to a much more non-linear idea. The digital learning experience is becoming really a collection of inter-related learning nuggets, that you might take very different paths through, depending who you are and what your needs are, and how you learn most effectively. So that’s where I’m seeing some interesting changes happening.
In that kind of user-directed, self-directed undertaking, does it get very complicated if it involves a large group of people trying to work together? Even just dealing with people being online at different times, and that kind of thing?
Well, that’s clearly one of the significant challenges. I think there’s some interesting ways of thinking about that. One of them, which we’re grappling with at the moment, is a question of scale. And we haven’t done this yet, so this is sort of theoretical at the moment, but if you imagine having a large enough number of people who are actually engaging with this sort of learning experience, then you, at least in theory, could get to the point where you stop organizing. There are enough people who naturally form into teams of common interest, whatever that common interest is.
How do you think about the asynchronous versus synchronous question?
It’s an important distinction. MOOCs, just because of the scale, are essentially almost entirely asynchronous. People are probably not having a real-time discussion. We’ve actually spent a lot of time looking into more synchronous models using a variety of technology approaches. Everything from webinars and video conferencing to creating 3D virtual worlds where you can go in as an avatar and participate. And a lot of where we’re doing the most experimentation is in hybrid programs where there are in-person components and online components.
The one challenge — and this is not surprising, but it’s sort of verifying common sense — is that getting people to interact with each other in any remote setting is more difficult by orders of magnitude than it is when you’re actually sitting in the same room together. There are certain new skill sets that leaders need to have to ensure that everyone does communicate and collaborate. The people who are very consciously facilitating are actually quite important. We’re exploring the idea that perhaps there’s a role [needed] to make these platforms as effective as they can be, [a role] that you don’t need or typically don’t have for in-person work. We’ve found that in online meetings and online classrooms, you have to do a little bit more to get things started, but once people get started the interactions can be just as rich.
You’re also experimenting with remote work in your own team. Tell me a little bit about how the blended learning approach has informed what you’re actually doing together as a team.
Last summer in Exec Ed, we started a pilot for the Sloan School on aggressively flexible working arrangements for our team. We did some research that shows it’s been a great morale booster. It also turned out that it gives our team much more of the kind experience that we’re talking about in this conversation. And in the last couple of months where we’ve had this really awful weather and transportation issues here in Boston, we didn’t have to invent how to [deal with it] because we were already doing it. I was really struck by how many companies, let alone government and educational institutions, were really unable to function because people couldn’t travel.
When you say “aggressively flexible,” what specifically do you mean by that?
So MIT has always had an HR policy that flexible working is available. You have to ask for it, and some people have. But before [this experiment] it always felt like almost a concession. I think people felt like you almost have to explain the reason why you need flexible working to even get a chance of having a manager or department say, “Yes, that’s OK.” So we didn’t change the wording, but for [our team], about 35 staff, we chose to interpret the MIT policy a bit differently and said, “We believe that every job in this department can be done flexibly,” meaning either in time or place, “at least one or two days a week, maybe more.” And if somebody finds that they’re in a role where that is absolutely impossible, we committed to look at the role and say, “Can we change the job design so that everybody who works in Exec Ed has access to that sort of flexibility?”
We also said, look, the manager should have absolutely no interest in why you’re asking for flexibility. That’s not part of the equation. The only thing that’s in the equation is can you get the work done, and that’s both about the work itself and it’s about the person’s performance and capability for working remotely. So we didn’t say, “This a basic human right.” It’s still a privilege — but one that everybody should feel is available to them without question.
Did you have to invest in new technology to make this happen?
Our expectation is that people should not have to think twice about participating remotely in meetings, especially internal ones. So we said, “Let’s make sure we’ve got the technology systems and also the practices [in place],” so that when we call meetings, there’s always an option to participate remotely. We’ve been experimenting with different technologies. We’ve got a couple of these little robots with an iPad on it, that people can log into and sort of drive themselves around the office and pop into someone’s office or pop into a meeting.
There will sometimes be meetings or where it would really be advantageous to get people to be there in person. And Wednesdays are in-the-office days. But we use that time very sparingly.
Did people immediately jump on board with this?
A lot of people said something like, “Look, what we do here is very creative. There’s a lot of innovation. We really need the water cooler conversations to happen and we really should be here in person, and by the way, I’m not even comfortable working away from the office setting.” But now, I think even the person who is the most conservative on all those dimensions now is routinely working one or two days remotely and reporting that actually, that’s working really well. And to me it’s been this surprising learning journey for us. You might think given the kind of work that we do, it’s easy to work remotely. But definitely, the relationship things are harder for sure, and so that’s one of the reasons that we say “Everybody be here on Wednesday.”
Why do you think the program has boosted morale?
People report that they find it easier to get their work done. For those who have long commutes, they’re saving time — they give some of that back to us, and some to their families. But there’s also a broader morale benefit because in a sense, it’s a very powerful way of saying, “We actually trust you to get done what you need to get done in the way that you can most effectively get it done.” It seems that we’ve got a big morale benefit from people just feeling that my organization trusts me.