On Communities in Crisis Mode

April 2nd, 2020

Like many in Australia I’ve been at home for more than a week now.

For my work, that’s not so unusual. It has been well over a decade since I started working from home most of the time. So I haven’t had to adapt in the same way that many of my colleagues in the software development industry have.

The COVID-19 threat

Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash

Obviously there is a broader community focus now that the spectre of COVID-19 looms ever larger.

For the last couple of weeks, as the risk of the coronavirus spreading in Australia has become more serious, I have been doing my best to stay at home. I’ve made no trips to my golf club in the last fortnight and those of you who know me well will know what a sacrifice that is!

In normal times I also look forward to Sunday morning trips to the local farmers’ markets. The Sunday morning before last turned out to be our last trip for the time being. We arrived relatively early to find the biggest crowd we’ve ever witnessed at these markets. Whilst they are classified as an essential source of food, we felt it was impossible to practice safe physical distancing. My wife and I decided it was, regrettably, our last visit for now.

Before

As I mentioned at the outset of this post, I’ve been used to working remotely for many years. In doing so I have gradually accumulated experience with using a variety of tools to become more effective as a remote worker.

The most relevant class of tools to this post is those that enable meetings via video. I’ll come back to those in a moment.

I think it’s also important to acknowledge that, until recently, my remote work was broken up by face to face social activity that I took for granted.

Whether it was sharing a round of golf with mates and catching up with others in the clubhouse afterwards, chatting with stall holders at the farmers’ markets or even enjoying my trips to the barber, there has been the simple pleasure of conversation in person to sustain me.

And to give me a break from the isolation of working alone in my home office.

New considerations

Now that’s gone. At least in my case I have my wife, who has recently started working from home full time, in the same house. I know others who live alone and don’t usually work from home are finding the adjustment especially challenging.

One thing I’m acutely aware of is the need to look after my mental health. My personal experience has taught me that I need to be careful not to let too much stress build up.

In my experience, antidotes to stress include getting outdoors, mixing with other people, playing sport and having a good laugh with others. There’s nothing quite like impulsively laughing or seeing the joyful laughter on someone else’s face as your joke lands.

COVID-19 obviously brings new challenges to staying sane.

Communities staying connected

So, how can communities help in these times of being distanced from each other?

Sometimes by necessity a community group that would normally meet face to face now has to meet via video. For example, only last night my golf club’s board of directors met via Zoom. To those in the tech community reading this for whom the mention of Zoom will raise a red flag on security grounds, please suspend your cries of protest! As we know, many people are adapting as they go, attempting to respond to this crisis as best they can as it unfolds. For some in our board, this was a first experience of a video meeting. Once we gathered all the participants and the meeting got into full swing, I sensed a reassuring feeling. A strong impression for me was the renewed connection between us, simply by virtue of being able to see each other as the discussion ensued.

Professional Communities

There are other contexts I would like to relate whilst writing about the theme of community in a crisis.

A professional community that I’ve been attracted to and involved in since 2018 is the Heart of Agile. Whilst there have been physical meetups all over the world, I was pleased to have the opportunity the other day to participate in the first fireside chat in an Australian time zone. I found the experience of being connected to more than 50 like-minded professionals via video to be quite uplifting.

Indeed, tomorrow morning it would seem that this community is facilitating a “drop-in” video hook-up. Maybe I’ll remember to drop in, we’ll see. Even if I don’t, I love the fact that someone has taken the initiative to make this opportunity available.

Since 2006 I have been privileged to be part of the Australian Ruby Community. I’ve enjoyed so many wonderful face to face experiences as part of this community, whether they have been meetups, Rails Camps, conferences or just catching up with friends that I have made as part of this community.

In recent days, I’ve drawn sustenance from friends who have taken the initiative to invite others to catch up over video. About a week ago I had, not to put too fine a point on it, a pretty shitty day. My Ruby friends Elle and Lachlan kindly invited me to drop into their place to chat online over video. Such kindness. The weekend before that my good friend Matt had facilitated a video chat amongst his professional friends. To hear the different ways that the economic fallout of the coronavirus had affected folks was humbling. And, last weekend, Pete put out a call over Twitter that he was interested in catching up. A video chat ensued, which allowed several of us in the tight-knit Australian Ruby community to share our challenges with respect to dealing with living in isolation.

To all these dear friends in the Ruby community, I express my heartfelt thanks.

An Approximation to Face to Face

Within and beyond the Ruby community I know that many meetups are adapting to hold their gatherings online. I had thought of attending the Sydney Elixir meetup last night but in the end was unable to.

Ultimately, we all crave connection to other humans, no matter how introverted we are. And, let’s face it, many programmers are.

During the coming weeks and months, the best we will be able to do in almost all circumstances, is to come together as communities with the aid of video meeting tools. Before you get too down about that, consider how it must have been 100 years ago as communities did their best to deal with the Spanish flu.

At least in 2020 we have tools like Zoom, Google Hangouts and Whereby.

Staying positive

In a way, the online connectivity of life in April 2020 is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, technology brings the harsh realities of the horrific effects of COVID-19 into our lives in a way that is difficult to ignore. From an Australian perspective, what we see, hear and read of life in Italy, Spain, the UK and USA is sobering and disquieting, to say the least.

On the other, if we use the technology mindfully, staying connected within our communities via video tools can help. Whilst not perfect, it can provide us with at least a good approximation of what we, as humans, crave.


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