ITK’s Website Refresh!

ITK’s Website Refresh!

As you’ve probably noticed, the ITK website has a whole new look and layout! We’ve redesigned all the tools, added lots of new content and material, and even made it easier to filter through the tools to find just the one you need.

We hope this refresh makes the site easier to navigate and use. As with any design effort, it’s an iterative process so we’d love to hear your feedback and suggestions!

Should We Be Muting Our Sneezes?

Should We Be Muting Our Sneezes?

This week’s post is by Allison Khaw. Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash.

I was sitting at my desk recently, participating in a virtual work meeting, when I sneezed.

I was already muted, so the meeting continued without pause, but this got me thinking.  As a side effect of our current behavioral norms, we are effectively subduing those idiosyncrasies that make us human.  Returning my gaze to the computer screen, I mused to myself: Should we be muting our sneezes?

I still chuckle at the inexplicable absurdity of this question—muting our sneezes, who would have thought!—but I also ask it with a genuine yearning to understand the answer.  And the true question, as you may have guessed, extends beyond sneezing.  Before COVID-19 upended our work culture, we lived in a time where in-person meetings were more common than hybrid or virtual ones.  The paradigm has shifted so dramatically that the opposite is true today.  Virtual meetings are prevalent out of necessity, and we’ve become more adept at handling them than ever before.

When we participate in these meetings, we possess the incredible ability to mute our voices or disappear from view at the click of a button.  Our current circumstances pose seeming contradictions: our presence can be invisible; our sneezes can be silent!  Ultimately, we now have the freedom to choose when to be seen and heard.

However, as the phrase goes, freedom always comes with a cost.  We’re trying to appear—and be—professional, but what are we losing in return?

Of course, muting is important in many situations, whether you’re minimizing your background noise in a large meeting or finishing your lunch without wanting to moderate the crunch level of your chips.  Thus, we should do our best to maintain this self-awareness in our virtual meetings while finding ways to avoid muting our own humanity in the process.

And how do we do that?  Well, we can take a meaningful first step by performing small experiments, true to the spirit of the Innovation Toolkit.  For instance, try showing your video while speaking for a presentation, using your authentic home office as your meeting background, or eating your lunch with your microphone off but your camera on.  Another idea is to try an “active listening” exercise: pair up with a coworker, listen to them describe their day for two uninterrupted minutes before you paraphrase what you heard them say, and then swap roles.  After doing this exercise in a recent “Yes, And” Innovation Toolkit workshop, I felt rejuvenated by the chance to listen to someone else and be equally heard.  Whatever you decide to try, stretch outside of your comfort zone and then reflect on how it went.

As we look towards the future, we need to remember that no one expects us to be perfect, not even in a virtual setting.  We need to remember that simple visual cues such as nodding, smiling, or laughing can be invaluable in bringing us closer together despite our physical distance.  What’s more, we need to have conversations about these topics, now and often.  In fact, if we don’t, we may find that the sounds of our sneezes are not all that we’ll lose in the end.

Clean Water For Communities in Need

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Today’s post is by guest blogger Riley Fujioka!

Did you know that 2.2 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water? Or that globally, 1 in 4 healthcare facilities lack basic water services? You can help bring clean water to these underserved communities.

At MITRE, we have to come together to put a dent in these statistics by partnering with Wine to Water, an international non-profit organization focused on ending the root cause of global poverty. They provide sustainable water solutions in communities around the world, and we’re working with a student-led team at The Madeira School on a volunteer event. Our goal is to reach over 1,000 people with clean water by raising money to build clean water filters and to make a difference through the power of clean water.

Between now and late January, we invite you to join our fundraiser. Your donation will enable Wine to Water to obtain and distribute filter building kits that will be sent to all fundraiser contributors. Then, during our virtual filter building event on World Water Day, March 22, you can build the filters at home. These will be distributed globally to communities in need and also support disaster relief efforts.

Leading up to this event in March, we will host a series of keynote speakers from the Wine to Water team as well as members of communities around the world who will be directly impacted by these filters, so you can learn more about the positive impact you will be making through this effort. We’ll be sharing registration details as the virtual events are scheduled.

According to Shared Justice: ‘Unclean water can cause serious and costly health issues, and studies have found that poor and minority communities across the U.S. are disproportionately affected by polluted waters.’ The issue is much worse outside of the United States, where lack of sanitation and access to basic health care led to millions of deaths each year.”

Each filter costs around $50 in materials to make and distribute. To participate in a virtual hands-on experience to build kits for families around the globe without clean drinking water, contribute to our fundraiser, and register for the event here

Please join us in fundraising and building clean water filters for communities all around the world!

©2021 The MITRE Corporation. All rights reserved. Approved for Public Release; Distribution Unlimited. Case Number 20-3448

Collaboration Tips

This week’s blog post is by Maria Altebarmakian, one of our new ITK Trainees! 

By now we have all felt the pain of trying to collaborate and communicate with others remotely. Messages go unseen or unanswered, a train of thought is interrupted by a constant stream of notifications, and collaboratively iterating on ideas requires more intentionality. The online environment completely transforms how ideas can be shared, how they are communicated, and how they are understood.

Different mechanisms for online communication impact the extent and ways in which a group works and makes progress. Sometimes a quick chat message is enough, while other situations require a more in-depth video call. Intentionally designing the way participants communicate and collaborate online can make it easier for groups to work together on a task.

Here are some tips for three types of online communication for collaborative environments: text-based, audio-only, and video + audio.

  1. Text-based
    What are some examples?
    Email, Slack, Teams chat, message boards
    What are the advantages?
    It doesn’t require that all participants are contributing at the same time, so coordinating schedules becomes less of an issue. People also get more time to reflect on the ideas of others and formulate their own ideas.
    What are the challenges?
    When communication is totally text-based, it becomes more time-consuming to both generate contributions and understand contributions. Typing requires more upfront effort: you type, you read, you re-read, you edit, you add, you delete, etc. In a large enough group, many contributions may be added to the discussion from the time you start typing an idea to the time you are ready to send it. Monitoring and understanding the conversation can become more difficult as the sequence of the conversation can become jumbled.Also, tone of voice and non-verbal cues are lost with this form of communication. It becomes more difficult to know if others agree, are listening, noticed your message, and so on.
    How do I mitigate these issues?
    Organize the conversation into threads. It will become easier to monitor the space and also easier to retroactively understand the train of thought the group went through to arrive at a given conclusion.
    Slow down the pace. Some people will want to curate their response before sending it to the group. This can result in them spending a long time thinking through what they want to say. By slowing down the pace of the conversation, these individuals can find the time and opportunity to also make their thoughts heard.
    Use emojis to express that you’re paying attention. Keep in mind that the person on the other side of the screen does not know if you’re paying attention and noticing their messages unless you actively respond in some way. Adding a quick thumbs up or thumbs down can help others know where you stand on a topic of discussion. Responding with short messages to convey that a message was received and understood also can help to mitigate this issue.
  1. Audio-only
    What are some examples?
    Phone calls, Teams (without video), Zoom (without video), Skype calls
    What are the advantages?
    Vocal intonation comes across, so you can tell if someone is being genuine, sarcastic, engaged, or uninterested.
    What are the challenges?
    Depending on group size, it can be difficult for everyone to have an opportunity to contribute. Determining whose “turn” it is to speak isn’t obvious and participants who are shy might feel uncomfortable contributing.
    How do I mitigate these issues?
    Set up expectations for the flow of conversation. This may look different from one meeting to the next, depending on group size, hierarchy among participants, and other factors. For some situations it may make sense to have a moderator who manages turn-taking within the conversation. For other situations, setting up an agenda with a timeframe for each topic of discussion may suffice.
    Make space for quieter participants to contribute. If you are hosting a conference call with audio only and notice that some participants are taking over the conversation while others are quietly listening, gently asking those on the call who haven’t spoken in a while if they have anything to contribute on the current topic opens up the space for more points of view to be expressed.
  1. Video + Audio chat
    What are some examples?
    Teams, Zoom
    What are the advantages?
    With video chats, both vocal intonation and some non-verbal cues can be expressed. You can see what participants are nodding along or shaking their heads, who is distracted by notifications elsewhere on the screen, and so on. This can help to make speakers feel that there are others actually present with them, which can make the space feel more comfortable.
    What are the challenges?
    Video calls can be intimidating for some compared to other online avenues of communication. After a long day of video calls, people start to experience “Zoom fatigue”, making it more difficult to stay attentive and focused.
    The video feed can also invite in many distractions, with people focusing more on someone’s artwork on the wall behind them instead of what the person is saying.
    How do I mitigate these issues?
    Not everyone needs their video on at all times. Setting up some recommendations for participants, such as turning on video when they want to contribute or having only a subset of the group keep their video on, can leverage some of the benefits of video calls while mitigating some of the challenges. Being strategic about when you share your camera can help to combat “Zoom fatigue” and make the space feel less intimidating.
    Use custom backgrounds. Most of the meeting software now will allow users to set custom backgrounds that will blur out or replace their background so the focus will be on the speaker themselves. A good background will be simple: a solid color, a generic conference room, or a simple background blur are all great options. This can help to minimize distractions.
    Background distractions aren’t a negative in all cases. In some circumstances, building rapport within the team is an important element of the online meeting. Meeting with others online can feel distant and impersonal. Being able to see their space behind them can help to make them more “real”. For example, seeing a guitar in the background of another participant’s video feed can spark social conversations about music or learning an instrument that ultimately help participants feel more connected. In the long run, this can help the group feel more comfortable discussing their ideas, which boosts the potential for productive collaboration.

The best method for online communication will vary from one collaborative situation to the next. The key is to be thoughtful when deciding how to organize your team’s online collaborative sessions.

What have you found to be challenging when it comes to effectively communicating online? What tips and tricks do you use to address those challenges?