What Justice Clarence Thomas, a College Seminar, and a Zoom Conference Can Teach Us About How to Work Better.

Zoom meeting

The pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption in our usual habits of life and work. This disruption has had many terrible consequences, of course, but it has also illuminated aspects of our lives that were hidden before—and it has shown the potential value of new tools.

Now, any new tool will probably work better for some people than for others. Some people will like it, and some people won’t; some people will use it eagerly, and some would prefer to do something a different way.

But it is fascinating to see changes play out, and to try to draw lessons from what we observe.

For instance, many people—including me—have been doing lots of video calls over the past few months.

A friend told me, “In my workplace, we always have this problem: some people tend to dominate discussions, and others tend not to participate as much. It’s something we’re always working on, and Zoom makes it a bigger issue than ever.”

I can see why that would be. Absolutely.

And I’ve also heard the opposite.

A friend told me that her son is enjoying his college seminar much more by video chat than he had when the class was taught in person. “The professor tends to talk the whole time,” she explained, “but doing it by video has apparently made him more aware that he’s not giving the students get a chance to speak.” When students were able to contribute more, the class became more engaging.

Brent Kendall and Jess Bravin’s Wall Street Journal piece “New Format Pulls Thomas into the Fray” noted a recent significant increase in Justice Clarence Thomas’s participation in oral arguments before the Supreme Court. In his previous years on the bench, Justice Thomas hasn’t asked many questions during oral arguments, but his questioning style has changed.

The article notes; “Empowered by the court’s orderly format during the coronavirus, under which justices speak in order of seniority rather than jump in at will, Justice Thomas said more during oral arguments last week than he has in many years combined, asking questions of every attorney in the four cases the court heard by teleconference.”

New tools change habits of participation.

The lesson isn’t that video chat itself is “better” or that it’s “worse”; it’s probably better and worse. The lesson is that by trying to understand how and why video-chat changes things—for better and for worse—we can try to discover the lessons that can benefit everyone, going forward.

What lessons have you learned about your own work style, and that of your co-workers, during this time?


Right now, we’re in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, and it will continue and change for a long time. While everyone across the globe is affected, it’s hitting people differently in different places. Countries are experiencing it at different times, and within the United States, states are being hit at different times. The crisis affects individuals very differently, too; people’s fears and challenges vary dramatically. Wherever we are, we’re all so grateful for the healthcare workers and all the essential workers who are doing such important work, so courageously, during this time.

I’m writing from my own experience, at this moment, in New York City.



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