Comm Lead Connects 2020: A look to the future, while surviving the present

by Alexandria Baker
“A video playlist of all the presentations and breakouts is embedded above”

In the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, businesses are shutting down, sporting events are canceled, and many of us are hunkering down for a prolonged period of isolation and social distancing. But just because we can’t meet in-person for school or work doesn’t mean we have to cease learning and growing.

Comm Lead prides itself on bringing together cutting edge technology and community leadership. And this sense of accomplishment is well-earned, especially given the flexibility, resilience, and ultimate success, of Comm Lead Connects 2020.

The event — themed around “The Future of Work” — was originally organized as an in-person masterclass that would bring hundreds of students, alumni, keynote speakers, and experts into a room for a series of talks and interactive networking activities. But with a campus-wide lockdown looming, organizers quickly adapted the format to a remote digital conference. The result was an engaging conference that demonstrated the practical application of teleconferencing and livestreaming technology — allowing the audience to interact and provide feedback in real time.

For me, watching remotely from home, the highlights of the conference included Dr. Akhtar Badshah’s presentation on developing a purpose-driven mindset. Dr. Badshah underscored that while AI and advanced technology are coming to dominate many different fields, these technologies could not exist without humans. Moreover, he emphasized that employers need to recognize this, and move away from fixed and even growth mindsets into a “purpose-driven” mindset. For Dr. Badshah, a purpose-driven mindset is one in which an individual or organization focuses on implementing a change they wish to see in the world. The question shifts from “What is good for me?” to “What is the common good?”

Dr. Badshah and several other speakers mentioned the importance of being able to work remotely during the COVID-19 outbreak. While most employers can recognize the need to prevent the further spread of the virus, a common thread throughout the discussions and roundtables was the acknowledgement that only a few privileged workers are able to work remotely. Gig workers — already at the mercy of an unforgiving gig economy — and retail workers, among others, simply cannot do their jobs remotely. The technology that enables some employees to securely work from home is not yet accessible to those most in need of its benefits.

The recognition of this privilege, racial and class divides, and the need for inclusion was a cornerstone of Candour founder Ruchika Tulshyan’s talk. Tulshyan pointed out that, in simple terms, the future is diverse. With the workforce moving toward a non-white majority by 2045, it is more important than ever that companies stop looking for “culture fit” and look for employees with “culture add.” 

By making room for more diverse voices in offices and boardrooms, companies will be better equipped to deal with crises like COVID-19 in the future. A more diverse employee base can ask questions that homogenous leadership may not think to ask, such as “Who is unable to work from home, and how can we enable them to do that?” Or, “Who is most at risk if we ask employees to work in the office?”

A large conference room with a single presenter and scattered participants.

Thanks to COVID-19, the UW Center for Urban Horticulture was pretty empty for Comm Lead Connects. But dozens of attendees were watching from the safety of their homes via livestream.

Though breakthroughs in technology are keeping many employees and students safe through remote work and distance learning, unless these benefits are distributed equitably across populations and workforces, there will continue to be a clear divide between those with privilege and those without. One of the ways we can start to address this divide is simply asking for more input from employees and impacted populations. 

As Lea Scherck of Thoughtexchange put it, “There’s no better way of making someone feel valued than a person in power asking them for their input on a decision that will impact them.” 

Looking toward the uncertain weeks and months ahead, we can be assured of one thing: we don’t have to do this alone. By utilizing the technology that is available to us, and learning to listen to one another a little more, we can face the future with confidence.

Alex StonehillComm Lead Connects 2020: A look to the future, while surviving the present
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