In the past two months, companies everywhere have shifted their workforces from office cubicles and conference rooms to home offices and dining room tables. The coronavirus pandemic’s thunderous impact – bolstered by government mandates to maintain social distancing protocols and shut down non-essential workplaces – has forced companies to pivot hard and fast to a new reality, whether they’re ready for it or not.
Adapting to all-remote interactions is easier said than done. For AI4ALL, a San Francisco Bay Area startup that provides curriculums to high schools interested in teaching students about artificial intelligence, the challenges proved triple what other companies have experienced. Not only did the company’s leadership have to shift its workforce of 15 to a remote model, they also had to provide their clients with remote capabilities themselves – as teachers were also pivoting to virtual classrooms – and provide content that was relevant to the current crisis, as AI is being wielded in a variety of ways to manage the pandemic.
For curriculum manager Sarah Judd, those challenges became opportunities – teachable moments, in the most literal sense. “There’s a lot that AI is doing to help us understand how COVID-19 is being spread and how we can come up with cures,” she says, noting that they spend equally meaningful amounts of time building teacher capabilities as they themselves learn the material. “We wanted students to see how to use AI to solve problems, so we very quickly developed two weeks worth of curriculum that shows some of the advantages there, but also some of the problems – like privacy, or how AI can both detect and contribute to the spread of misinformation.”
Empowering means thriving
Developing that content, as well as the company’s other existing lesson plans, into modules that teachers can deploy via remote learning required that the AI4ALL team itself become adept at remote working. The fact that the year-old company was already split between two offices (the second, in New York City, opened recently), meant it was already conversant with the systems – Trello, Slack, Zoom – necessary to manage and facilitate remote workplaces. But the group discovered that the real lessons, once those tools were in place, came from empowering their personnel to thrive there full-time, and adjust from the habit of in-person interactions.
To do it, they focused on the human element – the psychology of remote work – and found the skills they possessed as educators crossed over to their own workplace needs.
“Even before the crisis, I saw that there was a consistency between the values we have here internally and the values we bring toward our mission – toward our teachers and our students,” says Emily Reid, AI4ALL’s vice president for open learning. “So we had to be flexible and accommodating and understanding about the challenges people were facing. Nothing about this is business-as-usual for any of us.”
That meant not only being aware that employees were experiencing a great deal of fear and uncertainty, but there were a lot of practical realities about working remotely that had to be managed. This included remembering that people at home may not have the same computer or bandwidth as they do at work – a reality they especially needed to keep in mind about the students they provide for – and that things like childcare and spousal work schedules are important variables. Then there’s the basic team element, like remembering that group dynamics change when everyone’s interacting on a video screen.
“Now we make sure we also have weekly hangouts, where we just chat and talk to each other as people and friends, not colleagues or employees,” Reid says. “We knew we had to just sit there and be humans together for a while. It took some adjusting to this different type of environment, but once we did I think it really helped.”
As a result of the team’s transition, sign-ups for their online curriculum platforms have doubled in the last few weeks. Ironically, though successful, that also brought challenges like monitoring that success. They’ve solicited feedback and sought out new indicators of how well their services are being received and utilized. But teachers are also struggling with similar issues and questions, and often can’t provide feedback as they usually might. But the awareness of the need to calibrate on the fly – for AI4ALL, and teachers and students alike – helps the adjustment. And, of course, it may change in the coming months and years.
This idea runs parallel to one of the core missions at AI4ALL – helping students see that there are risks and rewards with any new technology. It’s always important to look critically at how it’s designed and deployed.
“We’re all about the humans involved here, and we strive to remember that both internally and externally,” Reid says, adding that one of the permanent take-homes she’s learned is to develop contingencies for how to maintain continuity no matter what sudden changes arise, along with building systems that can accommodate all levels of needs and abilities.
“Being able to go back to your values and letting them guide you in challenging times is important,” she says. “And if you don’t have that clearly defined, this can be a good time to build that foundation.”