Anna Korinna Németh-Szabó - Alchemy in Adversity (How to become better and more resilient tech writers in a turbulent work environment)
Catherine Heath | October 13, 2021
This is a summary of a talk given at Write the Docs Prague 2021.
Anna has many hobbies that include dancing, creative arts, movies, and TV series.
She’s the main technical writer at her company. She specializes in UX writing, usability, user assistance, and information architecture.
Alchemy is used in the spiritual context of transformation and transmutation, during which we become better versions of ourselves. She uses the chrysalis analogy to represent transformation.
Their technical writing team had three members, always meeting release deadlines and finishing every task on time - not really. The team wasn’t perfect but things were manageable.
Then came COVID. Shifting to working from home didn’t fully take them by surprise, and had been discussing contingency plans. They were lucky that the company responded to the situation very fast, and they shifted to working from home immediately.
The reality of the shift was something none of them were truly prepared for. They didn’t know how long it would take - weeks, months, years? There was fear of the unknown, and job security, and unpredictability was hard.
The first months were so traumatizing and exhausting that it’s no wonder it didn’t take long for many people to snap. It was hard for some people to cope with self-isolation, especially for extroverts.
Living conditions made a lot of difference to how easy it is to work from home. Neighbors might decide to start renovating their apartment, for example.
Work-life balance was also a challenge. Some people were homeschooling their children. Some enjoyed working from home and struggled with interruptions, others didn’t like being so isolated all the time.
They also had to cope with the entire workflow moving onto the online space, and an increased need for communication. They used to discuss docs with developers as a mixture of online and offline collaboration, which was no longer possible.
The increase in workload resulted in overload, burnout, depression and demotivation. They were often too tired to comprehend meetings, and found it hard to interact with others.
Being driven and taking pride in their work, they did their best to make up for these problems.
Due to acquisitions, the company had new products to document so they had to hire new members fast. There was the challenge of hiring new people purely online. Once they hired team members, it was time for onboarding and team building. They had to resort to Confluence pages and occasional online meetings to help the new team members.
Lessons learned from challenges
Change inevitably happens, no matter what. And most of us need some level of stability and predictability to function well, and it’s uncomfortable to have that taken away.
Preferences can be very different, and some people long for the social aspect of the office. How people deal with their self-isolation can vary, from feeling like a prison, to having a “zen” experience.
Shifting back to office-based work is not something that everyone wants. People who were struggling can’t wait to return to the office, but those who prefer working from home feel stressed at the idea.
Stress comes in different formats, and can get too much to handle. Worrying about loved ones and feeling overloaded are just two examples.
Keeping a healthy work-life balance is extremely hard. For conscious types the danger of overdoing it at work is very real.
Prolonged stress is very harmful for tech writers, and impacts their creativity.
Tips and tricks
How did all of this help them become better? The caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly is relevant here. The caterpillar changes entirely throughout this process.
Working from home represents the chrysalis phase. They had the opportunity to break down what no longer serves us and let go of it. They found they grew wings and took flight, reassembling themselves in a better version.
Come to terms with the notion of “good enough”, which is very hard to accept. It goes against the grain to settle for something that is less than perfect
Alternate routine tasks and more creative tasks the way it works best for you
Ask for help if needed - shelve your pride
Prioritize and delegate - useful if you don’t want to drown in your workload
Self-care is essential if you want to be able to give your best. Prioritize yourself, and both your physical and mental health. Set boundaries when it comes to work-life balance
Try to find or create inner peace and balance through taking walks in the woods, listening music, playing video games, or reading
Take time off - even if you love your job, it’s important to take breaks which refresh and recharge us
Changes that can help teams and cross-team collaboration
For teamwork and cross-teams collaboration, get proactive, not reactive. Set goals and plan, even if you’re likely to have to readjust. Planning ahead when working from home is even more important.
Stop wasting time by [planning, preparing, considering the medium, and getting to the point. Aim for clarity and brevity in communication - the less ambiguity the better. Consider whether scheduling a virtual meeting is absolutely necessary.
Embrace diversity and utilize the strength therein. You can work magic if you take advantage of team diversity well.
Alternative team building and bonding methods are lifesavers. Her team found normal team building activities quite annoying. Instead, collaboration on difficult projects brought them together effortlessly. They created fun Teams channels for people to share anything such as cat pictures, and blow off steam.
Creating a healthier work environment
Everyone needs at least some level of stability and you can facilitate others by being reliable, supportive and dependable.
Instead of making assumptions, ask and really listen. Assumptions can distort communication, instead of making it as transparent as possible. Take the feedback seriously, even if it indicates that something needs to change.
The larger the company, the more likely it is that emphasizing the need to regain normalcy will provoke mixed feelings. We should readdress concepts of normal. Don’t resist change at all costs.
Trust yourself, your team, your colleagues, and those who report to you. Have faith in them doing their very best to achieve your shared goals.
Express your gratitude and appreciation. Showing your appreciation is the icing on the cake of supporting others, since most of us like feeling valued.
Be kind to yourself and others. The alchemy of transformation is hard work. Remember that you don’t have to do everything on your own - wherever cooperation makes sense, work together. Review, revise, adapt and evolve.