The Human Need to Vent

All hands meeting around the globe have taken a turn for the worse since the COVID crisis hit, as people have been forced to start working from home. I thought it was just in my company, but talking to some friends working elsewhere, it seems to be a pattern. Q&A sessions get more passive-aggressive questions than usual, seemingly ridiculous questions are asked, and a lot of frustration aired.

What’s going on?

I’ve been thinking about this, and discussing this with various people. It’s likely a combination of many factors. Let’s look at some dimensions and potential sources of smacks in people’s faces that accumulated over time. Some people have been affected by just a couple of these, or even had an opposite response. Some people will have been disproportionally hit and are in a particularly bad place right now.

Dimension 1: COVID.

This one hit us in phases.

Phase 1: Panic. COVID hit, offices started to close, everybody all of a sudden had to work from home — smack. People were scared. They didn’t know what to expect regarding their health, worried about themselves, their family — smack. Will there be food? Will I still have a job? Will I have enough toilet paper? Are we near the zombie apocalypse?

Phase 2: Adjustment. Ok, this is going to last a while, and we’re in a pretty locked down mode. The first effects on the economy started to appear, people being laid off. Certain parts of the economy are just completely on hold. Thank god, we’re not in the restaurant, hotel, travel industry. My home situation rather sucks though. Kids running around. No space to work, constant distraction, how long is this going to last? Smack.

Phase 3: Hope. For some companies, after the economy reopened, business results went back up. Things are slowly getting back to normal, right? Phew.

Dimension 2: growth opportunities. Many companies, in response to crisis and ambiguity about what will happen next, locked many things down. Perhaps salaries were frozen smack, promotions frozen smack, bonuses canceled smack, recruitment stopped smack. Many people that had been promised certain positions and growth opportunities are, for now, stuck, because nothing is moving.

We can handle a lot of setbacks when the overall “environment trend” is positive. But the environment (especially due to COVID) hasn’t been too supportive — again, in most industries. And while we’re heading into a somewhat more positive direction now, it’s not enough to recover from all those smacks along the way. It will take time.

And what’s amplifying all of this — and this is where I’d like to get to the somewhat more constructive topic — we have fewer spaces to vent.

To Vent or Not To Vent

I didn’t know the term “to vent” until I read Michael Lopp (rands) article ”The Update, The Vent, and The Disaster” about types of 1x1s and their importance.

To vent is to complain, to throw it all out. To share what’s on your mind with other people. Not necessarily for other people to solve, but just to get it out of your system.

It doesn’t solve anything, but at least it makes us feel a little bit better.

Under normal circumstances our “venting opportunities” are plentiful. We have our colleagues sitting around us. We meet people at the coffee machine. We vent during our 1×1 with our manager. We vent over beers with our friends at a bar.

But… we haven’t been able to do many of those things for quite a while. At least not unless particular effort was put in creating such “venting opportunities.”

And I think at least some of what we’re seeing in these All Hands: cropped up frustration and not enough space to vent. So, we act out during the All Hands Q&A. I wouldn’t call this the core of the problem by any stretch, but it’s probably some low hanging fruit we can pick. It’s something.

So, here’s something to think about — and I will do the same — how can we create more venting places?

Here’s just a couple of ideas that some teams are using:

  • A Slack channel for “random stuff” — doesn’t need to be work related, just randomness.
  • A daily “coffee Zoom” — once upon a time Google created Google Hangouts, which is purely by its name is exactly what we need: a place to hang out. An open space, you can join or not. Say something, just listen. Let people vent.
  • Regular 1x1s with the primary question: “what’s on your mind?” Then just sit back and listen.

And here’s another one: create some space in your regular team meetings for venting.

I have a weekly sync with two colleague engineering directors. Last week, the first 10 minutes consisted of a vent from one of them about the new mop he bought, how expensive it was, and how he couldn’t figure out how the hell it worked (because he threw out the box with instructions immediately). Luckily, another director was able to provide guidance.

It’s silly. We needed it. It helped.

And remember: the goal of a vent is not to be constructive, necessarily. Apparently it’s a very “male” specific thing to assume that if people throw problems at you, you’re expected to solve them. That’s not what venting is about. It’s just about release.

Of course, ultimately we need to address the underlying problems, but venting helps.