As leaders, I suspect that the thing that will continue to dominate conversations in our post pandemic world will be the tricky issue of remote vs in-person team working. Or put another way – can organisations thrive on a virtual only or a virtual predominate basis?
The first hurdle is logistics. A few of our clients have cut with the concept of ‘The Office’ completely and moved to a virtual only way of working, but not as many as I had predicted. A lot of organisations don’t have the luxury of choice. Or at least not at the moment. Typically, they are in long leases with break clauses still a year or so ahead – so they have to try and make some element of in-person work or they are taking one hell of a hit.
But many organisations are sending out mixed messages if I am honest. With the ever-changing health and safety edicts being pushed out since mid 2020, they have set such restrictive processes around actually coming in that they have killed any positive intention from team members. In fact, I recently spoke to one client that said that their employer's rules were so complicated, and his team were so desperate to get together for a workshop that he decided to not bother even trying to get the team into the office and hired a meeting room at his own expense. That’s one dedicated boss I guess but kind of bonkers.
A lot of organisations have moved to the designated day in the office. If it's Tuesday it must be the Individual Giving Team and so on. This is definitely transitional and I can’t really see how this is conducive to a ‘one company, one target’ approach but at least it sets some sort of pattern. It allows people to plan and shape things. Or at least in theory. Because leaders now have to work a lot harder on the day or days when their teams are together in person.
Back in the old days when we were all together in the office pretty much every day, Managers and directors could kind of have free play with how they led things. It was fluid. It was the era of ‘do you have a minute’ or ‘let’s clear our diaries and brainstorm this’. A manager could pretty much call the shots and broadly speaking, didn’t have to plan too much ahead in terms of how communication was delivered. I think, at least for now, those days are gone. People have moved into a much more fixed and, I think, task led-way of work. You can be very productive on your own at home with your laptop and the odd zoom call. You can plough through things… the last thing you want to do is commute in and do the same in the office as you did at home. Or sit in meetings with no relevance or meaning. Or brainstorm with no structure or purpose.
There are times when meeting in person is a billion times better than getting everyone together for a not so jolly Microsoft Teams meeting (again…). Human beings need to feel connected to one another and need to be in a space that enables expansion of thought and the freedom to express ideas and solutions. I’ve yet to find an online tool or mechanism that really replicates the in-person dynamic in this area. But coming into the office is at least for the time being an absolute drag for many team members and they will constantly question why. After 2 years of self-managing time, ensuring work is delivered efficiently and maybe even smashing targets, coming in, even if it’s just a day a week is a big ask. Whether this will still be the case this time next year, I am not so sure. But for now it is.
Leaders need to plan and need to be structured. Getting people all together under the banner of ‘we need visibility internally’ or ‘let’s do some weekly team bonding’ isn’t really enough to create a new rhythm of working. Engaging teams and individuals in a purposeful, individualised way will be key, as will the ability to co-create the future vision and the road map to success.
I am sorry but leaders are going to have to work even harder – after two years of working your arses off, this is the last thing you need to hear – but I do think the end result will be energising and more effective than ever before.
And you never know, someone may even smile and say thank you and offer to buy you a beer at the end of the day of being in the office together. Maybe.