How will companies and teams adapt to the freedom to go back to offices, travel around and meet face to face?

First, a little about my own relationship with remote working.

I started working from home regularly around 1999. I was running a team distributed across 8 European offices and travelling a great deal. I went to offices, including my local one, for creative workshops and face to face meetings. I didn’t have a desk in any of the offices. All emails and calls were done from home, airports and trains.

Since then, I have had one brief, unhappy spell back in an office and have been working from home since 2002. Holos has been an entirely virtual organisation since its inception in 2014. Pre-pandemic, about 95% of our work was delivered face to face, in hotels, conference rooms and clients offices, with only a few virtual deliveries and coaching taking place online.

As soon as the pandemic struck, we migrated immediately and seamlessly to virtual delivery. We quickly adapted all of our designs and techniques to work in an online environment. In doing so, we have found some very significant advantages to virtual delivery both for clients as well as for Holocon, our annual conference. These include: massively reduced downtime, reduced costs and expenses (allowing more to be spent on learning), more digestible bite sized delivery, more intimate/high trust small group conversations, more international groups and sessions and so on.

So, as companies and countries ease out of lock down, how will our work practices evolve? How will we make the most of both face to face and virtual? How will we take the best of both and merge them into a way of hybrid working that can take advantage of the benefits of both?

Let’s start with a list of pros and cos.

Virtual working vs Office working 

Commuting

For a few, commuting can provide valuable time for uninterrupted work, reflection or mode shift from work to home. For most, it costs a huge amount of time and is wasteful environmentally.

Down time – travelling to meetings 

Many people have reclaimed months of their lives previously spent in airports, trains and planes and few of us miss it. While travel could provide a peaceful moment in a busy day, mostly it is a huge time waster.  

Our ability to schedule meetings that are precisely back to back, from one online meeting to the next, results in what is dubbed “Zoom fatigue”. Our failure to schedule downtime between these meetings to pop outside for a walk, have a quick mediation or yoga session gives us no time to breathe, step back and re-energise.

Meetings

Virtual meetings can be extremely effective. While it can be nice to see people in the flesh, there is little justification for the expense of time and travel. The reality is that poorly run meetings are just as bad face to face as they are virtually.

Serendipity 

Serendipity simply doesn’t exist in online working. There is no place for those spontaneous moments, whether a quick chat in a hallway, popping past someone’s desk or a collaborative, unplanned discussion, where brilliance can suddenly emerge. Steve Jobs was so keen on serendipity that the offices he design for Pixar and the Apple Campus were designed very specifically to maximise the opportunity for people to have accidental meetings as they moved around the office. In the virtual world, if you don’t intentionally make the effort to connect to someone it probably won’t happen. You can make diligent use of social media and that can simulate a little serendipity, but it is not the same.

Desk work – emails, design, decks, reports, proposals

There are few, if any benefits of physical offices for “desk work”. The hustle and bustle of an office can be counter-productive to these focussed tasks. Productivity can be greatly enhanced in a home office and collaboration software allows any number of people to simultaneously work together on documents, projects and presentations. We can even talk to each other while we do it. This is far better than having people crowd around a desk, while one person “drives”.

Control

Office environments have the tendency of giving someone the illusion of control. Some managers like to be able to see when people come, when they leave and if they are actually working. This obviously indicates a severe lack of trust. Why would you employ someone you don’t trust?  If this is your reason for wanting to return to the office it is indicative of far greater problems in our organisation or with your leadership style.

Social. trust and relationships 

One to one conversations, focussed small group conversations and well-structured meetings work well in a virtual setting. But there is little or no chance to mingle and informally socialise or create the space to get to know each other and build trust and relationships. While it is possible, it takes more intent and rigour and it won’t happen as formally as in a physical setting.

What are offices good for?

Socialising and building relationships, Creative workshops with whiteboards, relaxed meetings, social and play elements, serendipity of just bumping into people unexpectedly, training and development.

What is virtual/remote working good for?

Regular connections between geographically distributed teams, individual and collaborative desk work, well-structured meetings and workshops, one to one and small group conversations, training and development.

So how can we make the most of hybrid working?

Most certainly, we need to structure this new way of shifting between both physical and virtual environments with intent.

Through a facilitated “hybrid working” workshop with your team you can discuss and agree on:

  1. How in-office days and out-of-office days will work and put a roster in place
  2. What should the working hours be and what schedule will have the most benefit to the business and to the team 
  3. How meetings will work – virtual, physical and hybrid
  4. How the office environment can be configured to adapt to the changes with casual meeting areas, workshop spaces, cafe areas, work stations, recreation facilities and even sleeping accommodation
  5. The best ways to create cadence with the team through set weekly meetings
  6. The most productive collaboration tools (Slack, Teams, Calendars, etc)
  7. Create an internal Service Level Agreement to commit to response times, decision making protocols, crisis response and so on
  8. Consider setting up a live feed from the office/s so that people working remotely can feel like they are a part of the office
  9. The best way to set up a home office in order to foster productivity and creativity

We stand at a time where, with focus and intention, we can strike a wonderful balance to create an alternative model of working to take advantage of the benefits of remote working, on-site working and virtual interaction.

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