We started today, as we do every working day, with our daily team ‘huddle’. A virtual meeting. We logged on; we shared screens; we reviewed plans, and in-turn, we got to tell what we’d done since yesterday, what we were planning to do and if we were facing any barriers to progress and needed help. We connected as a team. It was focused, efficient, agile.
Our business has been working like this since its inception, but it occurred to me that almost everyone I know seems to work like this now.
At the start of the COVID pandemic, team Zoom calls (other platforms are available) were new and exciting, but often chaotic. They are so familiar now. In jobs where it is possible, remote and flexible working, at least for part of the week, is now the default.
As we move from the COVID pandemic days into the living-with-COVID era, we aren’t going to be changing back. Employees like it, so employers are going to have to offer it. And employers see opportunities in flexible, remote working too, as a retention tool, in increased productivity (more arguably) and maybe as a way of reducing property costs. We have adapted.
But while there are many benefits, organisations – managers and employees – are increasingly reporting issues that seem to have arisen following such a large-scale change to how we work. Issues around communication and staff feeling that they ‘don’t know what is going on anymore’; issues around sustaining a desired culture in the workplace; issues with knowing what the flexible working rules are and in seeing them applied consistently and fairly; issues with employees feeling their hard work is not recognised because it’s less visible; issues with work now bleeding into home life too easily, worsening rather than improving work-life balance, etc. Unforeseen and important issues everywhere.
In part, it’s the case that we moved en masse to hybrid working because the pandemic required it. But it’s probably more accurate that the pandemic accelerated a move that was already in train. As more and more work content has focused on collecting, analysing and using data, advances in technology and bandwidths have meant those jobs can be done from anywhere. So, work-from-home Fridays have been joined by work-from-home Mondays and Thursdays too. And what’s not to like about that?
Well, possibly more than we’ve fully realised. I’m reminded of the heuristic of Chesterton’s Fence which was inspired by a quote from G. K. Chesterton’s 1929 novel The Thing, and was described by Chesterton as follows:
There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
So similarly, as we emerge from the lockdown and decide on how the world of work should look in the future, maybe we should pause and review before we consign office-based working to history. Maybe the old ways of working created value beyond the obvious transacting of business?
Take as an example the process of delegation. As remote working has become increasingly the norm, a plethora of products have been developed to facilitate online collaboration by distributed teams. They are great, allowing teams, working from home or elsewhere, work together to define, share and progress projects of all types. They also allow managers to define tasks that need to be done, and to assign these tasks to teammates.
In the past, delegating a task required a conversation. This meant the manager could explain the task, how it needed to be done, when it had to be done by and why it was important. The person being delegated to had the opportunity to test their understanding of what was required. Together they could explore what training or support the delegate might need to complete the task and how it could best be accommodated among other competing priorities. And they could agree a date at which the manager would check-in with their colleague to see how things were going, test that the delegate was still happy with their ability to get task done, and ensure the task was going to be completed on time and in full. The conversation required more effort from both parties, but it achieved a lot beyond assigning the task.
Of course, there is nothing stopping us from having these conversations, even if we are working remote from each other and using online project management tools to support our work. But do we always?
So in this case, as with many other possible scenarios, we need to give a second, and maybe third thought as to why we did things in certain ways before we assume that that we just didn’t have any other of doing them. If we don’t, we might move quickly, but risk leaving something valuable behind.