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  • Writer's pictureMarc Hogan

Less Commute, More Substance

I remember speaking to a client a year ago, someone who in the past had often envied the fact that I worked from home. With the sudden forced working from home, he was struggling. He was missing his routine, the water cooler chats, the stimulation of the office environment, and meeting clients in person. When I asked him to sum up how he felt, he used the term “professionally lonely”. As a Sales Manager who had previously spent 50% of his time on the road meeting clients, he could not see in the early months of lockdown how he would ever be able to achieve the same results over a computer screen, and he could not see it for his team either.

Speaking to him recently was like speaking to a totally different person. Yes, like many others he still missed his old routine – the chats, the in-person meetings, and the team lunches – but he has seen the positives from this new way of working.

He and his team are not just hitting, but in the last quarter, even exceeding their targets – targets that were not manipulated to accommodate the pandemic, but made against pre-pandemic expectations. He admits he was fortunate – his business is not in hospitality, retail or any of the other sectors that has been at the mercy of lockdown.

He recognises that the type of innovation we have seen over the past twelve months would normally be introduced gently, rather than the slam dunk change we have seen that forced people to adapt quickly through sheer necessity. Safe to say those members of his team who were more comfortable with technology fared better at the start, but what has blown him away is how his team are working together, they are collaborating and sharing their experiences. They are more of a team now than before. The whole team is succeeding as a team.

So how did they do this?

They made a conscious decision not to lose their identity as a team. They decided to continue to work with the same ethos, to the same mission statement and as part of the same corporate identity. However this formal team mindset was boosted by a new informality, a buddy system materialised with mentoring and reverse mentoring helping them all navigate this new world. The depth of conversation changed from office water cooler chats to something more genuine, caring and real, with colleagues finding out much more about each other’s lives than they ever would in the office.

They purposefully and deliberately set out to create a communication system that allowed open and fluid transfer of information, knowledge and guidance. No team member was left out – and no one was ignored – insights from every level were included. In some cases, the virtual world actually helped the quieter team members to excel.

In fact meetings where people were not staring at each across the boardroom allowed different voices to speak up, and a “no interruption” rule based on the work of Nancy Kline created a whole new more thoughtful communication dynamic.

Whilst Zoom and Teams have obviously been very important, Messenger, WhatsApp, and even the telephone have in may ways been more impactful allowing the team to check in on each other, and share humorous and not so humorous daily struggles.

My client knows that he has some restructuring to do when “things are a little more normal”, but in the meantime he is maximising the benefits from this approach.

Admittedly some things have not worked, Brainstorming for example may return as a real world activity however he is conscious about avoiding a two tier system with those willing to return to the office and those who don’t, the threat about visibility and proximity bias meaning remote workers valuable contribution could be accidently ignored as they concentrate on those in the office.

In 2013 Yahoo’s CEO, Marissa Mayer mandated that all remote workers had to be in the office. She claimed Yahoo had lost its cohesion, had become divided, sectionalised. It had lost its shared culture and staff no longer had a sense of belonging! I believe this was totally misguided, remote working was not the problem, how leaders and managers engaged with remote workers was the problem.

In this hybrid environment leaders and managers internal communications will be even more important than ever if they are to create sense of belonging and common purpose that inspires us all to do the best work. It would be a travesty to blithely return to the old forms of work and communication when there are clear benefits to how we communicate and the levels of depth and substance that can be achieved in the remote world.

I am not saying this is going to be easy – in fact the larger the organisation the more difficult this will be to implement and it will involve many behavioural changes.

We must take deliberate, conscious action now to ensure that all staff feel included because in this new world it will be easier to change jobs than ever before now that the daily commute may be thing of the past.

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