The Convoluted Mess of The Hybrid Workplace

What if hybrid ends up being a mix of the worst of both worlds?

Employers are ready to get back to significant in-person presence. Employees aren’t. The disconnect is deeper than most employers believe, and a spike in attrition and disengagement may be imminent.

McKinsey

Right at the beginning of the pandemic, Dave Hollis wrote a tweet that would prove to be prophetic. In the rush to return to normal, he said, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to.

Well , people did consider this. And they didn’t rush back.

Whether you term it a great resignation, or as I prefer, a great reshuffle – people are reconsidering the role of work within their lives. And the prize seems to be increased autonomy rather than simply increased pay.

The emerging data highlights distinct generational differences – but shows a trend of people moving away from restrictive roles towards those which offer a better work life balance.

The shockwaves for employers have only just begun to be felt. As lockdowns are lifted and work from home mandates ebb and flow employers have found that their previously compliant servants has discovered how and when they want to work, rather than wait for some top down ’employee offer’.

Employers may claim to have a distinct culture and purpose, but the behaviour of many of our institutions during the pandemic has left many doubting their authenticity.

People only truly believe that a company has a purpose and clear values when they see them sacrificing short-term profitability for the sake of adhering to those values. Has that happened?

Employee burnout has doubled since lockdown ended, according to Glassdoor, whose survey showed that flexible working was only one part of the jigsaw, with better performing organisations also having flatter structures.

Companies congratulating themselves on their newly found hybrid work approach should pause to reflect. What a lot of people are now experiencing is the worst of both worlds.

As Emma Goldberg writes, this sudden mash-up of remote and in-person work “has resulted in a mushy middle ground: video calls where remote workers have trouble hearing, a sense that people at home are missing out on perks (teammates), while those in the office are, too (pajamas). And the stakes aren’t just who is getting talked over in meetings. It’s whether flexibility is sustainable, even with all the benefits it confers.”

My most absurd experience , in a year of absurd experiences, was literally carrying a remote colleague around during an in-person workshop. Holding their dimly lit face on a laptop and positioning them so they could see some post-it notes on a whiteboard. My battery power died and I forgot all about them until they text me to ask if the session had finished.

Hybrid takes effort. Token attempts at employee engagement just don’t work (btw is there anything in the recent history of mankind that is more soul crushing than a festive Zoom quiz?). Companies that have crafted very strong, definable cultures have tended to be fully in-person or fully remote, not mixed.

Equally remote work isn’t equal for everyone. A study from Qualtrics, found that 34% of men with children had received promotions while working remotely, compared to just 9% of women with children. There are similar disparities for ethnic minorities.

Our offices, those that are still there, look increasingly adrift and desperate. Stowe Boyd , as ever, has a good take on this: “One of the potentially smart things companies might try to entice workers back: converting open office space — which almost everyone hates — to private offices with doors. Those who share a home with family or flatmates might find respite in a quiet place to work heads down, in peace.” He goes on to make another great point: “Taken to the most extreme: what if some of the unused office space was turned into something like Airbnb rooms, so those who have moved outside of easy commuting range might come into the office for a two- or three-day onsite, working and not-working in the office. This could be coordinated with team members for once a month intense working sessions, too.”

To get hybrid work to work it will take creative thinking like this, breaking the fourth wall between Microsoft Teams and real life. It means really getting to know individuals and understanding productivity at a very human level, listening to people as individuals with unique and frequently messy lives – rather than as efficient worker drones. It means letting our people become the designers of their own unique workdays, and giving them the right tools and permissions.

Or maybe we just need less work. Signalling that people will sacrifice some pay for a better life Spanish high-end apparel brand Desigual introduced a four-day work week at its headquarters in Barcelona last month, raising expectations in the business and political arena in Europe, where some other pilot trials have been launched.

No employee works on Friday and they can choose to work remotely any of the four working days. The company has subsidized half the cost of the 13% reduction in working hours, with employees overwhelmingly agreeing to a 6.5% paycut.

Four days a week, no meetings, you choose the hours and work where you want. Is this the future of work or just the late 2021 expectations of the many?

When people have a 60-Year career you need to design something that’s sustainable for the long term not built on burning people out by the time they hit 50. Indeed -“If a 60-year career sounds like a nightmare, perhaps that’s because we’re imagining 60 years of work as it is for many people today: inflexible, all-consuming, poorly matched to the rhythms of life.”

There could be a silver lining to all of this where people re-engage with their own work on their own terms , but this is going to require huge flexibility from employers. Most will find this a challenge, and I expect to see further pandemic workplace aftershocks between now and 2025

Let’s remember that for almost all companies hybrid work is an experiment, and most experiments fail. The best experiments are small and build upon previous evidence.

When nothing is certain in the short-term never mind the long; a good approach to take colleagues with you is to “test and learn” rather than “show and tell”.


Photo by Elisa Ventur on Unsplash

The Hawthorne Effect: Why Employers Need To Be Cautious In Post-Pandemic Planning

In lockdown you can’t really experiment as people have constraints. There are too many variables at play. But now we have the opportunity to test out the best of multiple worlds; home, roam, office, wherever.

During the 1920s and 1930s a group of researchers began a series of industrial experiments in the Hawthorne suburb of Chicago. The research comprised several studies that tested the impact of changes in work structures on employee productivity.

The researchers looked to see whether workers would increase effort when physical factors like room lighting was changed. During the study, employee productivity improved both when the lighting was increased and when it was decreased. However, productivity decreased as soon as the study ended.

Other complementary experiments such as the effect of changes in working hours and work breaks also resulted in increased productivity, but again, this declined after the conclusion of the study. Ultimately, the researchers concluded that employees were actually responding to the direct attention they were getting from the researchers and supervisors during the study, rather than to any changes in the environmental variables.

The idea that merely consulting workers and slightly adjusting their conditions, without meaningfully changing anything, might make them more efficient and productive became known as the “Hawthorne effect” and entered the lore of leadership, HR and management BS. I say BS, as later research suggests that many of the original claims made about the effect are overstated.

That said – the central point is valid – the Hawthorne effect remains a useful term for referring to the tendency of some people to work harder and perform better when they are participants in an experiment.

When you know you’re being observed, you behave differently.

It’s worth remembering this as employers, pundits, and even Governments scramble to draw conclusions from the Mass Remote Work Experiment.

First of all , it was an experiment only in the loosest sense. As Bryan Lufkin writes, ‘we weren’t just working from home – we were working from home during a pandemic. The experiment began almost overnight, with minimal preparation or support. We worked at our kitchen tables, sometimes watching our children, as we sheltered from a virus. Everyone was in the same boat, working remotely without choice.’

I’d disagree that everyone was in the same boat, the pandemic has neatly illustrated the divides that cross our country. Even at the height of the pandemic in April 2020, only 46.6% of people in employment did some work at home. And that figure doesn’t tell the whole story as there’s a huge regional disparity, for instance 71% of workers in Richmond upon Thames did some work from home in 2020, in Blackpool: just 14%.

And from this flawed experiment, huge conclusions are being drawn.

Ministers and centre right commentators have suggested it’s time to get everyone back to the office – even suggesting that those who want to continue working from home make a salary sacrifice for the continued benefit.

The liberal left have responded with, um, exactly the same proposal – with Google employees potentially seeing their pay cut if they switch to working from home permanently in the wake of the pandemic.

The thinking behind all this seems to be based upon an ideological position that those working from home are getting a ‘better deal’ that now needs recalibrating in their overall package. It doesn’t seem to be anything to do with what you’d think employers would be more bothered about: productivity.

In an interesting piece that quickly goes down a dead end, Luay Rahil makes the point that the argument that “I’m more productive at home” isn’t always a good one. We should stop using an economic formula (productivity) to solve the office vs. home problem. It is a sociological issue (about collaboration, teamwork, belonging) and not a purely economic issue.

This is a point worth exploring in any discussion about the future of work. For years, people have predicted that the future of knowledge work would be remote and distributed, but rarely have we focused on what we mean by productive and valuable work, let alone how we measure it. For people like me, whose work is often hard to categorise and assess the value of, this is a much more interesting discussion than when and where that work is done. Is the work you are producing of value, does it make the world a bit of a better place, and will someone pay you for it?

Whatever that work is the post-pandemic fundamentals will largely remain the same: people will always need to find ways of collaborating and problem-solving together.

There IS something to explore about finding the sweet spot that works for the individual, the team AND the wider collective but the one thing I’m certain of is the answer won’t be “now, get back to the office”.

In truth, this isn’t the end of the minimum office experiment but its natural beginning.

In lockdown you can’t really experiment as people have constraints. There are too many variables at play. But now we have the opportunity to test out the best of multiple worlds; home, roam, office, wherever.

Enlightened employers will let their employees experiment with ways of working that look after people, the planet and productivity, in ways we couldn’t imagine pre-pandemic.

The less enlightened will continue to see their workers as lab rats to be observed, experimented upon and measured. Rewarding them for good behaviour.


Image by andreas N from Pixabay

Remote Work Is Always Efficient But Efficient Isn’t Always Effective

There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.

Peter Drucker

This week marked my return to in-person facilitation after 16 months. I’m not going to lie. As I began the week with a 5:30am start and a 90 minute commute, I was hardly overjoyed after a year and half of tumbling out of bed onto Teams.

Real life workshops can be expensive, inefficient, bad for the environment, and bad for you.

And they can be far, far better than collaborating online.

I’m going to risk upsetting the tech enthusiasts here – but when it comes to user experience – face to face workshops are the difference between watching a movie on an iPhone and seeing one in IMAX.

What was missing from workshops I’ve taken part in during the pandemic – although I was always looking at them, never actually in them – is the free-flowing, back-and-forth-and-sideways exchange of ideas that happens in person.

People just behave differently. They mess up. They swear. They spill drinks. No matter how much we’ve gotten used to being on screen, we’ve never actually forgotten that we are on screen. Days literally spent looking at ourselves.

It wasn’t just me saying this. Other people commented it felt like we were a team again.

The chance meetings – I literally had half a dozen in about four hours – don’t happen in our transactional world of screens.

Do chance meetings at the office boost innovation?

There’s no evidence of it, according to a piece in the New York Times.

“The idea you can only be collaborative face-to-face is a bias,” says Dan Spaulding, chief people officer at Zillow “And I’d ask, how much creativity and innovation have been driven out of the office because you weren’t in the insider group, you weren’t listened to, you didn’t go to the same places as the people in positions of power were gathering?”

As we take part in the return to the office we are seeing divergent thinking about the benefits of in-person work vs remote.

“Innovation isn’t always a planned activity,” says Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, about post-pandemic work. “It’s bumping into each other over the course of the day and advancing an idea you just had.”

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, goes further – saying working from home “doesn’t work for spontaneous idea generation, it doesn’t work for culture.”

I think people are in danger of conflating three things: innovation, collaboration, and culture.

What Tim Cook is talking about is serendipitous innovation and the randomness of accidental insights. I had at least a couple of these insights this week based on what I overheard people say – this absolutely would not happen on a Teams or Zoom call.

When Jamie Dimon says remote work doesn’t work for culture, I think he probably means the ability to get to really know what makes a person tick. The ability to act authentically and unguarded. The mistake I think people are making is equating offices as being the only way of achieving that.

We can all think of remote first or remote only companies who appear to have great cultures. Buffer for example and (maybe until recently) Basecamp. However, both of these do international get togethers or retreats that bring people together on a semi-regular basis. That is – they recognise that remote work has its limits. No offices, but purposeful about culture.

The Impact of Loneliness

When it comes to innovation there’s a power in working alongside people. As Tristan Kromer writes – being alone is hard. “Innovating should be a joyful process, best shared with people whose interests and goals align with yours. But in a more practical sense, working alone makes it hard to spot our biases and misconceptions.”

This is a one size fits no-one problem. As I’ve written before the new world of work has to integrate some very different personas into the workplace.

  • The people that are raring to get back and be around people.
  • The ‘office resistant’ employees who would quit rather than return.
  • The group of people who have a fear of re-entry back into society because of Covid.

Innovation isn’t one thing to these people.

Collaboration isn’t one thing to these people.

And neither is culture.

Every employee may be experiencing your organisational culture differently. However, if we get the culture right for the individual, then most of the other stuff we do, like delivering great service, building an enduring brand, or innovating will just be a natural by-product.

Working from a screen is efficient (if you conveniently ignore the carbon impact of back to back video calls). But when it comes to culture, efficiency isn’t everything. We’ve all had very efficient colleagues who are total arseholes.

This isn’t about requiring people back in the office. It’s about letting them influence where they can do their best work and knowing where your best work happens.

And that’s about being efficient and effective.


Photo by Dstudio Bcn on Unsplash

Why Do So Many People Want Us Back In The Office?

After the sudden and miraculous shift to remote work – the office fightback has well and truly begun.

After the sudden and miraculous shift to remote work in March – the office fightback has well and truly begun.

Four months ago I wrote that – surprisingly- there was no fightback from technophobe hold-outs barricading themselves into their offices. They simply packed up their laptop and went home with the rest of us. How premature I was.

If you thought that 2020 couldn’t get any crazier – it seems some people really are suggesting that businesses should alter their workplace strategies in order to save…sandwich shops.

OK, I’m exaggerating for effect. But there really has been a hand brake applied to the move to remote/hybrid working , or my favoured term, minimum office in recent weeks.

An article in the Daily Telegraph suggested that employees who continue to work at home will be more vulnerable to redundancy, with bosses finding it far easier get rid of people they don’t physically see.

Kirstie Allsopp led the anti-remote work charge on Twitter, suggesting that if your job can be done from home, it can be done from anywhere in the world. Who would have thought that a couple of months of working in shorts and a T-Shirt has made us more susceptible to being replaced by less expensive folk in India, Myanmar and China?

A debate that is framed around saving sandwich shops and an already dying high street isn’t helpful or progressive. Cynically I might suggest the real subtext here is about propping up commercial property investment portfolios. Realistically though, we won’t see anything like a return to the same number of offices, and although few will shed tears for commercial real estate investors many small businesses will suffer a big hit and go out of business unless they can pivot very rapidly.

Clearly there are two groups emerging, those who are desperate for the pandemic to be viewed as a temporary event before everything returns to ‘normal’ and those embracing the true long term disruption that is occurring.

Thank heavens then for more balanced thinkers like Tom Cheesewright who has an uncanny ability to pan back and take the long view. Writing on his website about the current over-confidence in the possibilities for remote working he says:

“There is something different about being there, in person, with all of your senses engaged. It’s what I called a few years ago, ‘the unbeatable bandwidth of being there‘. What gets transmitted and received through the screen and headset, mediated by a million miles of fibre optic cable, is not the full experience of meeting. Nor does it allow for all the things that happen around those meetings. I’ve talked at length about the need for peer support, the subtler parts of staff training, and the mutual inspiration that happens when you’re sharing a physical space.”

I’m a remote working, or at least a minimum office, enthusiast. I’ve written on this site for years about the worst aspects of office life and the most popular post on here applauds its impending doom. Six years on though I’d admit it’s a deeply flawed argument. The idea that constant interruptions and back to back meetings were a symptom of being in a corporate building has been well and truly busted by…Microsoft Teams.

In truth the problem with work is not the tools or the physical location, but the obsession with leadership , an undue focus on work about work, an overbearing hierarchy and the lack of true digitisation of the enterprise. Deeper, more complex problems.

It’s ironic that it has taken a pandemic to reveal what was good about the office. “The things that happen between meetings” that Tom writes about reveal our innate desire for human contact – the need to get our senses fully engaged. Wasteful? Quite often. But we dismiss this at our peril. It may seem logical that workplace chatter stifles productivity, but studies show the opposite to be true.

A narrow focus on efficiency in the workplace and a flawed view of what makes people productive is similarly regressive and likely to drag people back to the old normal. As Stowe Boyd writes the backlash against minimum office is in full flow , as detailed in Companies Start to Think Remote Work Isn’t So Great After All, as executives want to get people back in the office:

An increasing number of executives now say that remote work, while necessary for safety much of this year, is not their preferred long-term solution once the coronavirus crisis passes.

“There’s sort of an emerging sense behind the scenes of executives saying, ‘This is not going to be sustainable,’” said Laszlo Bock, chief executive of human-resources startup Humu and the former HR chief at Google. No CEO should be surprised that the early productivity gains companies witnessed as remote work took hold have peaked and leveled off, he adds, because workers left offices in March armed with laptops and a sense of doom.”

Perhaps it’s simply we haven’t yet matched our colleagues roles, and their specific work preferences, within our existing organisational design never mind considered a future state. Working from home (managed and supported appropriately) can be more productive than going into the office.

A HBR study published in August contrasted surveys of knowledge workers from 2013 and 2020, found that remote working was in fact helping address long-held frustrations about the rhythm of office work.

  1. Lockdown helps us focus on the work that really matters. We are spending 12% less time drawn into large meetings and 9% more time interacting with customers and external partners.
  2. Lockdown helps us take responsibility for our own schedules. We do 50% more activities through personal choice — because we see them as important — and half as many because someone else asked us to.
  3. During lockdown, we view our work as more worthwhile.  We rate the things we do as valuable to our employer and to ourselves. The number of tasks rated as tiresome drops from 27% to 12%, and the number we could readily offload to others drops from 41% to 27%.

The key phrase here is: managed and supported appropriately. Certainly managers need to reinvent themselves as mentors to this style of working and then – forgive me – get the hell out of the way.

The office as the default way of working is dead. But the office itself isn’t dead. With working from home, what we gain in work-life balance we might lose in innovation and creativity. There are people who could directly challenge that sentence but I suspect they will come from highly mature companies who have fully mastered the remote working learning curve. Many of us are still at the stage of doing what we did in the office , just remotely. The timorous amongst us may use the lack of productivity net gains as a reason to regress rather than push through the ‘pain barrier’ as Matt Mullenweg describes it.

We can do so much better, for ourselves, our customers and society if we stop being so frightened or so certain of the future.

We are going to have fewer offices and spend more time at home.

Our efforts would be a lot better spent improving the experience and outcomes of both rather than arguing about preserving a status quo whose time has truly run out.

The office versus remote work? It’s not a binary choice we need to make.

The best thing you can do in any period of change is to bet on neither black or white. The future will be made up instead of shades of grey where few things are certain and the best you can do to prepare is to be endlessly adaptable.


Photo by Benjamin Child on Unsplash

Can Remote Work Usher in a New Era of Creativity?

Distributed working requires a whole system change. It requires trusting people, it requires removing unnecessary management, and it requires a seismic shift in how we collaborate with others.

This post is a version of a talk I gave for Qube as part of their Remote Working Thought Leaders Summit. It brings together some content from recent posts with some additional thoughts.

My personal take on innovation is that we sometimes focus too much on adding technology rather than removing barriers to reveal the things that people truly value.

A good example at the moment is that it’s easier to speak to a consultant or your GP than it ever has been before. By necessity COVID has forced them onto the phone rather seeing people face to face. The barriers around them have been removed, if only temporarily. This has largely been achieved without new technology.

My second take is we sometimes focus as organisations on searching for ideas rather than great problems to solve.

And given the Bank of England has forecast the deepest recession in 300 years plus we have a rapidly ageing population, increased automation of jobs, a creaking welfare state and the challenges of achieving net zero. I’d say we have enough problems to keep us busy. 

One of the things I’m wondering and the purpose of taking up your time is I’m thinking about how remote work can play it’s part in helping us tackle some of those challenges.  How could it increase our mental bandwidth so we can solve the great problems of our time?

As a side story – just after the UK lockdown started I found myself undergoing emergency surgery. I was nervous about going into hospital during the what was predicted to be the worst period of the virus and it was only my partner and some paramedics who forced me , quite literally , into an ambulance. 

So I had eleven days in isolation, major surgery and my family and friends were unable to visit. I had a lot of time for self reflection, and to observe from the inside how systems operate during periods of genuine crisis. I also had to have eight weeks off work for the first time in my career. 

I’ve been interested in remote working and have written about it and experimented with it for the past six years. So it’s a source of some frustration that I missed the beginnings of the biggest workplace experiment we’ve ever seen!

And I’m scared we are going to mess this once in a lifetime opportunity up.

I think it important to understand that this hasn’t been a true remote work experiment, rather it has been an enforced work from home experiment. We have to take into account the stress and turmoil that many people have been living with and the impact on their productivity.

However, COVID-19 has shown us what we can accomplish when we don’t project plan something to death.

Just days after the virus was declared a pandemic many companies managed to get upwards of 90% of people working remotely. Jobs that we never imagined could be performed remotely— jobs which I know people were told couldn’t be performed remotely – suddenly and successfully were handled from home.

The diagram from Matt Mullenweg illustrates the challenge of remote work quite well. Matt has outlined five levels of distributed work that are useful to reflect upon and I walk through them in my previous post.

Importantly Matt says that’s there’s a pain barrier at levels 2+3 where things can be more chaotic and less productive than being in an office. My take is a lot of companies are struggling to move forward from the chaos and it’s because of this: we lack the necessary collaboration skills or the incentive for collaboration just isn’t there.

Truth is — most of us simply don’t have strong in-person collaboration skills. It’s only recently that collaboration has been measured at schools.  Interestingly it found that on average across OECD countries, girls are 1.6 times more likely than boys to be top performers in collaborative problem solving. If you’re above the age 30 – it’s likely you won’t have been taught it at all.

Our companies are not great at collaboration , internally, with partners and with communities. Almost all of our organisational targets and performance frameworks reward short term outcomes rather than the purposeful thinking and patience that collaboration requires.

So our companies must invest in and nurture collaboration skills. 

Let’s briefly look at communities.

People have begun supporting and caring for one another to an unprecedented extent, with community led groups popping up to address needs in ways that organisations simply can’t.

To return to my point earlier – this has been achieved by taking things away not by adding new things in. Communities have stepped into the gaps left by institutions. 

I’m inspired by the work of the Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman who challenged the practice of adding more into communities with his idea of “Shared Spaces”. His concept was simple. Remove all traffic lights, signs, and road markings. The results were the opposite of what most people expected. The traffic moved slower, people paid more attention, and accidents ultimately declined.

Monderman’s theory was that increasing traffic regulations reduces personal responsibility

As he said “The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something. To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”

So trusting communities to do the right thing – to work with each other to solve problems – has to be a foundation of our next normal.

What we’re seeing is a huge desire for something else – both in our working lives and in our communities. We’ve started thinking about what a set of principles for collaborative working would look like that helps us move to another level.

The reason our organisations and our politics will often reject these models is that they threaten the existing order. Hierarchical and status obsessed cultures are incompatible with relationships based on equality, empowerment and collaboration.

Many people are claiming to have successfully rolled out remote working because they’ve got Microsoft Teams. That’s just the technology.

Distributed working requires a whole system change. It requires trusting people, it requires removing unnecessary management, and it requires a seismic shift in how we collaborate with others.

We won’t reach nirvana by accident – only through design.

In A Post-COVID World The Manager Is The Weak Link

In an increasingly remote and distributed world of work the employees who will have the biggest impact on the most people will rarely be the official leaders at the top.

When only 3% of a workforce is remote, managers can get away with business as usual. When that number climbs to 30%, fundamental changes to the nature of work become necessary.

Cal Newport

We are being forced into a massive reset.

For all that’s been written and said about remote work – this is Year Zero. Nobody knows what happens next.

Which way will our companies go?

Already we’ve seen Jack Dorsey of Twitter announcing in an email that those whose jobs didn’t require a physical presence would be allowed to work from home indefinitely. His Head of HR went further – saying that the company would “never probably be the same,” adding, “I do think we won’t go back.”

On the other hand, the engineering firm Dyson told staff who were able to work from home to return to the office this week, then cancelled the plan after a mutiny from dismayed employees.

It’s possible that some of this is genuinely out of organisational hands – less than 10% of people want to return to ‘normal’ after lockdown. People are enjoying improved air quality, less congestion and are reconnecting with nature. Four in ten people are feeling a stronger sense of local community.

It would be a brave company that chooses to ignore signals like that.

Although in the current economic environment it’s highly unlikely people are looking to jump ship from a secure job – but with recovery will come a completely different emphasis on employee work/life integration. This will be less a war for talent and more a war for wellbeing.

However , as the opening quote from Cal Newport reveals, it’s not just a different workplace or employee deal we need – it’s a completely different attitude to leadership.

The first post I wrote this year was entitled ‘Ending Our Obsession With Leadership’. It argued that we should all become less fixated on the leader as superhero and more focused on leveraging the community at every level of our organisations.

I suggested the most radical thing you could do is rip up your plans for leadership development – and concentrate instead on how you can democratise innovation and collaboration for the 80% rather than the 20%.

Crises have a way of revealing and recalibrating what leadership really means. As we’ve already seen in our communities the most impressive acts of true leadership have not come from CEOs, or our elected officials, or the media and the rest of the loud and the powerful.

True leadership has been revealed at street level.

It’s that lesson we must learn from – and take back to our organisations.

That won’t be easy because as Cal writes – when the number of remote workers climbs to 30% fundamental changes to the nature of work become necessary. This increases exponentially as the remote work force tips to 50 or 70, 80 percent.

He explains that we are currently in the ‘electric dynamo’ stage (referring to the first, unsuccessful, phase of electrification in factories), having adopted remote working but applied it to our existing pattern of work coordination because that is what our organisations are geared up for.

So we are working remotely , but doing the same work, and serving the same hierarchy. This can’t, and won’t, work over the long term.

One of the reasons for this is the weak link in the remote work equation – the manager and the leader.

As Bertrand Duperrin writes in a hugely persuasive piece “management in “command & control” mode does not survive the test of distance. The manager who only practises management by presence “exists” for his teams only if he is useful to them. From a distance they no longer see him“.

Bertrand goes on to question whether any existing HR or people team evaluate a manager’s ability to play their role in a widespread remote work context. I’ve made the same point in the past about collaboration and digital leadership.

He ends by suggesting that the ability to remote work should never be presumed. “It must be measured and, if necessary, assisted. However, it must be borne in mind that the company’s weak point in remote work, its main risk, lies less in the employee than in the manager.”

You can’t blame managers for the way they have been brought up. Management grew out of an era of mass production – of vertical command and control overseen by chiefs and officers.

But those days are over, density and depersonalised service are no longer desirable by consumers, with industries rapidly revamping their value proposition to recognise this. Huge infrastructure and scale – the things which were a massive competitive advantage – are increasingly a liability.

If we are witnessing the collapse of a leadership model based on command and control and vertical hierarchy this is going to place incredible strain on our current generation of leaders who will necessarily have to give away some power.

The thing we used to call leadership is now about breaking down barriers, collaborating at scale and giving people the freedom to create previously unseen opportunities for customers.

The long-standing problems that have thwarted remote office work are not about technology or infrastructure. They are about leadership – and our apparent failure to move much beyond a model developed in the industrial revoloution.

In an increasingly remote and distributed world of work the employees who will have the biggest impact on the most people will rarely be the official leaders at the top.

That’s the uncomfortable truth that many of us must now wrestle with unless we want to return to the old normal rather than create the new.


Featured Image by thedarknut from Pixabay

Death By Zoom: Have We Failed The Mass Home Working Experiment?

One of the few positives of the pandemic lockdown was the opportunity to reset the way in which we spend our working day.

This was the chance to prove that remote work actually works.

As someone whose job it is to run workplace experiments I’d say six or seven weeks is a very good point to get an initial idea of how we are doing. Our experience at Bromford Lab has shown us that if we don’t reflect on the learnings and remove the pain points within the first three months, the experiment will very likely fail.

This mass remote work experiment is something very different though – it’s not some small safe to fail venture. With billions of people across the world in some kind of lockdown, we are conducting the largest social, workplace and psychological experiment ever – all at the same time.

With so many alien factors that’s not a good basis for any considered evaluation, so we may not get a sense of what’s truly worked for some time. People’s productivity for example will be influenced substantially by the psychological impact of lockdown. The Lancet has reported that people who are quarantined are very likely to develop a wide range of symptoms, including low mood, insomnia, stress, anxiety, anger, irritability, emotional exhaustion, depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms.  Where parents are quarantined with children, the mental health toll becomes even steeper.

Therefore it is vitally important to understand that this isn’t a remote work experiment, it’s an enforced work from home experiment happening at the same time as the suspension of the most basic of our civil liberties.

That said , there is still a lot of learning to be had and luckily for us we have access to social networks where people are blogging their experiences, contributing to articles and giving us a treasure trove of anecdotal evidence.

The-phases-of-disaster-response-Image-When-disaster-strikes-Beverly-Raphael-1986-
The phases of disaster response
When disaster strikes, Beverly Raphael, 1986

It appears that after the initial optimism about remote working (arguably the ‘honeymoon period’ in terms of disaster response) people’s experience now seems to be decidedly mixed. We are possibly entering our ‘disillusionment phase’ as we yearn for a return to normal – despite the fact we never really liked normal in the first place.

The Positives

People are already valuing the loss of commuting time with a poll for transport consultants SYSTRA finding that 1 in 4 people said they plan to work from home more,  saving on travel time and cost, and striking a better work-life balance.

There’s been a major boost for video-conferencing, too. As many as 67% of people said they believe virtual meetings will replace some or all future business trips or meetings. The longer we have a lockdown the more people who haven’t previously used such tools will get used to them. The longer people spend not commuting and spending their money on fuel and transport the more resistant they will be to return to it.

The Negatives

Lockdown should have given us the opportunity to design our own unique workday.

It’s been well established that an enforced 9-5 saps our creativity and harms our productivity. One of the reasons is that we all sleep differently – and our internal clock shapes our energy levels, ability to focus, and creativity throughout the day.

This is known as our circadian rhythm and it has a profound effect on our creativity. It doesn’t work how you’d expect – for instance many morning people have more insights in the evening with night owls having their breakthroughs in the morning.

Each day on average we take a few hours to reach peak performance – at around 10:30am. Soon after lunch those levels start to decline before hitting a low point around 3pm.  Our second performance peak, at around 6pm, is reached after most offices have closed.

Working from home for long periods is the ideal opportunity to sync your worklife with your circadian rhythm.  However , anecdotal evidence seems to show that many employers haven’t allowed people to fully explore this.

Instead it’s only taken six weeks to replace meetings with even more meetings.

Technology has made it easy to hijack any available minute of someones time in just a few clicks. Organising a physical meeting is a complex activity – the logistics of finding everyone in the same place is especially painful.

However a fully virtual meeting can happen today at 5pm, as it’s not as if anyone is driving anywhere anymore.

Instant availability allows meetings to breed like rabbits taking over our calendar’s. Strict checks and balances – a sort of virtual distancing – need to be in place to ensure that our new workdays don’t just become a succession of Skypes and Zooms.

There are a lot of advantages to online meetings, but as Steve Blank has said, none of the current generation of apps capture the complexity of human interaction. The technology doesn’t emulate how people interact with others in person. Indeed “every one of these video applications has ignored a half-century of research on how people communicate.”

We’ve already got a new term ‘Zoom fatigue’ that recognises that video conferencing  leaves us with “a perplexing sense of being drained while having accomplished nothing.” Whilst perceiving subtle social cues takes little conscious effort in person, virtual interactions can be exhausting.

As Marissa Shuffler explains, if we are physically on camera we are very aware of being watched. “When you’re on a video conference, you know everybody’s looking at you; you are on stage, so there comes the social pressure and feeling like you need to perform. Being performative is nerve-wracking and more stressful.” Focusing on people’s faces, their bookcases, cats and home decor results in a sensory overload that makes us miss the the natural social cues that guide us in the real world.

So – the much maligned office actually did have something going for it. It actually restricted meetings on demand.

As Catherine Nixey writes in a must read piece – there’s one reason and one reason only that people miss the office: other people.

Skype, Zoom et al simply can’t replicate the social experience of chance encounters and just the experience of talking unguarded with our fellow humans.

“Humans need offices. Online encounters may be keeping us alive as social beings right now, but work-related video meetings are too often transactional, awkward and unappealing.”

It’s this conundrum that organisations must wrestle with in the coming months. The knee-jerk reaction would be to rid ourselves of offices. However, we could be storing up a huge problem down the tracks when it comes to social isolation and wellbeing.

We need to aim at least for a way of working that is more intimate, that embodies a sense of belonging and whose mainstay is quality focused time rather than being locked to a screen staring at a grid of faces.

We haven’t yet failed the remote working experiment.

However there are clear warning signs that we cannot allow technology to make it even easier for us just to be busier. New problems will emerge post-pandemic that require focussed, deep and productive work. Curtailing our nascent love affair with video conferencing is necessary – perhaps even requiring us to limit our screen time to a couple of hours each day.

The experiments we need to start – sooner rather than later – need to capture the best of home working (zero commute, flexibility, time spent locally) with the best of the office (random human connection, physical chemistry).

Anything less and we risk just swapping one dysfunctional model for another.


 

Photo by Edward Jenner from Pexels

Did A Virus Just Bring About The End Of The Office?

Remote work has accelerated 10 years in 10 days. The only thing that could pull people back to the office is the ego of the bad middle manager scared of losing control – Chris Herd

The revolution in remote working , when it came, was peaceful. Orderly even.

There was no fightback from technophobe hold-outs barricading themselves into their offices. They simply packed up their laptop and went home with the rest of us.

The way things worked two weeks ago are not working today. All our previous beliefs and prejudices have been thrown out the window.

The managers who believe that you can’t trust people to work productively from home have had to adapt to a whole new world. 

The people we were told were ‘change resistant’ have just demonstrated that they can change pretty damn fast actually.

Last week Bromford Lab hosted a debate about the new world of remote work and it was noticeable that –  after the initial shock – people have adapted to different ways of working very easily. The coronavirus has moved the future forward in many respects.

The biggest challenge for people seems to be not the technology – but any combination of juggling work with childcare, staying motivated, finding a new routine and dealing with a changing workload.

A caveat: let’s not confuse enforced home working during an international lockdown with flexible working.

However the virus has just kickstarted the world’s largest workplace experiment in history.  And right now there are going to be lots of CEOs and Boards looking at their empty offices which cost millions each year and thinking what the future looks like.

The World We Left Behind

Before we get all nostalgic about worklife before the lockdown let’s remember the world we had created.

Even if we only manage to cut meetings down by 50%, it’s conceivable that we could add 18 months of value back into the average workers life.

18 more months we could spend not working, but rather being with your kids or spending time with friends or your community.

Before life returns to ‘normal’ let’s consider carefully what we want to return to.

The World We Move Towards 

Now is the time for some reflection about what we value and what we stand for. The actions of the large companies who first thought is to ‘furlough the non-essentials’ will be remembered for decades to come. Similarly those companies who don’t support employees who are striking a very difficult balancing act between family care and work.

People only truly believe that a company has a purpose and clear values when they see them sacrificing short-term profitability for the sake of adhering to those values.

We will remember what companies do next.

As Nick Martin writes in a piece for The New Republic:

The work of care, of real meaning, is what we should be concerning ourselves with now. It is not optimized, or “disrupting,” or any of that. It is just essential. Reaching out to offer support to the soon-to-be overworked nurses in our communities, contributing to local funds and efforts to feed and adequately compensate grocery workers, restaurant workers, and others who are working at great risk and may be struggling to put food on the table. We should be offering to make shopping runs for our elders and other at-risk neighbors. This is the essential work that demands our attention now, too.

In the Bromford Lab debate there was a lot of talk of what life should be like when we return to ‘normal’. One of my favourite quotes came from my colleague Steve Nestor:

Who says ‘normal’ was the right way to do things? We have an ideal opportunity to reset, rethink and rewire ourselves to create a more productive, more connected, happier and healthier new ‘normal.

For all the pain people are living though right now there is huge opportunity here. We may never go back to living and working in exactly the same ways we did before. In fact it would be a collective failure if we were to do so.

We’ll now need a genuinely radical review of the purpose of offices and that means having to think very differently about what it means to “go to work”.

It means getting to know teams, and actually listening to people as individuals with unique and frequently messy lives – rather than as efficient worker drones.

Letting our people become the designers of their own unique workday, and giving them the tools and permissions to create a happier and more fulfilling life for everyone could be the start of something special.

 

 

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