In the space of a few short days the Public Sector Plc team went from being office based, to working from home. We did this without missing a beat and with no need for any changes in the technology or the platforms we currently operate from. Indeed, investing in cloud-based IT systems for productivity, communication and accounting, was actually a cheaper and far more powerful, yet flexible solution, than running a server in our office with all the associated costs, risks and inflexibility that go with it.
I have been looking for an analogy for this. Overnight we went from one way of working, collaborating and interacting, to another, totally different way, without doing a thing. It’s a bit like waking up one morning and finding that you are now left-handed when you went to bed right-handed. You had both hands all along, you just now use them both completely differently.
If offices are expendable, because we have just proved that we simply don’t need one, why did we have one at all? Or, if they aren’t expendable, what have we lost as a consequence of not being able to go to one? So, let’s consider those points above; working, collaborating and interacting.
Working clearly varies from person to person, job role to job role. Let’s assume for the moment that working is the functional aspects of any individual role, writing reports, running numbers, researching, chasing consultants and contractors. It is either individually focused or external focused, but not reliant upon the corporate organism of colleagues and systems. It follows that as long as you have a phone, laptop and internet connection you are able to function effectively.
Collaboration is, perhaps, the lifeblood of any organisation, it is vital that all of the cogs that make up the machine of the company turn in sync together. The accounts team share data with the development management team bringing forward schemes with our public sector partners that engage with our housing team to bring forward a low carbon housing scheme, for example. Does this require everyone to work from the same office for the machine to tick over smoothly? Again, no, we already operate from three offices and things get done. The digital platforms we have enable us to share documents, work three or four at a time on the same report or presentation and process information. So, I’m still asking, why do we have not one, but three offices?
This brings us to interaction and this, I think, explains the need for the physical connection that an office provides. If collaboration is the lifeblood, interaction is the soul of the company. The shared bonds, knowing your colleagues, their quirks, backstory, strengths and counting on their support. Not the hierarchical relationships of corporate structure, but the intangible bonds that come from knowing and working with each other for more waking hours in the week than you spend with your own family. Building, maintaining and strengthening these bonds is most at risk when the opportunity to be together is suddenly taken away.
Except, of course, we haven’t stopped being together. Indeed, one of the remarkable things about the current enforced separation is that we have come together more as a one team than time, geography and cost would previously have allowed. Enter the video meeting. We have been using video calls in both a formal and informal capacity for meetings as small as one to one right up to whole company get togethers and they have been a huge success and have enabled ‘face to face’ contact with a frequency that simply wasn’t possible before.
But, that is only part of the story. We recently launched a set of corporate values; respect, creativity, action and practice. We worked together as a team to decide the values that captured our collective ethos and could tell the world what we stood for as a team. These could never have been hammered out over a video conference. We needed to be together, to feed off each other’s ideas and energy.
And that is what might get lost from not being together in an office. Except, that is, these bonds, ideas, energy and identity aren’t fostered by the desks and meeting rooms on the floors of the offices we occupy in London, Manchester and Birmingham. They come from the times when we meet out of the office, or go out together, sit in coffee shops before meetings with our partners or retreat to the pub after a long day.
Perhaps, what we need to go with more digital connectivity, is more, but better quality, less focused, bond making time together as a team. To celebrate together, think crazy thoughts, push and challenge each other. Get to know each other, be there for each other and forge the relationships that the cold video conference can help to sustain during the periods in between.
My top takeaways from the current enforced period of separation would be;
- open as many channels of communication as possible
- overcommunicate to make sure the team don’t feel isolated
- go the extra mile to keep in touch with all colleagues and not just the ones you work with day to day
- bring the whole team together regularly and encourage open dialogue
- lastly, make sure it’s not all about work. You can have fun in your virtual office too!
Like most business, we spend a considerable amount of money each year on office costs. It is a good chunk of overhead. Imagine if we pared that back to provide an agile workspace necessary for the business to function at a corporate level. Then imagine the we spent whatever was left over on really great team-wide events to build, celebrate and live our shared values, aspirations and goals. I wonder what impact that might have on team unity and overall productivity, whilst, on the other hand offering everyone the potential for a better work life balance, a reduction in carbon footprint from less travelling and a saving in commuting costs?
There are some tantalising ideas there that I think we really ought to discuss as a team as we take a long hard look at how we can work best together once we are in a world beyond the coronavirus.
Perhaps, we will wake up on that morning and find that being ambidextrous is the best possible way to work when you have two hands.