Stuart White 22-02-2021 9:30 AM
Categories: HRMC Articles written by Managing Director, Stuart White



 It used to be that a phone number was fixed item in a fixed location (your home, your office, etc.) Call someone and they're not there, no problem, leave a message or call again later.   Not any more.  Now we associate a phone number with a person, and the expectation is that wherever you are, whatever time of day or night it might be,  you're accessible. It’s astonishing and alarming that we feel we should be constantly available.  This morning I sent a message to a colleague asking if it was convenient to call (remember the days when you would just do it without asking permission?) and half an hour later I received his apologetic response, “Sorry I was not looking at my phone.” His guilt was tangible as he considered 30 minutes too long to have not checked his device.  That’s where the bar has been set nowadays.

Like many I have been working remotely on and off for the past year. It’s the new normal, the changing nature of the world of work, blah, blah, blah. Twitter told its employees they can work remotely forever. Coinbase has proclaimed themselves to be a “a remote-first” company and according to Microsoft, Facebook, Google they have told workers they don’t need them back in the office for a year. But, while many are embracing what looks like a workable and easy solution, I am having some doubts and not just about meeting the expectation of being available 24/7.

A few weeks ago, I was facilitating a strategy session remotely for a company with which I have a management contract. Because I am conscious of the research which suggests that video conferencing requires more focus than face-to-face chats and because of the energy required to stay ‘connected’, it was designed as 4 half-day Zoom sessions. It’s a small team which I know well and intimately yet by the third session I halted the process and boarded a plane the following week to roll up my sleeves and do the work that quite simply could not in this instance be done remotely.

There were several reasons why I felt my physical presence was necessary, not least of which was that on Zoom I was missing so much of the non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language. As the facilitator tasked with achieving an objective, it felt like I was climbing a mountain single handed, dragging each participant along.  The disconnect was palpable – our minds may have been together, but our bodies were not – and that dissonance was having a huge negative effect.

If you’re a leader you know very that your ability to communicate is critical and it is likely to be one of your most important assets. You can do that on Whatsapp, Zoom or over the phone but the power of being present, not just psychologically but physically, is necessary - at least occasionally or when the work to be done is critical. Looking back on what ended up being a highly positive engagement which achieved the desired results, I know that it could never have been achieved on the video call. It scares me now that I thought it could and I will have to re-set.  That may change in the future but for now, for me, a remote approach to team facilitation involving complex work where participation, commitment and creativity is required has serious limitations even with a homogeneous group.

What worries me however is how much we have bought into the notion that working remotely is the way to go.  I have been an advocate of it and, may have carried on merrily down that road (perhaps because the narrative suits me at the moment) rarely questioning if I was missing something or being ineffective, but my experience has really called its efficacy into question.

Remote working is not all dubious for me now. )ne of the most significant changes and benefits is with performance management. Having employees work remotely has forced me to focus attention on work done, not on hours worked. A change that staff have reported to me is that they feel more compelled to produce work instead of getting caught up on the busy-ness of being at the office where they are pulled this way, then that and down a dozen different rabbit holes, resulting in them exhibiting super frenetic behaviour, albeit with very little to show for it. Instead, staff report they are more likely to prioritise now and think about what to produce for the day.

When remote working started, I knew that we would have to figure it out as we went along but maybe weighing the pros and cons is a little more complicated than I realised. I have not even mentioned people who don’t want to or can’t work remotely because of a host of socio-economic reasons. And, besides the fact that tele-driven work is not feasible for all sectors and jobs, what about the work life balance, the gender divide and employees’ need for separation of home and office. The other thing which feels obvious is when people work together physically, they are more likely to feel part of a team sharing a joint purpose. That’s difficult to recreate online. Trust me, it is exactly the problem I ran into. You may talk about online engagement but, it’s hardly the same thing as being in someone’s space, looking into their eyes, sensing, and intuiting through an experience which is wholly human and natural. It’s not easy to get the model right. Much needs to be taken into consideration.

Maybe it boils down to one simple thing. Real human interaction is familiar. It’s comfortable. It’s easy to use. And it has fared us well in for generations up until this moment. If we take it too much of it away it might just end up being the biggest killer of results and productivity in the office today.  Because if working together is key, how is that to be fully achieved apart? 




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