For the last thousand years and beyond, there has been a steady, uninterrupted drift of the workforce from countryside to town. As our cities grew bigger, so too did the remorseless gravitational pull of their economies grow ever stronger, drawing people from field, to factory and ultimately to high rise offices with air-conditioning and pervasive wifi. And then, in March 2020, this situation suddenly changed: covid-19 entered our lives and changed workforce dynamics forever.
"It’s a pretty miserable experience spending your day moving from one pointless meeting to the next and never actually getting anything done. Is doing the same thing on zoom really a step forwards, or is it more of the same, only wearing slippers? "
Well, it did unless you were a bus driver or a nurse or refuse collector or a supermarket shelf-stacker. It turns out that our societies still depended heavily on people in often poorly-paid jobs to keep going to work in the face of the first global pandemic in a hundred years. But office workers? Well, for desk-bound professionals, it felt like working life was never going to be the same again. After years of hand-wringing over work/life balance, suddenly were forced by circumstances into working from home; meetings moved onto zoom or Teams and it turned out that, although it was occasionally inconvenient not to bump into Alison from Accounts to have that quick conversation about your expenses, actually, most things could still get done. And wasn’t it nice not to have to spend all that time and money on your commute? And to be home in time for tea every day and to read the kids a bedtime story? Once you’d got the spare room (if you were lucky enough to have one) kitted out as an office space, it really wasn’t so bad. You could get used to this.
When worries about covid began to subside, not surprisingly, lots of people weren’t that keen to rush back into the office on a full time basis. Not yet, anyway. Perhaps not ever. Hybrid working, a mix of face-to-face meetings and online working, looks like it’s here to stay.
Remote working can be difficult, but hybrid working brings its own set of challenges; it can be hard to know how to best work with people who could be either at home or in an office. Should we have that meeting with a couple of people dialling in remotely because they don’t come into the office on a Tuesday? Well, the technology is there to make it work, but just because it’s possible, doesn’t mean it’s optimal. People physically present in a room can spark off each other and engage dynamically, sharing ideas. It can be hard for people accessing that same meeting remotely to contribute in the same way. When you’re at home, it can be hard to see who’s talking in the meeting room or to read expressions, nevermind to share the jokes. Sometimes, you can barely hear what’s being said and it’s practically impossible not to just look at your own face staring back at you. When you’re in that meeting room, looking at a screen of faces, it’s much harder to see and engage with individuals or to effectively share and collaborate on documents or presentations. It can work, but….
Well, hold on. Do you even need to be having that meeting at all? As anyone who has ever worked in an office will tell you, it’s a pretty miserable experience spending your day moving from one pointless meeting to the next and never actually getting anything done. Is doing the same thing on zoom really any kind of a step forwards, or is it more of the same, only whilst wearing your slippers?
As ever, the key is finding the right balance.
Good hybrid working is always going to be a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous communication. That is to say, a harmonious blend of actual, honest-to-goodness meetings (whether online, face-to-face or a combination of the two) and offline collaboration; providing flexibility, whilst also allowing people to work effectively.
But how do you choose between synchronous and asynchronous? Well, knowing your audience is a good place to start. How do they like to work? Are they likely to be joining any meeting remotely? Is the meeting appropriate? Would a one-to-one conversation work better for them? Do they prefer to receive all the information in advance with time to mull it over and respond before responding? Everyone is different and people like to work in different ways. Take the time to find out what works best for your team.
Meetings definitely don’t work for everyone: a meeting - even if it’s well run, which let’s face it, is a pretty big ‘if’ most of the time - demands your immediate time and attention to the exclusion of everything else. This suits some people, but others prefer to have the space to order their priorities and to give each piece of work the appropriate amount of thinking time without having to contend with a cluttered diary. That’s not to say that all meetings are unnecessary, but it is definitely true that not everything needs to be discussed face-to-face, and that many of the things that do need a conversation would benefit hugely from being more focused.
The best meetings are quick, focused and will prioritise interaction over information sharing (which can be done outside the meeting). Human beings are social animals, and a meeting can help people to build relationships and to develop ideas by sparking off each other in the moment. A meeting does need to be intentional though. I’m sure you know all this, but a meeting should always be time-boxed and tightly planned, with a pre-circulated agenda to ensure that the time is focused and productive. This is especially important in a hybrid world where people may be joining the meeting remotely.
The meeting should have a chair who controls the agenda and who ensures that the ground rules for the meeting are both clear and followed. If there are people joining the meeting online, then it is especially important that you think how best to include them. Is that conference room with the single camera, screen and microphone really the best idea? Will everyone there be seen and heard? Does everyone joining the meeting have access to a decent camera and headset? It’s hard to overstate how difficult it is to join a meeting online when the other participants are sitting at the far end of a large conference room with a poorly placed microphone and a single camera. It’s important that all participants in the meeting can contribute effectively. Seek to include rather than exclude.
In some ways, it feels as though covid-19 has changed the working world forever. Perhaps it has, but some things haven’t changed at all. Whatever has changed, it remains true that the most important thing in life is to show a little care and consideration to those around you. That care could be shown by continuing to wear a mask on public transport or perhaps just by ensuring everyone in your team has a decent headset for online collaboration. Who knows, it might also be shown by choosing not to have that next meeting at all. Imagine that.