Full time remote teams? The honeymoon’s coming to an end

By March 9, 2021 Performance

2020 forced us to embrace remote working and many have fallen in love. It makes sense, it saves time, money and energy and helps life feel more balanced. Apart from the home-schooling part as many a frazzled working parent will tell you. So in love are some that they claim they never need visit an office again; that they can connect with their colleagues perfectly well from a distance. As usual love is blind and if you look closely, the cracks are starting to show, so to avoid a splinter becoming a full-blown shatter, read on.

Firstly, some context. We haven’t worked permanently in an office for 30 years. We’re not sure we’d know how to anymore. We’d probably make endless faux pas and get hauled into small rooms for someone to have a word about speaking too loudly, snorting when laughing and upsetting Anna by drinking Vimto out of her favourite mug which says “Be grateful every day” on it – grateful for the mug indeed but that is beside the point.

In our many years of being office based, field based and managing both remote teams and ones who sit back-to-back, we can conclude that we are great fans of remote working. Follow the rules of good practice and any fellow nomad will tell you it’s an efficient and effective way to be a strong contributor. It is interesting then, that a one year enforced ban on office working for most, has highlighted the real value of being together with colleagues in one place and what we’re losing by being apart.

You may have observed working patterns in 2020 when the pandemic hit and then hung around. We can summarise these into three stages:

Stage one: Set Up and Reassure. Many industries moved fast to get people what they needed to function at home, set up morale building initiatives and a rash of one to ones and team meets to ensure everyone was coping and smiling. And if you were lucky, standards were adjusted, and expectations managed.

Stage two: Keep Calm and Commute. With home working now the norm, standards were restored. As restrictions eased, albeit temporarily, some ventured back into offices whilst others preferred (and in many cases were encouraged) to remain at home. Office returners welcomed more space, resources and human contact but had to navigate one-way systems, handwash stations and the shock of being only one of two people in the office.

Stage 3: Back in Solitary. A winter lockdown held little of the novelty of its sunnier predecessor and motivation levels waned. And that is pretty much where we are now, with hope on the horizon that we will emerge blinking into the light at some point soon.

These stages have served to show what we are truly missing by being apart and what we can do without. Here are three of each – add them to the mix when you discuss your longer-term policy for where work is located in future and how that impacts on business, team working and the sector in general.

Three reasons you don’t need to be in the office:

  1. For team members to do their individual work. Provided everyone has the resources they need, space and peace to work and a bit of self-discipline, we’re all discovering we can get more done apart. We benefit from less chatter and “can you spare me a minute?” type distractions. No commute for many has been a game changer and we’re getting our heads down to deliver to tight deadlines.
  2. To check up on your team. You really don’t. Remember what you had before all this upheaval – your employees were trustworthy, worked hard and the last thing they needed was micromanaging. They still don’t. This is an adjustment for team leaders – it’s tough not to have face-to-face access to people and what they are up to, but it’s a vital adjustment to make, if you want to lead a high performing team.
  3. To perform the comms basics. Updates – one to one, team or business can be done perfectly well through the range of remote tools we’ve all mastered. And if point two is bringing you out in hives, remember you can check up on progress during these catch ups.

Having flown the flag for remote working, here are three powerful reasons why we need a return to base camp, for some of the week at least.

  1. To learn from more experienced colleagues. What got you to the level you are at now? I’m guessing a lot of it involved grafting, being thrown in at the deep end, falling down, wiping your grazes and getting back up again to be better. But you will also have learned a lot from others, from just being around them. When you saw your line-manager excel at a negotiation, overheard a conflict well handled, shadowed a colleague and watched them deal expertly with a major client– that learning was absorbed without you even realising. The pandemic has wiped out these little gems of learning. We need to be back together again so less experienced team members can learn from the veterans. So many of these nuggets happen by chance, it’s impossible to recreate them virtually.
  2. For team cohesion. At some point, teams need the warm body experience. Teams who were geographically spread pre-Covid still knew they were going to meet up at some point in the year. If these events are well facilitated with meaningful agendas, they create a sense of team so powerful, it keeps us going until we meet again. The shared experience stops people getting scratchy with each other from a distance. We recognise the value in the relationship and keep collaboration levels high. You spot the mole hills before they expand to mountains. You get a feel for how people are in a way you just can’t on screen.
  3. For a sense of company culture. Despite all the work your business has done to develop company values, behaviours and guidance on “the way we do things around here”, there’s a missing piece. As it turns out, culture also has a postcode. We need to be in a building to truly get a sense of the company we have joined. No one is more surprised by this than us, but we have been involved in a number of virtual onboarding projects and it is a bump in the road we keep hitting. There is something about co-habiting while working that gives us a clear sense of culture. Central operations dictate the primary culture with regional hubs adding vital subcultures. They help us work and behave as one brand. It’s official, you have to be there. Not every day, but some of the time.

As with most things in life, balance is boring but key. Let’s create a future that combines a respect for remote working with a newfound energy for the office. For the good of team, we must once again learn to live together – and apart and maximise the benefits of both.