The New (Best) World

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Finally, where I work and live (in California), we can take a little breather from Covid restrictions. Of course, we are not out of the woods yet.  What is clear is that we are all eager to re-engage in the society (with friends/families/colleagues). Part of the re-engagement is finding how we will work.  While some people are missing the creative connection of the office and are happy to return, some are questioning the old ways of work, spending hours on commuting so that everyone can be under the same roof at least all the time. The old assumption is that we are all more productive when we are in the same physical space, but, is it really true?

I recently listened to an interview with the author of “Leading Without Authority” on the national radio, “Why you might not want to rush back to the office”, the interviewee is advocating for a new openness for the way of work in the post-pandemic era. He said that business leaders now have a unique opportunity to revamp their work and collaboration process with in-person, hybrid, and remote work technology and organizational structures going forward. He believes this can boost effectiveness by reducing inefficiencies.  Companies can be more responsive to customer needs, and in some ways boost innovation without 60-hour weeks. He said that it is a poor assumption from the company management that individuals cannot be wildly effective, responsive, and innovative in a remote/hybrid setting. The reality is, we can in fact perform well or even better, if we use the tools well and stay open to finding what structure or schedules work “best.”

Prior the pandemic, it was assumed that in-person customer contact and collaboration was the best, but after 18 months; we are seeing new ideas for what “best” looks like.  It was awful to have to work remotely, and it was wonderful that some of us could continue to work remotely.  Then something unexpected happened; we found out that the forced changes were sometimes more efficient and somethings we use to do were not as necessary as we had come to believe.  We learned to focus on the most important “value-add” work/communication… etc., because we had limited ways to connect.  We learned to structure our communications with feedback loops because we did not have all the in-person body language to indicate what was understood or agreed with.  What emerged include: #1. We can collaborate without physical meetings; #2 short remote meetings can be highly responsive to the needs of teams or sales/service and customers; #3. With structure, virtual meeting can add focus and clarity to the priority purpose because all the stakeholders can be present without all the delays and down time of moving people to a physical space; and #4, the physical meeting, is still needed, but likely should only be preserved for more strategic less timely needs, like when we really need to go deeper than we would have been able to get otherwise on for really difficult/or complex problems.  These situations require everyone to use all the visual in-person clues as possible.  When we use “right” kind of meeting for the “right” purposes, then we will have the “right” kind of work environment.

Once we know there is the need to call for meeting, the second important factor is to decide who need to be there, not who can be there based on where they live or work.  The appropriate and relevant usage of available tools, such as Zoom/ other similar applications can drive outcomes. “Breakout rooms” allow more focused discussion to happen in the blink of an eye vs everyone physically moving around or worse, traveling.  The large group format can encourage participants to speak up, seen as equal, so others can connect the dots more freely.  These tools offer the chance to make meaningful and deeper connections with partners, customers, stakeholders because they feel included even when they are not physically close.  Because virtual communication has to be managed so everyone is not speaking over one another, activities like brainstorming can be even more effective innovative and collaborative. Managers will get more input on the real issues when everyone has a space on the screen and you go around the screen with every one offering their best thinking than just throwing out “are there any questions?” in a big in-person group setting.

Things we are likely to see, are firms taking a cautious approach to hybrid work to find evidence of what works “best” with the least disruption. The continuation of the past decades movement to output (how much you create, sell, fix…) performance measurement vs input (how much time you spend…). And what may have been a big miss in the past, is that overall effectiveness needs to be considered in individual performance evaluation, to encourage every team member to consider how and where they do their job affects the success of the company.

I can say that I have been working “remotely” for nearly a decade. I have to say that I get a lot more done without all the interruptions that happen in open offices compared to the time when I, as an employee, previously worked Monday – Friday, had to commute to a section of London, or downtown Shanghai or Central in Hong Kong. The key reasons why it works so well for me is that I am more effective with I can laser-focus my ON time, and then break focus with a little moving around or reading articles I have saved about new logistics and work trends. I guess I am more of a HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) kind of athlete where I hyper concentrate for a short time, run as fast as I can versus a marathon runner. I also add to my effectiveness by using my breaks to shift to using another part of my brain. As an example is how I work with tools, such as emails/messaging aps/social apps.  I go dark when I need my “best” focus, then I switch to work on email to gather requirements or context, and then I change again and dive completely into tools like instant messaging and calls to make real-time connections.  Being able to focus, consider, and be instantly connected is a godsend in remote/hybrid situations.

Depending on your profession/function/temperament, some of this might not work. However, there are indeed scientific studies that concur with my own experience. Using focused time and short breaks helps increase productivity and efficiency, and it is definitely about quality instead of quantity (hours spent) at your desk that counts.

Many of us are longing for the human connection and interaction again, myself included. Or, perhaps some are looking forward to being back in “control” again. Now that we have the technologies to support a new way of working and collaboration, I think it is worth us pondering how best we can take advantage of what we have learnt in recent months, and what we could do (even) better in the future, and not squandering this once-in-a life-time opportunity to see what really works “best.”