How to prepare for tomorrow’s business challenges
Late last week, I had the great pleasure to moderate a virtual roundtable to reflect on how the world of work is changing in light of the events of the last few months. As you can see from the screen shot above, we engaged in a little more than just lively discussion (that’s me, top left).
Hosted by the Executive Leaders Network (ELN) and sponsors RingCentral (who kindly provided the drinks delivered to our homes), the evening kicked off with introductions – including which drink we were enjoying (mine was superb craft beer). Followed by a presentation from our guest speaker Gareth Johns – Senior Director, Vertical Solutions at RingCentral, and then a 90-minute roundtable discussion. It proved to be a very interactive evening, with lots of peer-to-peer discussion (and an explosion in the chat backchannel!)
Right from the outset, one thing was immediately clear – ‘the genie is out of the bottle’ as far as working from home is concerned; whilst several reported challenges in rapidly enabling staff to work from home, many commented that it is now proving challenging getting them to return to work – what started out as a necessity has now become a choice, what was once only for a minority has become the majority.
In opening his presentation, Gareth touched on this very topic, including referencing a recent study conducted by Morgan Stanley’s research unit Alphawise: the UK is lagging most of Europe, with around 34% of staff back in the office, whereas the leader (France) has 83% back in the workplace. I am not convinced that this is necessarily a bad thing, or is representative of where we may be if-and-when a vaccine becomes available, but it is startling nonetheless.
Gareth also highlighted some of the benefits of working from home, including; increased productivity, enhanced employee well-being (most of us are not missing commuting), access to a wider talent pool and significant cost savings. This was echoed by the group, but there were some caveats too; some tasks are harder to accomplish (such as team-based creativity, diagnosing technical faults), many employees are missing the social aspects of the ‘traditional’ workplace, and good working practices for things like video conferencing are still a work in progress.
A consensus seems to be that some form of hybrid working environment is going to become the norm; some working from home, some in the office, some rotating between the two. That said, it’s going to need some planning to make sure that the people, the processes and the technologies are all aligned (a few noted that if working from home is to become widespread, the technology will need to be upgraded to replicate the functionality of dedicated office-based systems).
One particular challenge that was repeatedly mentioned was the difficulty of working within the confines of domestic broadband – poor availability, limited bandwidth and contention seeming to be top of mind (especially when that bandwidth is shared within a household).
We also had a somewhat detailed discussion about privacy, security and compliance, although I believe we all agreed that the question of ‘trust’ has pretty much been answered (besides, if you don’t trust your employees, why did you hire them in the first place?).
Top tip: if you are thinking of moving the country to work from home with a view – check out high-speed internet availability and speeds first!
As for people and culture? Well that too stimulated discussion. As mentioned above, once the initial novelty wore off, it became clear that not all employees are enjoying the working from home experience – finding themselves on back-to-back team calls (often well into the evening), or feeling isolated or unable to stay abreast of what was happening in the wider organisation. Here are some of the great points we discussed to help:
- Leaders need to over-communicate to their organisations
- Managers need to make time to regularly ‘check in’ with their line reports
- Colleagues should do the same for their peers
- If you can, leave your camera on – humans rely heavily on non-verbal cues
- Leave a little time at the start or end of a meeting for socialising
- Leave some ‘me time’ between meetings and take proper breaks
One thorny issue was about maintaining an effective team culture in a virtual or hybrid workplace:
Challenge one was about launching a new team and some great recommendations here include holding a social event (like this group – a shared drink and chat), ‘buddying up’ new team members with more experienced colleagues, and my favourite, doing ‘ice breaker’ activities that translate well to video conferencing.
Challenge two was about how to replicate the creative process that worked so well in whiteboard sessions: One example solution shared was someone who had a real whiteboard in their home office with a camera facing it (you can buy very good non-permanent whiteboards cheaply), but there are also virtual whiteboards that work well in video conference environments.
My advice is to learn from the experts in running focus groups and workshops; they’ve developed some great techniques for ensuring everyone contributes and is heard (my favourite is something called ‘working alone, together’ – it engages introverts whilst also not letting the extroverts dominate the conversation – message me if you would like to know more).
I’m going to finish on a discussion that arose out this question; “we’ve seen a lot of transformation over the last few months, do you think that this represents a) an acceleration of existing transformation programmes, b) completely new, unplanned work and, on a related note, did we have to sacrifice anything along the way?
I liked this response from one of the group:
“We’ve achieved in 15 weeks what would normally take 15 years”
…a huge acceleration. Indeed, several others expressed similar stories, although a few admitted that they had already embarked on their programme early in 2020, but had to shift up a gear in February/March. A few said that other initiatives had been deferred for a while, but not cancelled.
However, there was a cautionary note – we’ve shown we can do it once, we might be setting an expectation that we can do it every time (for me, what stood out was that what had been achieved had required an extraordinary (and unsustainable) level of effort, some considerable risk and not a little funding: by-and-large it has worked, but there will be a lot of retrofitting all the stuff we ignored along the way for several months yet).
We were online for 3 hours (as scheduled) and a few hardy souls stayed online even longer to continue the discussion and explore more deeply some of the points raised (and we covered a lot of ground – far more than I could squeeze into this article).
All-in-all, I would say that this format was a success. The team at ELN and RingCentral did a fantastic job of planning and preparing for a great social evening – even though we were hundreds of miles apart. Kudos too goes to the backroom team on the night for keeping it all ticking along.
Finally, here is a key takeaway I would like to share with you – when you spend a little time thinking about, planning and preparing for a virtual gathering, it’s amazing how natural it feels and how much you can achieve whilst still having fun.