Shrink at home or grow at work.
Working from home has become the default setting for many businesses. And now the pandemic is starting to shape shift, it is likely to continue in some form or other.
Employees have discovered that there are many benefits to working remotely.
To begin with, there is better work-life balance. People can multitask. They can switch between work projects and personal tasks throughout the day. Whereas before, work was for work. Pursuing personal agendas in the office was frowned upon.
You could argue that working from home fosters a healthier lifestyle (although there is evidence of people visiting the fridge more often).
One thing is for certain, employees save a fortune on travel costs – and at the same time, lower their carbon footprint.
But what about the other side of the coin?
Where there’s Ying, there’s Yang. And so it is with remote working.
Many companies have implemented robust ‘work from home’ practices. They have found ways to get their people to work differently, with greater accountability and greater focus on what really matters in the business. That’s all good.
But a business environment where there is no human contact at all, in the long run, is detrimental to both company and employee.
As a species, we need human contact. We crave it.
In the workplace it’s a special kind of relationship. We’re part of a team. Tightly knit by shared beliefs, shared objectives and shared purpose. The best companies in the world are propelled forward by a heightened level of camaraderie.
In behavioral science, it’s called homophily – or as the old greek idiom goes, ‘birds of a feather flock together’.
But here’s the problem. This level of teamwork cannot be nurtured in a remote setting. For it to emerge, people have to brush shoulders with each other, exchange water cooler banter, take part in working lunches, share victories, face adversities and let off steam together.
The hybrid approach?
We have to live with a remote working culture going forward. There’s no debate about that.
But it would be a tragedy if the next generation of office workers didn’t have the opportunity to learn in a traditional office environment. Important lessons would be missed. Growth would be stunted.
In my career, for example, I’ve learned the most insightful, inspiring and valuable lessons from serendipitous meetings that ‘happened’ because I’d randomly bumped into someone. A colleague who would share an idea, let me in on a conversation or pass on a pearl of wisdom.
And then there were the times I was pulled into a meeting at the last minute, only because there was a vacant chair that needed to be filled. And I just happened to be passing by the meeting room at that exact moment.
In one of these meetings, I was lucky to witness my boss give a masterclass in sealing a multi-million dollar deal. Those lessons have stayed with me ever since and have made me a better leader.
Learning from bad behavior
And it’s not just the good stuff you learn from. It’s the bad stuff you learn from, too. A lot of my professional education came from dealing with office politicians and toxic managers. I learned how to counter their poisonous tactics, how to navigate around the obstacles they would throw in my way and how to challenge them directly when they went too far.
I was also exposed to unconscious bias, a pervasive behavior that occurs far too regularly in corporate environments. I learned how to spot it, how to deal with it and how to push past it.
These encounters were invaluable. They were an important part of my growth.
In the virtual world, it is just too easy to avoid these meetings and these confrontations. Which means employees don’t gain important experience. They’re left deficient. Unprepared for future challenges as a manager or leader.
The communication gap
The other skill that suffers when we spend all our time on zoom, is communication. People are hopeless, at the best of times, at communicating their ideas to a group of people. They are much more comfortable sharing their ideas in intimate situations, person to person. Having to speak to a group via a zoom call does not help them. It makes matters worse.
Moreover, working from home means long periods of isolation. Silence. And a deprivation of input from others. A zoom call can’t make up for this. Even though the technology is great, it still lacks the human connection that you can only really get from talking with someone face-to-face.
The human factor makes the difference
Aside from the new working protocols brought on by the pandemic, there has been too much talk about productivity and not enough about human skills.
We are all losing the efficiency race, day-by-day, to AI and quantum computing. For mundane tasks and high level number crunching, robots have a role.
But there is one thing they cannot be. And that is human. Robots are a long way off from being able to replicate our emotions, our thought processes (sometimes irrational but ingenious), and the soft, intangible approaches that can mean the difference between business success and failure.
What we have as humans, are human skills. In the new culture of remote working, leaders need to focus on creating an environment that allows them to develop and flourish. That isn’t going to happen sitting at home, on the 10th Zoom call of the day, with the camera off and microphone on mute.
We owe each other far more.
Conclusion: shrink or grow
Remote working has to be balanced with human connection. We simply can’t grow to the best version of ourselves when we’re working in isolation. Interacting with other people, with our mentors, with our leaders, is vital for personal and career growth. Strip away that intimacy, delegate those cultural roles to zoom and we’ll find ourselves stagnating. And in this fast-paced world, standing still is not a good career move.