Return to The Office

Yesterday, Tuesday September 1st, 2020 my organisation returned from the ‘Work From Home’ situation (employed on 24th March, 23 weeks ago) back into our office. Although the office building was declared ‘COVID Safe’ on 16th June I felt the staff needed a period of notice to prepare to return, and we also needed a better understanding of how reliable London public transport would be. I eventually selected 1st September as the date to work towards and instructed everyone to prepare to return then. Those unable to return would need to apply for ‘flexible working’ as per the pre-existing extant policy.

Why return now? Why not wait until the New Year? Why not have a phased return? I based my decision on a number of factors, including:

  • All my instincts are telling me this remote working is not as effective or sustainable as we may think. Our organisation functions better, to a higher standard, when we are together.
  • Sitting on an endless stream of video calls is even more exhausting than attending meetings in the office – Video conferencing was cognitively exhausting. Creativity, and speed of action, is beginning to show signs of fatigue.
  • Video conferencing is an evasion of my home – making the ability to separate work and home more challenging, and draining.
  • We cannot spend all our meetings focused on work; we need the broader conversation to feel connected. That can only truly work in face-to-face situations.
  • Humans crave connection, the feeling of being in the tribe. Much of the bonding we gain from work happens outside the immediate office (water cooler, corridors, the pub).
  • Many people found the loneliness of working from home very real.
  • We need structure, routines and rhythms – these are different for different people, but are I suggest more difficult to achieve working from home.
  • Problem solving was taking far too long. I longed for the time when one or two of us could sit around a table, with the problem in front of us, and find immediate solutions. This ease of working rarely seemed to work remotely.

Importantly, the risk assessment conducted of the office building (based on government guidelines) demonstrated there was no reason for the team to not be in the office. It is impossible to eliminate risk, and the government guidelines emphasised the importance of everyone having a personal responsibility to manage the risk – that in itself is teamwork, something which is of vital importance in re-building the operational high level of performance needed to survive and thrive post-lockdown.

Back in my office

I believe we need to learn to live with the virus, as we do with many other diseases. One also cannot overlook the ‘numbers’ emerging from the government. In London, population 8 million, last week saw only 9 deaths from COVID – 0.00011%. Areas of London have little or no infections. On Monday the national total for the UK was just 1407 infections from a population of 66.60 million – 0.0022%. National UK deaths were just 3 people (0.000005%). Any non-scientific review will indicate the moment of ‘Save the NHS’ has long passed, and we are now dealing with an infectious virus rather than a ‘killer disease’. Finally, the data clearly shows there is at-risk group in society (those with serious existing underlying health issues, and the very elderly), which forms a small percentage of the population. Shield and screen those people, but let the rest of the country quickly return to normal. I fear, looking at those numbers (0.0022% of the population infected by a virus) we have lost all sense of proportion and perspective.

It is time to learn to live with the virus, following the basic (original) public health advice of respecting social distancing, frequent hand washing and sanitising, and move forward and recognise that more long-term damage is being done by staying locked-down, and curbing business and economic growth.

I do though believe some lessons may be learnt from this work from home ‘experiment’, but I suggest the immediate focus on the concept of ‘flexible’ working rather than just ‘remote’ working is the best course of action. I will be looking at the potential to restructure the working environment around teams and key meetings. Attendance may have to be built around such an approach – ‘flexible’ and output focused. More of that later!

In making my decision to instruct all the staff to return to the office I was very taken by a quote I read recently from Dr Elena Antonacopoulou, professor of organisational behaviour at University of Liverpool. She advocated leaders adopt VUCA, which stands for:

Good leaders provide vision where there is volatility, understanding where there is uncertainty, clarity where there is complexity, agility where there is ambiguity. VUCA, I suggest, is what is needed now.

The leadership trait for VUCA, and needed now, is to act ethically. To act ethically requires one key trait: Courage. In practice this means to be a true ethical leader, to engender deep trust and loyalty, starts with telling the truth. Telling those being led not what they want to hear, but rather what they need to hear – that is ethical leadership in action. Does getting out from our homes and travelling to our offices come with risk? For sure. But isn’t the role of leadership to have the courage to say so, and to explain that risk in its broader context of life and risk in general?

Happily back in the office

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