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Future Advice About Going Back To The Office

Jon Barnes
Written by Jon Barnes March 13, 2021

As some semblance of hope starts to bubble up and our minds tempt us with the thought of things going back to normal, I have a small fear about things going back to what they were. Mainly about everybody going back to the office. My advice: Don’t.

Well no that’s not good enough. That’s bad advice actually. Some people will need to, and some jobs will require it but… well at least be careful.

Hmm… here are some thoughts.

The pandemic has been devastating. This I’ll acknowledge upfront. The sheer loss of life is immensely tragic.

From an economic standpoint it has also been tragic (which feels secondary at first, but let’s not forget the very human consequences of this).

And yet, when we have grieved and are able to look beyond the suffering, we see some silver linings. Remote work has in many (not all) cases been one of them.

The paradox of a year at home

Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t always the case. I’m aware that so many people have experienced it all so differently just by virtue of having different minds, let alone different financial situations, family situations, housing situations...etc.

I heard a story of somebody living in a small studio flat recently with their partner both working from home and having to rotate who took Zoom calls sitting on the toilet.

How incredibly difficult this must be for a person’s mental health. And yet for others (I’m lucky to be one of them), this has been liberating. More time with my family, less time working, easier to work across multiple projects… etc.

So it’s strange because I think this could be the biggest shared experience in our lifetimes but also the most individual experience ever.

What a strange paradox. The illusion of all being in the same boat, and yet having potentially radically different experiences.

Empathy and compassion feel particularly important.

An act of imagination, to wonder what it is like to be somebody else and to not make assumptions or take a ‘shared’ situation for granted. To really reach out to people and understand how they are, to get that extra context for somebody’s lived experience is I think vital both on a human and professional level when working remotely.

What a strange paradox. The illusion of all being in the same boat, and yet having potentially radically different experiences.
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The opportunities from remote work

And so whilst there are undoubtedly big downsides for some, I’d like to look on the bright side of remote working. I think the potential upsides in many contexts are now there to be seen.

Before the pandemic, I used to often tell organizations wanting (repetition intentionally) to shift to adaptive ways of working that remote working is one of the few structural shortcuts.

I had experienced this whilst working with one client who through testing a fully remote policy (at first one day per week) experienced the ripple effects of higher transparency, less man-management, more asynchronous work getting done…etc.

Now after months on Zoom, we all know that there are downsides if mismanaged, but still, time and time again I hear people saying they are grateful for the benefits.

Tips for a return to ‘normality’

And so what next? We all head back to the office? That seems a great shame. To not take anything positive from this experience seems almost disrespectful to what we’ve been through, it certainly doesn’t seem to constitute learning.

So do we all stay at home? Well, that isn’t what many people or jobs need. I would certainly welcome a return to in person serendipity, time away from screens, and meetings where we look into each other’s eyes and notice body language and nonverbal queues.

What about half-half? A ‘hybrid’ experience?

Well, I think this probably is desirable and yet there are pitfalls, some obvious and practical, others more abstract and systemic.

Here are some that come to mind immediately, I’m sure there are many more (please feel free to share yours in the comments). I share them in the hope that some reading this article can prepare well and get the best of both worlds:

1. Be careful of hybrid meetings

When some people are at home, whilst others are in a group in person, the in-person group will tend to contribute to poor group dynamics by cross-talking, forgetting those on screen, and defaulting to each other even over their remote colleagues.

So either ask for the meetings to be one laptop per person, or really put some strong facilitation guidelines in place (e.g. speak in turn, alternate between those on screen and in the room, document everything digitally for all to contribute, get extra context for the remote workers by clarifying how they interpret and experience things).

2. Record in-person conversations digitally and transparently

When we meet in person, the conversation typically stays in the room and struggles to spread in a unified way to others. To help the crowd to learn and align organically, make a concerted effort to document what happens in person online.

This could be as simple as posting in a slack channel to say ‘Hey all, @[name] and I had a great conversation about [topic] today and I want to share my key takeaways and get your thoughts in this thread. [share takeaways].’

3. Stick to a meticulous meeting culture

Ok, we’re zoomed out. And many have created a Zoom culture rather than a culture organized around the work through asynchronous collaboration.

But one improvement I’ve heard from those who’ve achieved it is that meetings on Zoom have in many instances become more egalitarian, and more structures, somebody takes open notes, clear actions, and documented decisions, and somebody else facilitates the process by which we meet (bare in mind that this is what I experience by definition in my corner of the world, I’m aware this won’t be the case everywhere).

Well, this should be the case in person too. Take that rigor back to the office.

4. Trust people to work in their best way and to choose

Another benefit I’ve heard from many is that they’re grateful to work to their own personal pattern. Some prefer early, others late, others like naps after lunch.

Thankfully a control freak manager can’t know if under the desk on Zoom their employee is wearing pyjamas.

When we return to the office, let’s stay tuned in to each other’s personal needs. However, you work best, works best for me.

5. Stay open and vulnerable

One upside that I have noticed is an increasing ok’ness to ask ‘How are you finding it?’ and to answer ‘I’m finding this hard’.

This is where we want work to get to.

The benefits for our mental health are huge and therefore the commercial benefits are too. To build organizations around solidarity is an enormous shift.

To genuinely look out for the other. This is something that I’ve seen emerge in small ways throughout the last year at work (let alone outside of work).

Another paradox will no doubt be that returning to normal will not feel normal.
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Getting the best of both worlds

Another paradox will no doubt be that returning to normal will not feel normal.

Going back to old ways doesn’t seem wise and yet what we have now is by necessity more than by choice. Our choice as we emerge from the chaos of a devastating year is to re-enter the world having accrued sufficient wisdom to operate with a new normal.

I aspire for that new normal in the workplace to include: increased openness and transparency, more empathy and compassion, a more participative working culture, an increase in personal autonomy and accountability to name just a few.

I wish you many wonderful conversations around the coffee machine, the water cooler, the company canteen and… don’t forget what has been learned in the multiverse of bedroom zoom calls.

We have the opportunity to have our cake and eat it. That is the point of cake after all.

Take care, Jon

This is a guest blog written by Jon Barnes. Jon is an organizational change consultant helping companies and teams to self-organize, an author of several books, and a TEDX speaker.

Written by Jon Barnes
Jon Barnes
I'm an organisational consultant, working with organisations wanting to become more adaptive.
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