Old Ways Won’t Open New Doors!

Sometimes the effects of an occurrence are not immediately visible, this does not necessarily make them less important, it just means you need to take time to understand what is happening. Here is an example: on the Galapagos Islands a variety of turtle lays its eggs in the sand, it has done so for thousands of years. Every year hundreds of little turtles hatch and run down to the sea. This is still the case, at face value nothing has changed, until you learn that the temperature of the sand defines how many male and female turtles hatch. Thanks to global warming, this fine balance has been disturbed and now many more females hatch than males – so although you cannot immediately see this difference it is nevertheless there and will have a huge impact on the long-term future of this variety of turtle.

This may also be the case in a workplace context. The recent crisis has sown an environment of fear; fear of the invisible, fear of the unknown, fear of what is to come. All change practitioners know that fear is an anathema to progress, it stifles creativity and paralyses progress. Whilst employees may be working productively from home, many of them are isolated from their colleagues and thus not only lack the reassurance of informal chats, but may also feel cut off from less formal information channels. The best way to combat this is to communicate openly and clearly, outlining the positive aspects of the current situation and mapping the way ahead over the coming weeks and months.

Lessons learned

Whilst at first remote working took some getting used to (for some), most employees have now taken a full circle turn and are less than keen on returning to their physical offices. This is a clear case of comfort zone appreciation plus a good dose of insular thinking, which should be taken into account, but cannot outweigh the necessity of doing the best for the company. The corporate strategists have a better overview of why what is done how; they are hopefully open to discussion and feedback, but they must decide what is best for the whole workforce and the whole company rather than for a minority. In the best-case scenario this will lead to a compromise which suits everyone and which can be clearly communicated and lived. This will then be the new way of working.

By assessing what worked well and what worked less well, it should be easy to compile an overview of the lessons learned. If you take an AAR (After Action Review) approach[1], you will be able to determine:

  1. What was supposed to happen?
  2. What actually happened?
  3. What would we do the same way next time?
  4. What would we do differently?

Based on these questions, every employee will be able to provide honest and useful feedback on which to base future planning. For example, whilst most employees will confirm that they liked the freedom of working from home and appreciated the lack of travel time, many will also admit that they could have benefitted from increased interaction with colleagues and that sometimes even the commute provided a good occasion to “think things through”. Some meetings work well digitally, others lack interaction and creativity, so this may mean that meeting planning will have to change. Before scheduling a meeting, it will become necessary to identify its main aim, thus defining whether it requires physical or virtual presence, this is equivalent to a ROI calculation: will the meeting achieve the desired outcome if…. In order to facilitate this, many companies will probably think about defining certain days as “office days” with physical presence, as otherwise meeting scheduling will become too time consuming and something of a science in itself.

Quid your corporate culture

Whilst taking a step back to think about these lessons learned, it is also a good idea to consider what if any impact the situation had on your corporate culture. Did employees still take the time to check back with other colleagues on the project or did they start to adopt a “go it alone” approach? How many employees would have liked to have more contact with others, but withheld for fear of disturbing them? How much of the team felt they had lost an overview of who was doing what, when? How many feared that their contribution was going unseen? These are a few of the questions which will need answers, in turn delivering pointers for your future strategy. Perhaps a daily mood login would help or a company chat or quite simply the reassurance that at certain times of day everyone is open for a call. You need to find what is best suited to your needs, there is no “one fits all”.

Choosing the right tools

The new ways of working covers everything from soft to hard skills, learning to communicate differently whilst simultaneously taking your clients’ maturity levels into account. As a first step, you will need to define which tools should be in primary use; everyone must then have complete mastery of them, as this will in turn enable them to explore further openings and become more creative. For example, Slack is a popular messaging channel, but it can also be linked to your project management by creating project-specific groups to share documents and information, thus ensuring that everyone is on the same page. Obviously remote working requires secure external access to all documentation, this can only work successfully if there is a clear document nomenclature and filing system – if everyone follows their own system in the long run no-one will be able to find anything! In this context, it may be more professional to add a client-share option to avoid dependence on less secure methods like open share internet channels.

There have been innumerable articles published about zoom fatigue, this is unsurprising considering humans are largely tuned to real face to face exchanges, such a habit cannot be transferred instantaneously to a digital context, especially if all participants do not adhere to the same “rules”: if video connections are shut off, while participants try to multitask; if others do not bear any name, so it is difficult to tell who is speaking; and if cameras are mainly angled at an unprofessional angle the other participants are constantly distracted by this bizarre view. Of course, in the past there were also articles about how many physical meetings were superfluous. In fact, both criticisms largely arise for the same reasons, if meetings are badly planned and run, the outcome will inevitably be disappointing, this has nothing to do with the chosen medium. In order to achieve the desired outcome, every meeting requires a clear agenda, preparation by all participants, the attendance of the right people, strict timing and a moderator who ensures that no participant monopolises speaking time whilst others remain silent. We are at the very outset of a virtual culture, few companies have clear guidelines, although these would help to avoid bad practises taking root. When using a virtual tool, ensure that all participants are comfortable with the tool; include participative elements (e.g. polls, break out rooms etc.) to maintain attention levels and if the meeting is scheduled over a longer period why not add a coffee break, after all you would do so if it was a physical meeting. Bear in mind that if the participants feel unsettled by the technical requirements, you will lose valuable time on dealing with connection problems, this can be avoided by sending all participants a brief explicatory message/video link beforehand and planning a little additional pre-meeting time for such issues.

The way ahead

This is a period of very rapid change, if you treat it like you would with a change project by including training in technical tools, comprehensive and focussed communication and clear explications of the “why”, then it will be more likely to succeed. Why not encourage tech-savvy employees to help their colleagues? Set up internal working groups to test interaction between different tools and then share results, this will help to identify which methods suit which requirements best. The more involved your employees become, the easier it will be for them to embrace such new methods and they will gain in confidence in using them. Remember, this is not necessarily a generational issue, many young people’s technical perspicacity does not extend much further than Netflix and WhatsApp!

The main message must be a positive one highlighting the advantages linked to the adoption of new methods and tools, even if processes seemed adequate before these changes, there is no reason why they should not be reappraised and adapted to suit changing circumstances and even stakeholders. No one likes change, but if it is well managed and the desired outcome is achieved, there will be few complaints. A shared vision based on well-defined tasks with-in a clear structure will make a major contribution to motivating employees and creating long-term engagement. Thus the “new way of working” will become the accepted way of working for everyone involved, after all “old ways won’t open new doors”.

[1] As defined by the US military

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