This week I traveled to a client to work with the senior leadership team at a client who were themselves meeting face to face for the first time since the pandemic. The customer demanded it, ‘if we are meeting together, then you should be willing to meet with us.” The experience was familiar in some ways, exposed some rust in other ways and provided some context for the future. Here is what I mean.
Familiar: The mechanics of business travel have not changed really. While there were some changes at the airport, in the uber and hotel to wear masks and maintain social distance, overall, the process of physically getting there was familiar. The plane was pretty much full and for the most part we passengers behaved like we always have, just everyone with a mask on.
Rust: The interactions and experiences during the trip showed some rust. The hotel was not at full capacity, but the clearing and maintenance was off. I was given a key to a room that when I entered had not been cleaned, so rust there. When I was finally given a new room, it was clean, but the desk chair was broken. More rust. One can assume that as business activity comes back and the hotel hires more staff, that rust will come off.
Rust: I did not bring everything I needed to be productive. In my case I forgot the attachment that would allow me to project from my computer. I carried multiple masks but forgot a cloth to clean my glasses. I was rusty. It had robbed my carryon over the months to use these things at home and forgot to reload them. Something to keep in mind for your first trip.
Rust: Personally, I had some rust, particularly on the social side. After more than a year of starting video conferencing meetings, we are accustomed to the meeting starting often without much of the social pleasantries and small talk that normally occurs when people are gathering in a room. Well, I started this face-to-face meeting like it was a video conference which led to an awkward and rather abrupt start. My bad. I had brought my video/zoom manners to a face-to-face meeting. After an apology and a round of introductions, everything went well, but rust.
Future context: The meeting went well, thankfully, and in fact better than similar meetings conducted over Zoom. This has some portents for the future and the future of work, which I think will not be as big a deal as people think, here is why. We made remote working work because we had no other option. Now that options are increasing, I can see that the future of work is nuanced in ways few have considered.
Future context: Survey’s say that people want to keep working remotely and that they would consider quitting if required to be in an office. Ok, I get that. If my work consists of typing things into a computer, what is the difference between doing it at home vs. requiring me to sit next to someone else who is typing into a computer. The same for jobs that consist of talking with others on the phone – remote call centers etc. I see remote working appealing for these types of jobs. Every job has some aspects of this type of work, for some it’s the totality of their job. The future of that type of work conforms to the new conventional wisdom that remote work is possible and even desirable.
Future context: This trip demonstrated the limits of remote work. When we debriefed the day, the participants said that the most valuable part of the day occurred in between the formal meeting agenda. The questions raised and information shared in the space between agenda items was the most valuable – it is also the communications that are zoomed out of remote meetings where only one person can talk at a time. Observing the team working together, the visual and non-verbal ques, etc. also made the face-to-face meeting more effective.
Future context: Based on this one meeting, I can see how the desire for remote work will widen the gap between leadership and the rest of the organization. I believe that leaders will increasingly spend more time face to face with other leaders – because that work is more effective face to face.
The bottom line: Face-to-face interactions in the same room at the same time are the most effective way to engage, discover, learn, and mobilize a team. This is particularly the case among executives and leaders and especially when leaders are planning, problem solving or engaging in topics that do not fit into routine or mechanistic agendas.
Leaders already spend most of their time working with other leaders, but when everyone was in a company location there was some interaction. I fear that there will increasingly be less and less of that interaction when the bulk of people work remotely out of sight and out of mind in leadership. The same holds for leaders meeting with the leadership of their customers, increasingly face to face and removed from most of the workforce.
Employees clamoring for remote work will likely get exactly what they asked for – work that is remote and removed from company leadership. Sure, the routine tasks will happen and be done well remotely. But what is lost is the in-between time, the questions and information shared in the spaces between the agenda. The opportunities people use build the relationships required to move ahead.
If the ability or willingness to go to the office becomes a factor in career advancement, then we are in trouble. The last thing we need is more distance within a company as distance creates disparities and inequalities among us. That existed before remote work, it is likely to be exacerbated in the future of remote work.