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Kirsty runs the London-based, multi-award-winning PR agency Milk & Honey PR. She writes about ethical leadership.
Remote working has been a revelation. At the start of the pandemic, it perturbed, disturbed and, frankly, unnerved many. As lockdowns rolled on, however, it began to intrigue, mature and delight. Suddenly, businesses discovered that working remotely wasn’t the end of the world, but rather it could be the beginning of something exciting, surprising and rich.
The received wisdom is that remote work is the future, but is it — or should it be — the tune to which all businesses now dance?
The Pandemic Paso Doble
The sure sign that Brits are coping with something (from light drizzle to global conflict) is when they start joking about it. The remote office has spawned a million gags: employees in suits above and shorts below, outrageous Teams backgrounds and surely “You’re still on mute” is the saying of the decade.
More seriously, and demanding of respect, is the way in which we have all pivoted to ensure effective communication and a new focus on individual well-being — in a significantly and suddenly different working world. My company has been patting itself on the back around this, with a virtually seamless shift to new normalities. It’s taken the precision of partners dancing the perfect paso doble, but we’ve walked away with the glitter ball trophy.
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What we’ve just realized, however, is that the really fancy footwork is needed in the transition to post-pandemic routines — simply because nobody knows what they are yet.
In late spring, lockdowns eased sufficiently in the U.K. to allow everyone on our team to get back together. It was a moment of relief and joy, and — cue the sound of a needle being snatched off a record — confusion. Don’t get me wrong, it was a brilliant day, but amid the happiness, I saw traces of dislocation.
Take a minute to think about it and it’s hardly surprising. For well over a year, communication has been all about remote technology with so much internalized. Then, in an instant, it’s all about real people with so much externalized.
It’s not about looking at an image of someone on a screen, or reading their written thoughts and having the time and distance to process both. It’s now back to facing an actual human being and trying to read them in the moment. We can’t, after all, turn off the camera or mute real life.
The pandemic workplace, quite rightly, focused on the personal, but now we need to re-balance to encompass the collective again. The new normal has been mostly about “I” while the old normal was more about “we.” As our team came back together, it was like we were suffering from stage fright — we remembered the music but had forgotten some of the steps.
Workplace Waltz or Remote Rumba?
As leaders, we face a dilemma — one most ably demonstrated by Apple. The company recently sent an all-staff memo stating the expectation that employees would be back in the office for at least three days a week. The justification is “the hum of activity, the energy, creativity and collaboration…” of being together. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?
Thousands of Apple employees disagree. A counter-campaign posits an alternative future — one where personal freedom, creativity, well-being, diversity and inclusivity all rely upon continuing flexibility. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?
I get Apple’s view: I love it when we’re all together. I get the employees’ view: I love it that people work where they feel happiest and most productive. At Apple, the apparent impasse has led to a break in the partnership — the company performs the workplace waltz while employees dance the remote rumba.
Unusual for the free-thinking Apple of the popular imagination, the company’s stance appears hidebound. It raises questions: Why three days? Why everyone? What’s the rationale? The instruction could be seen as a diktat: “We’re doing this because that’s the way we do it.”
Clearly, our company with 20-ish people faces different challenges than Apple with over 100,000. I’d argue, though, that the principle remains the same no matter what the size of your business: Recent history means that some things will never be the same again.
Both sides at Apple want a creative, successful and improving company; they’re just coming at it from different directions. For me, the beginnings of resolution can be found when staff ask that remote working decisions be made at a team level. It covers every eventuality: If a team needs people in the office, they will be expected to be there. If they don’t, they won’t. And if there’s the need for a mix, the mechanisms are there too.
Many people have enjoyed remote working and have thrived. As leaders, we can’t uninvent the experience, nor should we. My people know their jobs better than I do, so I trust and expect them to tell me where and how they do their best work. With staff dispersed across South London, West Devon, the Lake District and central Paris, it’s something we’ve always recognized and facilitated.
It’s not a case of “either/or” but rather “and.” As I discovered when our team came back together, there won’t be a return to the pre-pandemic office, because it’s gone. Nor will we continue the lockdown office, because that’s gone too. Our job now is to syncopate familiar but outdated rhythms to create new working harmonies.
The whole Strictly Come Dancing (U.K.)/Dancing with the Stars (U.S.) phenomenon was partly inspired by a Baz Luhrmann film called Strictly Ballroom. The tub-thumping, heart-pumping, feel-good finale sees two dancers shatter the status quo to reimagine and reinvent an obsolete format. They break it to build it back better — more exciting, creative and relevant than ever before.
It’s a film that we all might want to watch and think about. When the beat changes, it’s time to choreograph a better business routine.
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Author: Kirsty Leighton, Forbes Councils Member