flexible working office

I admit it – I have a hang-up. Actually, I have many hang-ups, but there’s one in particular that I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past few months. This one is about working hours and if there is a need for the team to physically come into the office to do their job.

For years, we’ve been told that the future of work is working wherever and whenever you want. Laptops, fast mobile access, free and pervasive WiFi, applications and data in the cloud mean that you will no longer be restricted to the four walls of an office. Indeed, there’s an increasing number of Digital Nomads: folk who do digital work for clients and often aren’t even in the same country as those clients. As copywriters, SEO consultants, software developers, marketing executives, online PAs, these Digital Nomads are able to choose where and when they live and work (strangely enough, that’s often where it’s sunny and there is low cost of living), and still work effectively for their clients (often in Northern Europe or the US).

It sounds great. My problem with it comes when there’s a crunch on and you need a team to be working effectively together to solve a problem. When this is happening, you need continuous and active communication – and often communication that isn’t direct but is simply there in the background, you pick up the vibe. You need the team to be able to know instinctively that someone has their back and, as they pass the baton, there’s someone there to grab it. As much as online tools like Skype, Zoom, Slack, and Google Docs are fantastic at enabling online collaboration, there’s nothing quite like a team coming together around a whiteboard when the pressure’s on.

And yet, as an employer wanting to attract the best talent, you want to provide people with a purpose, a reason for doing the work that transcends a simple transaction of time, labour, and production to salary. You hope that by giving people that purpose, you can trust them to get the job done, to deliver in the right way for your customers and the rest of the team, to do what it takes regardless of when it is or where they are.

So why do I feel instinctively that people need to be in the office? This is my hang up.

I’ve never felt this way before – I’ve always been quite relaxed about where people worked, as long as they got the job done. But now, as the person with the accountability for the whole business, I feel a lot more like people should be here more. It’s not about being able to see people doing their job – I don’t want a panopticon. It’s more about team identity, team collaboration, and team communication. Our rendering customers often call on us when something’s gone wrong, and they can be quite stressed (not with us, but with the challenge they are facing) so having a tight-knit team here is vital. Is it possible to do that when everyone is remote?

Or am I a luddite, resisting the inevitable tide of technological and societal change?

But then I also hear that working remotely all the time can be lonely, and, fundamentally, I believe we are social animals. Working alongside people in person, solving problems with people in the same place is good for our wellbeing.

So, my conclusion, for now, is that I need to trust my team. My and my management team’s job is to embed our purpose in our people, to work to help them to understand what is right and acceptable; provide a framework within which they can work, and then help them figure out the best way to work between themselves. If problems arise, if there’s conflict or too much tension, or we find that we aren’t solving problems effectively or customers are unhappy, then we need to step in and help.

In the meantime, I may need to get over myself.

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