Watercooler moments, and hybrid work

In last week’s weeknote, I asked a question:

“Much is made of “watercooler moments” as a reason to return to the office (RTO). Well, is there any reason that such moments can’t happen outside the office too?”

I wrote about “coffees” (as a metaphor for meeting up with no agenda), but only this afternoon I witnessed a “watercooler moment” away from the office. Two of my colleagues were on a Teams call, and they discovered that they live only a few streets away from one another. Actually, as the call went on, I realised that 80% of the attendees were in/around the same city (I was the exception).

But what also became apparent to me is how these four people in the same city had different needs – and that travelling to a city centre location was almost easier for me (80 miles away) than it was for some of them!

This is where the subject of this blog post shifts to hybrid work. And it seems that the thing to remember about hybrid work is that what works for one does not necessarily work for another.

It’s complicated

On the one hand, we want to nurture a culture, and to get people working as a team. One way to do that is to co-locate them. But we have distributed teams too. Regionally, nationally or globally. There’s limited value in going to the office if you won’t actually be in the same place as your colleagues. Conversely, there’s an view that you might meet people from a broader cross-section of the company. That holds some merit.

I planned to be in an office tomorrow, then my diary filled up and it looks like I will spend half the day on the same Teams calls I would have attended from home. Is that a good reason to be in the office?

There’s also the view of productivity. Being present in an office isn’t the same as doing good work. Some find it easy to work at home. Others struggle to get motivated. Some find it easier to work in an office. Some struggle with the noise and disruption. Some people have better IT at home (e.g. a faster connection to the Internet).

Some people will say “you used to come to the office before Covid”. But did we? Working patterns have been changing for a while. Even before the pandemic, I was at home or on client sites most of the time. I was rarely at a company location.

And there seems to be an assumption by some that employees took remote or hybrid jobs as if it was some kind of favour, and can now absorb the time and costs associated with commuting. I’ve been contractually based from home since 2005. If I travel to an office, it costs the company money, not me. That may work for a professional services business charging me out on a fee-earning basis, plus expenses. But less so when it’s “everyone into the office x days a week”.

I do feel for those who are starting out or early in their careers. It must be tricky when you don’t see the people you work with. I learned by observing others, and by being shown what to do. We need to find new ways to do that and to nurture people’s growth.

But, for those with caring responsibilities, the flexibility of working from home means they can continue delivering value to the organisation whilst fulfilling the needs of those they care for. As a society, we’re living longer. Those of us in our middle age are sandwiched between the needs of our children and those of our aging parents. And that’s not considering the changes in our ability to work that come with this time of life, for example adapting to deal with the menopause (that’s a whole blog post in itself).

We don’t want to lose good skills to when we really just need to accommodate different people’s needs.

And then there’s the green angle. “How can we be more environmentally-sensitive?”, asks the person responsible for the organisation’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) goals. Perhaps, by travelling less?

It’s about autonomy

I’ll be the first to admit that 100% remote work doesn’t work for me. And I get a lot from being with others to collaborate on something. Earlier this month I did travel to meet a colleague and “write on the walls”. We got a lot of value from that meeting.

And that’s the nub of it. Not blanket RTO edicts, as I’ve heard mentioned in multiple organisations recently, but autonomy and flexibility. Or, as one Gartner Analyst put it:

“The key to hybrid work is allowing employees the autonomy to work when they want and where they want.”

Gavin Tay, Gartner Inc.

Provide a place for people to meet and collaborate. Provide a place with a desk and decent Internet connection for those who don’t have a suitable workspace at home. Encourage people to come together. But be clear what it is you are trying to achieve. If the answer involves filling up rows of hot desks, then you may want to think again.

Related posts

It seems this is a topic I keep returning to (I clearly have Opinions on the topic), so here’s some posts I wrote earlier:

Featured image by Israel Andrade on Unsplash.

Taking time “off sick”

This content is 3 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

My family has had various lurgies over the last few days. Stomach bugs, sore throats, colds but mostly feeling “non-specific urgh”. Or just “meh”.

It might have been the ‘rona, but we all tested negative so it’s more likely that 18 months of not mixing with other humans means that, when we do, we pick up their germs and get ill.

After a weekend of broken sleep and with a headache and a sore throat, I needed some rest and I called in sick at work.

Pressure to work

I’ve been based from home for a long time. Remote work is not a new thing for me that started with the pandemic (although exclusively working from home is). A side effect of that is that I rarely take time “off sick”. I might not be well enough to travel to an office and mix with others (potentially making them ill too), but I can generally drag myself to my laptop and push some emails around. And anyway, what about that meeting? Or, if I don’t do that work today, it will only add pressure later in the week. Normally, I’d dose myself up on paracetamol (or similar) and “man up”.

Except, is that really a good mindset? If I’m not bringing my a-game to work, then maybe I should rest up and come back when I am properly fixed. Take some time to recover, step away from the screen. Unfortunately, because I felt able to do something, I felt like a fraud.

I got back from the pharmacy and had woken up. Maybe I could (should?) just check those emails?

Whilst I’m very disciplined at keeping away from work on my weekends and holidays, it was a lot harder when I wasn’t feeling well, but I wasn’t completely ill and confined to bed either.

Is this just a sad indictment of modern life? Implied pressure to contribute at all times. Being a consultant and knowing that it’s an important month and every billable day counts. Or, as one person (who I’ll let remain anonymous) put it:

“You definitely shouldn’t be feeling you have to work because years of conditioning of the UK workforce has led us to a place where unless a limb is hanging off you’re ‘fine’.”

Get well soon

In the end, it was these wise words that I decided to stick by:

“Commit one way or the other. It’s horrible when you half commit to work and half commit to putting your feet up and do neither very well. (Get some rest).”

And, when I got back to work after some proper rest and recuperation, I could bring my a-game with me.

Featured image: author’s own.

What does it mean to work flexibly?

This content is 3 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

2020 has brought many things – not all of them welcome – but for many office workers one of the more significant changes has been the acceptance of working from home.

Of course, there are many jobs that can’t be carried out remotely but, for a lot of people, the increased flexibility that comes with home working is a benefit. For others, it may be less welcome – for example those who do not have a regular place to work from, or who share a house with family who are also competing for the same resources. That means that offices continue to have a role but we’re not quite sure what that is yet. One thing does seem certain: it will continue to evolve over the coming months.

Outputs, not inputs

I’ve been fortunate to have worked from home for some of the time for many years. I’ve been contractually based from home since 2005 but even before then I tried to work from home when I could. What I’ve seen in 2020 is organisations where managers previously wouldn’t allow their teams to work from home being forced to accept change. Very quickly. A culture of “presenteeism” was often rife and sometimes still is. Some organisations have transferred poor office-based culture to a poor online culture but others have embraced the change.

Moving to remote work means providing flexibility. That certainly means flexibility in where work takes place, but it may also mean flexibility in when the work happens.

My own work is contractually 30 hours over a 4 day working week. In reality, it’s not based on hours, it’s based on outputs – and I put in what is needed in order to deliver what is expected of me. That will almost always take more hours – and sometimes there’s a fine balance. Sometimes, I have to say “enough”. I’ve learned that modern work is never “done”, just that priorities change over time. And, as a manager, I have to look for the signs in my own team’s workload and be ready to reassign work or adjust priorities if someone is overloaded whilst a colleague has gaps.

Crucially, I don’t need my team to be in front of me to manage them.

“Working hours”

Similarly, many of us no longer need to be tied to the “9 to 5”. Some roles may require staffing at particular times but, for many office workers, meetings can be scheduled within a set of core hours. For organisations that work across time zones, that challenge of following the sun has been there for a while. Avoiding the temptation to work extended days over multiple time zones can be difficult – but, conversely, working in bursts over an extended period may work for you.

I’m mostly UK-based and nominally work on UK time. For many years, I’ve had an unwritten rule that I don’t arrange meetings first- or last-thing in the day, or over lunch. If that means that all of my meetings are between 09:30 and 12:00 or between 14:00 and 16:30, that’s fine. A solid day meetings is not good. Especially when they are all online!

Before 09:30 people with chlldren may be on the school run. Those with other dependents may have other responsibilities. Everyone is entitled to a lunch break. At the end of the day there may be other commitments, or maybe another meeting is just not going to get the best out of people who have already been in back-to-back Microsoft Teams calls.

Often, I’ll return to work in the evening to catch up on things. That’s not to say I expect others to. I actually have a disclaimer on my email which says:

“My working hours may not be your working hours.  Please do not feel any pressure to reply outside of your normal work schedule. Also, please note that I do not normally work on Fridays. Another member of the risual team will be happy to assist in my absence.”

It’s about setting expectations. In a previous role, I wrote about my email SLA but people shouldn’t feel pressured to respond immediately to email. As a former manager once told me:

“Email is an asynchronous communication mechanism over an unreliable transport.”

[Mark Locke, Fujitsu, approx 2010]

When working across time zones, that’s particularly important but we should also be empowered to work when it works for us.

For me, I’m not great at getting up in the morning. I often get into flow in the late afternoon and work into the evening.

So, whilst I’m sure messages like this one in Microsoft Outlook from My Analytics are well-intentioned, I don’t find them helpful because they are based on the concept of “working hours”. Yes, I could delay send, but what if that person likes to start their day early?

My Anaytics prompt in Microsoft Outlook to consider delaying an email until working hours.

On the basis that email should not be time-sensitive (use a chat-based medium for that – maybe even a phone), it shouldn’t matter when it’s sent, or received. The workplace culture needs to evolve to prevent the “I sent you an email” response from being acceptable. “Ah, thank you. I haven’t seen that yet but I’ll make sure I watch out for it and respond at an appropriate moment.”.

Time to adjust our expectations?

So, in a world of increased flexibility, with colleagues working at a time and place that works for them, we all need to adjust our expectations. I suggest thinking not about when a message is sent but instead about whether email is actually the right medium. And, as for whether we need a meeting or not… that’s a whole blog post in itself…

Featured image by congerdesign from Pixabay.