This month the Bulletin focus is on connectivity and much of the content rightly focuses on the hard currency of transport and digital infrastructure, ensuring the residents and businesses of this region are as connected as they need to be, in every sense.
Instead I’m going to discuss something much more intangible, a topic with which many of us will be wrestling as I write. In-person connection. Connecting with each other physically to do better business. Something that Chambers of Commerce have been facilitating for hundreds of years.
Really? How very 2019, some might say. For goodness’ sake, we are human beings, programmed for social interaction.
While Zoom and Teams meetings are functional and enable information exchange, this is entirely 2D. The third dimension of spontaneity, creativity, relationship-building, white-of-the-eyes trust, mentoring, team development and water cooler chat is in real danger of being disregarded and lost. Difficult to measure on a balance sheet, perhaps. But not in terms of staff engagement, satisfaction, career progression and building meaningful long term internal and external customer relationships.
Working from home is not proving to be the dream experience that many employees were anticipating, according to new research. Working all day from the couch or dining table is not all it was cracked up to be, they claim. The trade-off is often long hours, more virtual meetings and blurred lines between work and personal life.
Some people in certain roles and circumstances are benefitting from and enjoying working from home but, for the most part, working remotely is taking its toll concludes researchers who say that motivation, satisfaction with job and employer and mental and physical wellbeing are also being negatively affected. Then there’s the myth that homeworking increases productivity. Simply not true in many cases.
Much has been made of grand pronouncements last year by tech giants that suggested employees could ‘work at home forever’ but some of the nuances were skirted over by the press. Why spoil a sensational headline with the facts.
For example, what Twitter’s Jack Dorsey actually said was this could possibly happen ‘if our employees are in a role and situation that enables them to work from home’. And last week, IBM announced its proposed system of remote working, with 80% of the workforce working at least three days a week in the office.
Working from home while there is no office open is one thing. But remote working's biggest test is going to be when the office starts opening up. When meetings are being held partially in person and partially on Zoom, is the dynamic going to work quite so well? Or at all. And when office based team members begin to redevelop face-to-face, in-person relationships with managers and colleagues, will remote workers feel disadvantaged?
While it’s important that we take stock and consider what we have learned from all this that might improve our business performance and working lives, it is equally vital to avoid knee-jerk reactions that imply everything we knew, did and (mostly) loved before March 2020 should be banished to the history books.
Businesses across the country have already invested heavily in following and often exceeding the rules put in place to protect employees and customers but many have not been allowed to implement these procedures. People will choose to go to places for work and leisure that have made reasonable adjustments to safeguard their health. And as staff and customers we must be treated as grown-ups who manage risk every day in all aspects of our lives. The nanny state needs to step back and respect this.
Let’s start planning to get our workplaces open again. Breathing new life back into our business models, customer relationships and to the city centres, towns and business parks that have been bereft of their main currency, people for over a year now. Re-connecting.