Reflections from the Garret – five months on
As Stephen George + Partners went into lockdown, way back in March this year, there can be few of us that were not apprehensive. None of us had experienced anything quite like this before and, as we headed home with our laptops, I guess we’d all have begun to think about the challenges that might lie ahead. We were a team, a band of colleagues. What would we do now without our workplace community, our workmates, our friends? Would the office culture we’d worked so hard to develop dissolve into chaos as people did their own thing with diminishing regard for company policies or protocols? Would anarchy reign as we sat at home with our computers, still in our pyjama bottoms at lunchtime?
The simple answer is, no. Pyjama bottoms, possibly, but no anarchy, no chaos – just very, very different. At the beginning of lockdown, we were consumed by the novelty of the whole pandemic thing as our IT colleagues ironed out bugs and got us all working from home effectively. We learned how to use tools like MS Teams in hours and within days were linking up with colleagues – not just in our own office but across the whole organisation. Our colleagues were reaching out to one another, getting stuck into their work, working independently, and embodying a ‘knowledge worker’ approach in extraordinary circumstances.
The principle of the ‘knowledge worker’ is that the more autonomy you allow someone, the more creative wriggle room you create for them, the greater the personal fulfilment that person can achieve. With the novelty of marathon Teams calls wearing off after very few weeks this, seemingly, is what was happening by default. We have not experienced any complaints of deadlines missed nor received messages from clients commenting on unusual behaviours as employees talk to clients and other consultants from home. There may well have been a chuckle or two about someone’s washing in the background or a pet photobombing a conference call. The thing is, we all can relate to these normal little incidents and it perhaps makes us more human, or at least shows us to be more human. Maybe this new way of working and seeing people differently was beginning to rebuild some of the bonds that had been broken by our forced exile?
It would be misleading to suggest that working independently is wholly a good thing, but it has certainly challenged us to think about our culture and the way we might be able to work better together in the future. We have learned new skills and ways of working because we have been forced to. Ironically, scattering our teams to the four winds has made inter-office and inter-team communications better!
Prior to the lockdown, strategic change or key messages within our practice were communicated via a chain of senior management to their teams. This combined with the inevitable ‘Chinese whisper’ effect, always ran a risk of independent interpretation, as much by the speaker as the person unconsciously hearing only what they wanted to.
For the last twenty-five weeks, we have held a Partners’ Briefing each Tuesday afternoon, for which all staff are expected to attend. The briefings have changed over time. Originally a response to the ever-changing circumstances, they are now a high-level overview of senior management strategy and teams’ current projects. What once was a reactive information source has now become a forum to inform all staff of what is going on across our offices. In fact, so successful has this been, that we intend to continue with them indefinitely.
As we go about our daily work lives now, we are reminded how much time and effort we used to waste attending meetings and events, whether planning around diary clashes or negotiating the demands of excessive traveling. Now we can attend meetings remotely or catch up on those we might have missed using a recording.
We have seen the use of videos as a training resource increase dramatically. We have fewer written guides but more short videos; both self-produced and sourced from YouTube on how to use software, solve problems, and make things work. Online training and videos are not for everyone, but the sheer volume of resources available means you can usually find something that suits your learning style. It seems to be the case that, if you seek out information yourself, you will remember it much better than you would if information is forced upon you.
In the context of transfer of video and audio material, the term streams is used ever more frequently – perfectly describing a flow of digital information that you can step into and explore and then leave to go onto the next thing. So, has the physical and personal isolation inflicted by the pandemic made us embrace this technology that we hitherto resisted? Certainly, we have learned to be more versatile and adaptive than we otherwise would have been. The evidence is there to see.
As we plan to begin to re-occupy our offices next week, we’ll still be wondering whether the workplace we know will ever go back to the way it was? Probably not. Will it be different? Most certainly. The trick, it seems to me, will be to harvest all the good things that have come out of our new ways of working and put them together with all those things that we now (perhaps) have the wisdom to realise as being truly important; people, colleagues, work-life balance, physical contact, interaction, collaboration, fulfilment.
Me? I’m still looking forward to gathering around a great big table with my team, coffee and cake to hand, having a laugh and, most importantly, doing it in person.
Image Caption: Date of Photograph September 2019 / Photoshopped September 2020