The UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak is quoted in today’s Times as advising young people that working from home was not going to help them in their careers.
It’s easy to view the Chancellor’s statement through a Covid-19 tinted lens and either praise or damn his advice depending on your appetite for risk or desire to see a return to normality. However, I think it’s important to take a different perspective.
There has been a lot of talk of how our working patterns will be reshaped after the pandemic and whether we will see an increase in remote working and hot desking. Among the talk of property values, the end of tiresome commutes and more flexibility on where to live, there hasn’t been much focus on the importance of a communal workplace when it comes to building relationships.
To be honest, I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I’ve been running workshops on how to develop professional relationships while socially distanced and have talked about what we have been missing by not being together in the office, but I have failed to shine a light on the importance of being together in an office to develop supportive relationships in the workplace.
Maybe that’s not surprising. In my last business I opted to work from home more than in the office at an early stage, and that must have been around fifteen years ago. After spending most of my mornings at networking events and then travelling (we ran networking groups across the UK), I needed to get my head down and focus when I got to the office.
But then my network was established, the business was small and one of my colleagues was my father – I didn’t necessarily need to be in the office to build relationships!
Sunak’s advice is aimed more at young people at the outset of their career, particularly in large organisations. The internal support network that you build in the early stages of a career can be invaluable in supercharging your progress. Sunak talks about how he found mentors when he first started working in financial services and how they are still in touch and helpful now. He told The Times, ‘I doubt I would have had those strong relationships if I was doing my internship or my first bit of my career over Teams and Zoom’.
Among the talk of property values, the end of tiresome commutes and more flexibility on where to live, there hasn’t been much focus on the importance of a communal workplace when it comes to building relationships.
There are many good arguments for accommodating more flexible and remote working. Companies that do so have to add another ingredient to the ‘inclusion’ mix – how to make those working outside the office feel part of the team and have access to the same opportunities as everyone else.
But, however hard companies try to include everyone, just how feasible is it to replicate the face to face experience over videoconferencing? At a barbecue on Saturday someone was saying how hybrid team meetings don’t work because participants dialling in on a call find it difficult to contribute to the meeting in the same way as people in the room. And the person chairing the meeting often isn’t skilled enough to notice or find a way to involve them.
I’ve found through my presentations and workshops that teams working remotely are having more transactional conversations and fewer relational, ‘small talk’, conversations than before the lockdowns. When we communicate using video conferencing, we tend to drop a lot of the relaxed chit chat about our weekends that help us to get to know our colleagues and build rapport and connection.
Some might feel that they gain by the flexibility afforded to them working from home. But I tend to stand with the Chancellor here. There’s a lot we can lose by not being in the office and, for young people especially, those losses have the potential to have a big impact on our careers.