Covid-19 has created unprecedented challenges at every level of our society. In order to safeguard employees, organisations have shifted to remote working, transitioning at a speed and on a scale that would have been simply unimaginable just a few years ago. Until a vaccine is available it is clear that office life won’t be the same as it was before the pandemic, with measures such as social distancing and the wearing of masks obligatory, at least to begin with. Even after the pandemic is over, however, will we ever go back to normal – and how will office life change?

Remote working: the upside

For many people, the experience of full-time home working has been an overall positive experience. With no commute to work, more time becomes available to them in the day. Individuals find themselves with greater choicefulness, interweaving their personal and work lives in ways that best suit their unique personalities and lifestyles.

It is no surprise, therefore, that a Gallup survey in May of this year found that 3 out of 5 U.S. workers who have been doing their jobs from home would prefer to continue to work remotely as much as possible, once public health restrictions are lifted. For organisations, as well, there are clear benefits to remote working.

Working from home means locational constraints on hiring are reduced and there are opportunities to dramatically reduce real-estate costs. In responding to the crisis, they have learned new capabilities and more efficient ways of working. Indeed, one of the unexpected outcomes of the crisis has been it shedding light on outdated processes and ways of working that have become easier, agile and more efficient through remote working.

The downside of virtual working

Before we get too carried away, however, let’s look at the downside. For many, remote working has meant social isolation and lack of contact. For others, the lack of boundaries between personal and work life has meant managing distraction and chaos. A significant number of the leaders we speak to can’t wait to get back to the office at least some of the week, to be able to work without distraction or have face to face contact with others.

At the organisational level, there are also significant negatives, chief of which is the fact that, when working remotely, informal relationships suffer. People get on to the video conference to discuss the task at hand, then they get off. There is little chit chat before or after; beyond a short check-in at the beginning it tends to be all about work. There is no opportunity to have lunch with your friend in the other department; no opportunity for random encounters where you bump into someone in the hall and go for coffee.

This may seem insignificant, but studies have repeatedly shown how important informal interactions like these are, for innovation to emerge continuously over the long-term. There are also still big questions around the what the longer-term impact is of a lack of direct face-to-face contact on both individual and organisational health.

It could be, for instance, that organisations today are still drawing on social capital that was created and banked before the present crisis. Will social cohesion begin to dissolve the longer we are forced to work remotely? And does corporate culture begin to disintegrate the longer we stay out of the office?

Looking into the future

Once we are allowed back into the office with more freedom, what will happen? Will it be back to normal or will things have changed irrevocably? Whilst we don’t know how far exactly the pendulum will swing back to office working, it is likely that the balance will tip further towards remote working.

Many organisations that had previously insisted on people being in the office will find it hard to recall everyone on a three-line whip now the “genie is out of the bottle”. Similarly, it is difficult to see why or how any activities that have shifted to remote operations without problem or issue will be, or even should be, brought back into a face to face office environment.

Also, depending upon how the pandemic unfolds, is there a risk of implicit hierarchies developing in teams – with some members able to travel into the office to be co-located, whilst other more high-risk members are forced to work from home?

The physical office

What about the role of the physical office? What can we say with any certainty about how it will change? The pandemic has made us question not only what the value is of going into the office, but also what the role of the office should be. Whilst it is impossible to gaze into a crystal ball, we can make a few assumptions with at least some degree of certainty. It is safe to assume that groups will always face challenges which are so critical and complex they are best tackled face-to-face.

It is easy to imagine a situation, as the pandemic recedes, where we begin to repurpose physical office environments for face-to-face collaboration, away from individual working. Why, after all, would you now want to dedicate any of your precious office real estate to individual working, unless absolutely essential? Physical space could instead be reconfigured to focus exclusively on face-to-face social interaction and group collaboration.

This doesn’t just mean creating offices with boardroom tables and upright chairs but also environments for different types of meeting; for example, it could mean lounge spaces for creative collaboration, larger spaces for large group interventions (what we call whole system change events) and even whole areas designed for open networking. The extent to which organisations should be shifting in this direction will, of course, vary according to the unique strategic context and culture of each organisation.

Don’t just adapt to remote working – transform how you collaborate!

For proactive leadership teams there is also something they should be doing right now today, and it promises a much better return than just adapting to remote working. At Living Systems we think the big opportunity for groups is not just to adapt to remote working, but to use it to transform how they relate and work together at a more fundamental level.

Even before the pandemic, when we were facilitating mostly face-to-face meetings, we saw and heard symptoms of meeting fatigue in most of the companies we came across. Time and time again we would hear the same complaints from managers and leaders as we entered their organisations: “Too many meetings”….”All talk but nothing gets decided”…”Everything goes round and round in circles”…”I don’t have time to actually get anything done”. It was clear even in the old days that our norms and practices for working together in groups just weren’t keeping pace with the increasing demands of modern-day working life.

In our experience, many organisations and groups have never resolved this conundrum of how to make meetings more effective. Merely transplanting a way of working that was already creaking and groaning into a remote environment is just asking for trouble.

At Living Systems we develop the capacity for connected intelligence – enabling groups of all sizes to think, feel and act as a cohesive whole. Today, the shift to remote working makes it more important than ever for leadership teams to place increased focus on revitalising their meeting culture.  If you are just adapting what you already have for virtual working, you’re missing a trick.

Want to find out more? Start the conversation to move your business forward by contacting us today.