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Home or Office? With a Digital-First Approach It Doesn’t Matter

March 22, 2021 Collaboration and Productivity
Andrew Pope Headshot
By Andrew Pope

At the time of writing, we’re still in the midst of a pandemic. Last summer, we were optimistically looking ahead to some form of return to work. And while it is still far away, offices will eventually reopen in some capacity for those of us who have been forced to work from home.

What happens then? Hands up if you want to return to the office. Hands up if you want to stay at home. Or what about a bit of both? Having the choice seems rather nice, doesn’t it?

A recent article in the Financial Times, however, suggested that blended working — where some are in the office and some are at home — could be a disaster. Some companies are looking to avoid potential conflict by organizing it so that everyone is either at home or in the office. This creates an even playing field, where everyone's subject to the same opportunities and limitations. But why should this be an issue that takes away our choice of working where we choose? After all, we have the tools that allow us to work from anywhere. The pandemic has shown we can if we need to. So what’s stopping us from making this a choice?

The Risks of Blended Working

When we’re all in the office or we're all at home, we have the same opportunities. If we’re in a mix of the two, we don’t. Those of us in the office have access to spontaneous conversations, interactions with colleagues and increased visibility compared to those of us who stay at home (or third-party locations such as co-working spaces, cafes and pubs — remember those?). If we’re not careful, we can easily create a two-tier workforce.

It’s easier for remote colleagues to disappear or be forgotten if a noisy majority of us are back in the office. That’s makes it harder for them to collaborate effectively with the rest of the team. There are signs it might also hurt their career growth.

Days spent working from home can also be longer than office days. There is a risk of burnout as many of us use the commute time to extend the working day — maybe not even leaving the house at all. And yes, while we can certainly spend an unhealthy amount of time at our desks in the office, we do leave at some point (except for an old boss of mine, who once slept in a hedge outside the office).

Related Article: Your Teams Are Exhausted. Here's What Leaders Can Do

The Opportunities of Blended Working

On the flip side, blended working presents us with enormous opportunities. Having a genuinely flexible working day is there for the taking (we’ve just got to remove our fixation for live meetings). Then we really can work around our most pressing needs, and bring back some control to our lives.

It also means we don’t have to suffer the commute simply to stare at a computer screen all day. We can work literally anywhere. If home is less than ideal for working, local co-working spaces and cafes can help break up the solo experience.

Blended working done well means we can move away from the expectation of being ‘always on.’ We can plan our day, in many cases, around family demands and even our own personal needs, such as exercise. Work becomes more of an asynchronous activity that we do in response to clear and visible goals and less so as a reaction to the immediate needs of the boss.

Related Article: Is Remote Work About to Become More Difficult?

Making Blended Working Work

As long as we are aware of the risks, it can be quite simple to make blended working work. Of course every team is unique, and what works for one team may be inappropriate for another. However, there are a some ways to balance out blended work:

Make the Office the People Place

Many organizations will choose a formal arrangement for days spent in the office, or at least guidance, such as two days per week. And that’s fine — it can be helpful to set an expectation. However, if possible, rather than heading to the office on arbitrary days, head in for when you need or want to speak with people. Whether it’s for a client meeting, a team session or just getting in some one-on-one time with colleagues, don’t waste that office time sitting at a desk all day.

And if you are setting team meetings that you’d like to have in-person, ensure that these are meetings that benefit from having the team in-situ, such as workshops, solving complex problems or creating new outcomes. Keep status updates and regular meetings virtual — and preferably asynchronous.

Related Article: Why Workplaces Are Becoming Digital First, Remote First

Keep Working as if You Are Remote

If you’ve got into the habit of basing your work in digital tools, such as Microsoft Teams, then continue. Adopt a remote-first approach. Assume no-one is in the office. That way, everyone gets the same opportunities to access knowledge and information from our day-to-day activities. If you find out something useful during a chat in the office, then write about it in your team’s digital space.

Use Asynchronous Methods

Always look to work asynchronously whenever possible. That is, not at the same time as everyone else. This way, we can interact with our colleagues through our work, but it doesn’t have to be immediate, such as by posting messages or co-working in wikis or digital notebooks when we have the time.

An example of this is sharing team updates in a channel in Microsoft Teams rather than doing so in a live meeting.

Related Article: Collaboration and Communication Platforms to Improve Employee Experience

Be a Digital Leader

We all need to be digital leaders to make this work. Exhibiting characteristics that engage and empower digital teamwork. We don’t have to be senior workers to do this, we all have a role to play in helping to nudge habits away from the traditional means of work and towards the digital, such as:

  • Posting about your day as a matter of routine, sharing your activities, barriers and insights proactively.
  • Bringing in voices of other teams, stakeholders and customers into your own team’s digital channels.
  • Interacting with your colleagues in posts in front of the whole team instead of using chat.
  • Posting as you would speak, as if you were directly opposite someone.
  • Asking questions. Being curious and engaging in your digital channels.
  • Setting out clear expectations of how we need to work as a team to remove uncertainty and ambiguity.
  • Setting clear goals for work that allow all team members to align with, even if they do not directly have to follow them.

Blended workforces can thrive — to the benefit of the team and to the individual — if we master the basics of digital teamwork.

The workplace will simply become what we do, not where we are, or indeed when we are working. We won’t need to justify ourselves if we’re not around 10 hours per day. Rather, work allows us to be ourselves.

And wouldn’t it be nice if the office is somewhere we look forward to going to?

About the Author

From environmental science beginnings to project management, knowledge management and innovation management, I’ve always appreciated how mature collaboration is critical to success of any project. Advising global investment banking and professional services sectors, I’ve worked on some wonderful knowledge and collaboration projects. My biggest challenge was being asked to help a global engineering firm be ‘more innovative.’ The experiences of all of this motivated me to co-establish Innosis, helping organizations focus collaboration towards innovation and continuous reinvention.

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