Many organisations have been practicing home working for years. What is striking is that most of them have not gone wholly virtual: staff may work from home 3 days a week for example and come into the office on other days. Or they might just come in for special meetings. All kinds of ‘blended’ arrangements have evolved.
What is it that causes organisations not to go wholly virtual? In part it seems to be that whilst it is possible to do the functional work on-line it is not so easy to do many of the other things that hold an organisation together and enable it to drive forward:
- How do you spark ideas off one another to get new developments started or solve knotty problems?
- How do you discover what’s worrying people and might indicate big problems coming later?
- How do you introduce new staff: how are they to ‘get to know’ their colleagues? It is one thing to work with colleagues who you have known in face-to-face settings for years: it is quite another to develop empathy and understanding with people you only see on a small screen.
- How do you negotiate with people remotely? You need to understand them, what motivates them, where there is room to manoeuvre, where their red lines are etc, and there can be no side conversations away from the negotiating table to facilitate that kind of understanding. There are reports that Brexit negotiations are not going well and some of the difficulties are being attributed to the lack of opportunities for informal conversations because everything is confined to teleconferencing.
Every organisation will have to work out what work it can do remotely and what is best done by getting people together face-to-face. The problem is that whilst there may be widely shared views about the routine work it may take more effort to dig out all the less proceduralised but nevertheless essential informal work that also needs to be done.