Our leadership team lived together for a week and…
… here are my five lessons (based on the experience) for the future of work post pandemic
Last month, the Digital Workplace Group (DWG) leadership team lived (and worked) together for a week in a beautiful Georgian house near Chelsea in London.
We call these live/work weeks the ‘Big Brother House’ (BBH) – although, to be clear, there are no cameras. We have held such co-working/co-living weeks twice a year for the past six years.
But in October 2021 BBH was different.
After not being able to have a BBH experience since October 2019, this was a particularly special and poignant time together.
We had planned a BBH in July 2021, but travel restrictions and lockdowns meant we had to settle for BBH online (which, despite its ‘efficiency’, was a rather thin and disappointing version of the real thing).
But back to the in-person London BBH… on the Wednesday night, having returned from a wider team day spent near Marble Arch in central London, the six-person leadership team plus some other staff members were huddled around the kitchen island. As we bantered with each other over the choice of suppliers for a new online service, several of us were laughing so much tears of laughter flowed.
Were we working? Were we playing? What were we achieving? The fact is: no one cared. We were just revelling in the sheer joy of being together in the flesh and celebrating each other’s company and humanity. The chance to be in hysterics together felt both so rare and yet so familiar. We have had some wonderful MS Teams calls for sure and lots of laughter online too, but never did we laugh so much. Some experiences require a physical ‘heart to heart’ connection.
This ought not to be the case for DWG. After all, digital is in our DNA. We have been rated by the Financial Times in both 2020 and 2021 as one of the UK’s leading management consultancies for digital transformation. We may only have 100 or so people across Europe and North America but we shared this FT rating with the vastly bigger McKinsey and Accenture.
So, if any company should be able to work digitally, it’s DWG. This is how we work and has been entirely so ever since we closed our two physical offices in New York and London in 2011. So, when the pandemic hit, we didn’t skip a beat in working effortlessly from wherever we all were.
However, what the pandemic showed us as a digital workplace consulting firm, was not just the strength of the digital world of work but actually its limitations and deficiencies too. We discovered that being together in person is essential, unique and even sacred in its importance for a healthy and dynamic workplace.
Yes, we could power ahead through a global pandemic, supporting 80 major clients globally to have the best digital workplaces possible, but we also discovered that we do need at times to share each other’s physical presence; to hear our colleagues’ voices for real, prepare lunch together, bump into each other on the stairs.
Not only did this year’s BBH involve the most laughter each of us could remember for many months though, we were also so creative and courageous in what we were planning for DWG in 2022 and beyond.
For next year we have already put in the calendar two more BBHs, plus (a new kid on the block for us) two that we are calling ‘Big Brother Cottages’ (BBC – get it?), mini versions (across just two days) of the full-week BBH experience.
So, here are my 5 lessons for the future of work based on our BBH time together:
1. Mandate that your team/s must co-work together in person regularly
Flexible, hybrid working has distinct weaknesses when allowed to run rampant. One senior manager at a Silicon Valley client went into the HQ for the first time in six months and found the experience to be depressing. Hardly any of her colleagues were there. It’s crucial to make sure your team are all in the office at specific times so you can actually gain from the experience of being together in the flesh. This could happen once a month or even once a quarter – we find the frequency doesn’t matter so much as the fact that when you are together you make it count.
2. Human beings are complex, emotional and social as a species – in life and work
There was much that happened during our co-working week together that defied measurement and quantification. What was the ROI on our meals cooked together, chance walks around the neighbourhood and laugher in the kitchen? It is impossible to place a business value on such times but the wider team of 20 or so people who had good in-person times together that week were left feeling fulfilled and somehow healthier and happier after our time spent with each other.
3. There are decisions, insights and courage that only (or at least best) happen in person
During our week, we took a range of significant decisions – both tactical and strategic – that would have been impossible if attempted remotely. One afternoon, while sitting around together on comfy sofas, with no flipchart or any technology in use, our Chief Financial Officer, Daniel McMillan, posed an idea in the form of a question. In 2022, we will celebrate our 20th anniversary as a company and the question he asked was: ‘If we were starting today, what services would we create and at what price points?’. A lively conversation ensued and within 30 minutes we had designed a whole new product as a service, which has huge potential in our marketplace. There was something in the physical chemistry of the team that day which seemed to make this innovation effortless and obvious.
4. Being together in person must be made to feel significant – but doesn’t need to happen frequently
Even if we get rich time with our teams only once a month or even once a quarter, the lasting legacy of this can endure for many weeks and months. It is not that teams need to meet often but more that when they do there should be enough time together for the value to be felt. The half measures where people are expected to ‘come into the office two days a week when they choose’ is the worst of all worlds. Like the Silicon Valley example earlier, this experience will only ever result in a diluted version of a real ‘human to human’ connection.
5. Value and belonging are what attract the best people to the best companies
The ‘Great Resignation’ (says McKinsey) has at its heart a crisis of meaning and connection in work. People re-evaluated their work–life during the various lockdowns, asking themselves what they really want from work and their lives more generally. Many are now redrawing their lives to find more purpose and value with family and friends. Being left to work purely remotely is not satisfying for a lot of people. With labour shortages and work migration set to continue to mark this decade, if they want their organization to attract and retain good people, companies need to work hard and experiment to enable in-person working in ways that will make an emotional impact on employees. Value and belonging are hard to measure but you know them when you see them; during BBH weeks I certainly experience value and belonging – and that feeling remains with me now, some weeks after the October get-together.
|Read about our BBH experience in 2019 in the blog:
No offices – but instead (sometimes) we live together
|Download the second instalment of the Decade of Courage Manifesto:
Season 2: The year of change that matters
About the author
Paul Miller is CEO and Founder of the Digital Workplace Group (DWG), rated by the Financial Times in 2020 and 2021 as one of the UK’s leading management consultancies in digital transformation. He is a business and social entrepreneur and author of four books. His latest book is Nature of Work – The new Story of Work for a Living Age (co-authored with Shimrit Janes).
Paul has given many inspirational talks on the digital future of work, for audiences at Microsoft, IKEA, Google, Accenture, Harvard Business Review, Cisco, European Commission, IMF, Adobe and Oxford University. He hosts the Digital Workplace Impact podcast.