There’s a charity I know pretty well that swiftly shifted to home working for all their staff when the Covid pandemic started to ramp up. It wasn’t really a problem – a lot of their staff worked from home, at least part of the time, anyway. They worked with communities and groups in particular patches, generally where they lived, and it just didn’t make sense to come in and out of a central office everyday. Operationally things worked well – staff seemed to be just as effective and efficient at doing their work and generally welcomed the increased flexibility. In fact, it seemed to work so well that the Chief Executive and trustees were beginning to question whether they really needed an office at all when things went back to “normal”.
But, a few months on it became clear that staff and the organisation were missing the informal contact and social interaction. They realised that they picked up quite a bit of really useful intelligence on what was going on from casual conversations, the chance mention of a new project or initiative and (let’s be honest) the gossip that happens during the natural interaction amongst a group of people. However comfortable and confident you are with Zoom or Microsoft Teams it’s simply not the same. In the end the organisation moved to new, better and more centrally located offices – quite a shift from thinking they didn’t need an office base at all.
It’s really important to recognise too that working from home all the time doesn’t suit everyone – their personal circumstances and the configuration of their accommodation may make it virtually impossible. So, if you require this you may well be limiting the pool of people from whom you can, in practice, recruit. (Personally, I think it’s also an equalities issue.)
The message I think is – embrace and support home working but do not forget the value, albeit rather intangible, of personal, face to face, informal, casual, serendipitous interactions – to our wellbeing and the effectiveness of our organisations. Good organisations need good teams and in my view you rarely get good teams relying totally on digital relationships.