A person is participating in a meeting.
We published an article about the end of the Pandemic in April 2020. It was naive to think that we would be able to be together again in an office with people we haven’t seen for months. There are great experiences to be had.
Two years later, most companies have welcomed people back to the office, some full time, some part time, and many are still figuring out what to offer and/or require when it comes to being physically present in the office. When people first saw each other again at the office or at an offsite location, it felt new and delicious, but also awkward, scary, and a bit like a step backwards.
A lot has changed with in-person meetings threatening to become the norm again. Now that we are past the initial euphoria of being in the same room again, leaders need to make some tough decisions about how and where their people interact going forward. There are a number of factors that make those choices difficult.
Many people want things to go back to the way they were and forget that the Pandemic ever happened, while others who used to work and meet remotely fear that they will be forced to give up all of it.
Most traditional office workers have experience with remote work / virtual meeting technologies, have access to the equipment they need to use them, and have overcome most of the basic barriers they encountered in their use.
As companies deal with a talent pool that has many options and new expectations about where and how they work, the war for talent is more pitched.
It is difficult to say that virtual meetings are more effective than in person meetings.
Virtual meeting technology was used to keep the lights on when they were suddenly locked out of face-to-face interactions. It seems like a lot of leaders are wondering about its importance now that offices are open again. They say that people want to be with each other. Since most of us will be together in the room for the meeting, how do we involve a small group of people who want to join remotely? Face-to-face is the default mode for meetings.
What if that has been changed? In the early days of e- commerce, what if people swore that they wouldn’t buy anything online? When ATMs were new, would you say that they wouldn’t do banking through a machine? Do they insist that they have a keyboard on their phone?
We are stalling our progress.
The Washington Post had an article about coffee and fridges. Humans have a tendency to stall their own progress. Coffee, mechanical refrigeration, and genetically altered food are just some of the innovations that sparked resistance before they became household names.
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Is that the case with virtual meetings? We are resisting something new. Are we nostalgic for the good ol’ days of the meeting? Is it okay to allow emotion to overrule reason?
Yes, that’s right.
Virtual meetings are likely to be a staple in the business life of those who have traditionally worked in an office. We might have waited a few more years for them to become commonplace in a world without Covid-19, but the Pandemic accelerated us through crossing the chasm. Resistance and hesitancy are no longer valid. The genie is out of the bottle for those who want to return to the way things used to be. It is necessary to serve talent. New technology that has been proven to work can’t be put back on the shelf. The old world needs to go and the new one needs to be embraced.
The question shouldn’t be “How do we enable some people to participate remotely when we have in person meetings?” Should it be, “Do we need in-person meetings at all?” The question shouldn’t be “How many days per week should we mandate that people be physically present in the office and at what times during the week should we force them to be here together at the same time so they can collaborate?” How do we leverage technology so that effective collaboration can happen whenever and wherever people need it?
Why wouldn’t you? Is it worth the risk to alienating employees? If you make your place less appealing to new hires than those with whom you are competing for talent, why bother? If your people are forced to travel into the office or out to an offsite when it isn’t necessary, why pay the extra expenses?
What does stopping resisting mean?
Instead, leaders should be choosing carefully when people need to be together, getting to know each other, socializing, and accepting that for most other purposes together or apart is pointless.
Talented professionals want this and the ones you need to hire want more. They will tell you that they prefer the flexibility and empowerment of choice over in-person. People don’t like “meat loaf Tuesday” because they don’t know what to eat before Tuesday. They don’t like collaboration being forced on them on Thursdays or daily between 10 and 2 because they don’t know what they will be doing at those times.
Unrestricted choice is the best of the two worlds. To treat them with respect. They should be able to sort it out for themselves. They can use good technology and teach them effective meeting methodologies. They should be judged on their performance and productivity. The work is getting done. Collaboration is happening. Is the target being hit? Is it up or down.
If leaders don’t force people back together, will their culture, identity, and sense of team be preserved? When people start looking around for other opportunities because they’ve been stripped of the freedom and trust they’ve been granted over the last two years, or when someone tells them they have to, they should ask what happens to their culture.
Culture will survive virtual meetings, people will choose to be together when it makes sense, and they will love the times when they are taken out for dinner or for explicit team building experiences.
Culture can’t survive a misguided attempt to change time.