I know it’s fashionable for the talking heads in the leadership and workplace space to predict a business world that is “forever virtual.” However, let me be the first to burst that bubble by saying:
That’s not gonna happen!
Indeed, the COVID-19 housing boom indicates that I am wrong. The folks that sold their homes and fled to ones in their dream locations, far away from the business offices where they once worked, suggest that that they believe that we will remain in a forever virtual business setting.
Once more, there are many leadership teams that have communicated a commitment to remain forever virtual, including Microsoft, Novartis, Siemens and Salesforce, to name a few. But, in my humble opinion, that will change.
Let me suggest five reasons why I think the way that I do:
1. We need to develop the next generation of business leaders
Do you really think we are doing a satisfactory job of developing our youngest people through this Zoom-based work setting we went to last year? I don’t!
There is very little mentoring and coaching going on in this virtual world. The proverbial “let me help you out, kid,” debrief-focused after-meeting — where interested, experienced professionals provide informal advice and feedback to junior staffers in the hope of improving their skills and creating learning moments — just isn’t happening in the frequency and ways that it does in an in-person setting.
Why? We just don’t have the time. Our day is packed with back-to-back Zoom calls. We just can’t carve out the time needed to provide the mentorship needed to develop staff like we do in the in-person setting.
That said, the growth of our next-generation leaders is a practical reason why we need to get back to the office on a regular basis, as soon as we can safely return.
2. We are acceptably effective but not operationally excellent
By way of bursting more bubbles, let me point out that while we managed to get work done, we did not do it excellently. Before you tell me that you’ve never worked so much as when you worked from home, let me also tell you that many have done so at their own peril — do a search on COVID-19 workplace wellness and tell me I’m wrong.
As a consultant that engineers corporate resilience programs, I can tell you that working nonstop is not operationally excellent. Something has to give, and it’s usually us!
3. Safety and anxiety concerns will wane with time
Many thoughtful people point to safety and anxiety concerns as reason not to return to the office. Put simply, that reasoning will diminish in resonance with time.
As we all begin to regularly return to music halls, sporting events and on-premise restaurant dining as they prove safe, the health concerns or mental anguish associated with returning to the office will go away, too.
4. We are social creatures by nature
We really can’t discount the truth of the matter: People need to be with other people. This fact strikes deep into the human condition and has proven to be unshakable since we made our way out of the primordial soup.
Why would we want to maintain complete “virtuality” and miss out on all the fun and excitement that play out when people work together?
Facetiousness aside, the best business outcomes still demand in-person interactions because we lose so much attempting to do things over the phone or through a computer screen.
5. Hybrid strikes a happy medium, anyway
With companies like Ford, General Motors, Citigroup and TIAA already outlining their new hybrid work models, which require staffers to be on-site for key meetings or projects while enabling stay-at-home work for independent activities.
Recently, I’ve worked with a client in crafting its back-to-work policy and landed on the equivalent of “you decide when you’re needed at the office.” I believe that this philosophy will continue to grow in popularity and become the norm for the vast majority of businesses. That said, the implication is that there are times when you need to be in the office.
To close, I ask that we please stop being lulled into believing this dream of never having to step foot into a business office again. As attractive as that sounds, I’m afraid we are not going to be a forever virtual world, friends. Let’s use this in-between time to plan just how we will return with all of the rigor and discipline needed to crush it when we do return.
By James M. Kerr