It’s a Wonderful (Virtual) World…

16 September 2020

Just last week, the Founder of Netflix, Reed Hastings was scathing in his criticism of remote working:

 I don’t see any positives, not being able to get together in person, particularly internationally, is a pure negative.” (Reed Hastings, Wall Street Journal 7th September 2020)

This got me thinking.  ‘Pure negative’ suggests that there isn’t a single positive outcome from remote working – and I don’t agree.

As a mother to two young children who works part time, usually splitting my weeks between home in Gloucestershire and the Steps office in London, remote working during lockdown has somewhat ‘levelled the playing field’ for me.  I’m no longer the only one dialling in to a room of Board members or team colleagues in London – now we are all on Zoom, with profile pictures all the same size and each with the same access to microphones and chat functions.  We organise our time better, we are less distracted and we listen to each other more.  We are connecting with our colleagues in India and the US in ways that we didn’t before – leading to richer ideas and better results for our global clients.

We’ve seen a similar change with our clients, many of whom are now extolling the virtues of the virtual world – having initially been panicked into stopping all learning, development and behavioural/culture change within their organisations because of the risk of not being able to get people ‘in a room’ together.  Our response to the initial wave of work cancellations was to mobilise our capability for  online and virtual programmes – figuring out how we could adapt the drama based approach that we’re known for to suit the ‘new normal’ of remote working.  At the time, like many, we thought it would probably be a temporary measure – but as the weeks roll on and autumn approaches – it turns out that remote engagement of this kind will be with us for a time to come.  We believe most of our clients are also going to carry on with many of these new ways of working.

So – ‘pure negative’ seems too hard a hit for me – and rather bleak, considering the future of life and work that we’re facing, not to mention the progress that’s been made to embrace flexible working that, for some, was a reality long before the pandemic hit.  Of course – we are social creatures, we miss those opportunities for social interaction and collaboration, the buzz and energy of being together.  But there are many features in the remote environment that can help satisfy those social ‘cravings’ in new and different ways – and it’s for us to start to figure these out and build them into our work patterns, management processes and wider operations.

In our work, we use a 4-stage Steps to Change approach which we know works. It requires great facilitation, challenge, social interaction and above all the use of drama to hold up a mirror to people’s behaviour and to help them explore what better looks like. We can still achieve that in the virtual world. We had already delivered remote learning before of course – but our experience since March has awakened a new realisation – that this remote environment allows a level of access and inclusion that we couldn’t always achieve on site in a busy office.

Remote working has dismantled certain ‘hierarchies’ that exist in the physical world – a CEO blends in quite easily when their face is the same size as all those others on the screen, flexible workers or those based remotely can access programmes more readily, international teams can be integrated to ensure consistency across territories and, more than ever, reaching a shared understanding can become a truly inclusive process.  Perhaps luckiest for us, drama is universal – it’s a language understood across cultures and geographies.

So, in our world, remote and virtual working is far from ‘a pure negative’.  To thrive in the months ahead we have to see beyond the technical limitations of this new normal and embrace the opportunities created by the unforeseen change.  We can’t stand still, resort to old ways or lament what’s gone before.  We have to instead creatively reshape our approach, using the tools we have, to build opportunities for individuals and teams to work and develop remotely in ways that are social, collaborative and inclusive.  That’s what we’re going to be doing, it’s what we think our clients will be doing – and I suspect Netflix will be too!

Jennie also posted this article on LinkedIn – the original post can be found here.

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