Hybrid working – Are we losing touch with each other?

Robert Wakefield, Head of Administration Services at First Actuarial and President of the PMI, reflects on what we’re losing out on when we turn away from face-to-face contact.

In the ‘bad old days’ before we all discovered home-working, we turned up at the office on Monday mornings, and that’s where we worked, every day of the working week.

Every now and then, someone might escape from the distractions and disturbances of office life by spending a day working at home. Maybe a deadline was looming or they needed head space for a complex project. This made particular sense once offices became more open plan. But by and large, homeworking was a privilege for senior staff.

Office life meant working side by side with our colleagues all week long, battling through rush hour to spend a full day with people we didn’t always like. But the office was also where we supported each other, held team meetings, discussed problems and unusual cases, and importantly, trained and developed people.

Along came the pandemic

When Covid-19 struck, we were suddenly sent home with our laptops. Hats off to everyone who managed to adapt. Video-conferencing tools like Microsoft Teams and Zoom became the new normal. “You’re on mute” entered the lexicon of working life.

Although we could see each other on Teams and Zoom, we knew that we were missing out on face-to-face contact. It was hard to understand other people’s moods or interpret body language, for example. But that was true of every area of pandemic life, not just work.

Getting back to (the new) normal

Lockdown came to an end, of course, and firms encouraged their staff to return to the office. But by then, most of us had fully adjusted to home working. Some of us felt we could manage our lives better by putting a colour wash on or receiving Amazon deliveries in the course of the working day. The pandemic changed our collective notion of work-life balance.

Most firms and managers were keen to avoid upsetting their staff by forcing them back into the office full time. That’s when the idea of hybrid and flexible working practices took hold – you could spend two or three days in the office and work from home the rest of the time. Most of us even had some scope to choose which days to work from home. Hybrid working was designed to fit in with the post-pandemic flexi-lifestyle.

The efficiencies of hybrid working

If you’re focused and disciplined, your output may well have increased as a result. Many of us now switch on our laptops first thing in the morning and burn through our work until teatime, and even into the evening.

With no time or money wasted on travel or overnight accommodation, meetings and industry events can take place online. Within an hour or two, they’re over and we can turn to the next piece of work. What a result for employers and staff alike.

What have we lost?

Personally, I’ve always loved meeting people. I enjoy seeing how they look, how they act, and how they react. It gives me a clearer understanding of the people I work with and helps me make informed and sensitive decisions.

As I’ve said, online video conferencing means that we can still see people. But how well are we reading their emotions and understanding their inner responses?

Are they happy? How is their mental health? Do they really agree with my proposal, or are they keen to get the meeting out of the way with minimal resistance so they can move on to something else? Are they even listening? Some people will give every impression of paying attention, when on the same screen they’re reading a document that has no bearing on the discussion at hand.

When you attend a meeting in person, on the other hand, you’re committed to that meeting, and you have to actively engage with it. Participation and attention levels are higher. There’s nowhere to hide.

Are we trying to do too much?

For all the talk of work-life balance, I wonder whether we’re just finding new ways to overload ourselves. Are we all working so efficiently, in fact, that we no longer find time to take proper breaks or chat with our colleagues? And with the post-pandemic shortage of skilled workers, are we driving ourselves into mental illness and even burnout? And if we are, who will notice?

We need to remember that hybrid working is designed to blend remote working with in-person presence. Face-to-face is a fundamental human need. Let’s get back out there. If someone says, “Shall we meet up?”, try saying, “Yes, fancy a coffee?” rather than “I’m busy right now, but I can do a quick call on Teams if you like.”

It’s time to reclaim the humanity of our working lives.

This article was first published in Professional Pensions.

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Get in touch with the author, Robert Wakefield.

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