Tackling Armies-of-One ...


By Chris Owen, Director, Hoffman Europe

Blah blah pandemic, blah blah disruption. There we go — bigger picture ticked off without the need for a 150-word set-up.

Let’s just get cracking on the discussion — namely, how we can learn from past experience and avoid the problems many face with remote working.

First up, an important caveat: I know I’m lucky when it comes to getting through periods of lockdown. I have a nice house which has areas where both my wife and I can work without disruption (providing the four-year-old human whirlwind is at preschool), and we have a garden to sit in, and plenty of countryside walks yards from our doorstep.

We’re better set-up than most (although, this doesn’t make us immune to the challenges, but that’s another blog for another time).

However, if I think of managing the same COVID situation during the early stages of my career, there are two stand-out elements which would have made remote working difficult for me.

Lack of personal space

person laying on bed with laptop

Firstly, my set-up. I was flat-sharing — with seven others at the start, including someone who thought 4 a.m. was the perfect time for two hours of the best Madonna house remixes. Halcyon days.

But it meant that I would have been working from my bedroom. This makes dividing work and free time difficult — they risk melding and as a result it becomes difficult to switch off. With everything else going on, decompressing is key.

Lack of face time

person on a video call

I don’t mean the app. In an office, you can lean over and ask a question; with remote working you need to IM, Skype, WhatsApp, Teams, Slack, or email. It makes a quick question an intrinsically longer act and brings an element of potential intrusion. In doing so, it sparks doubt as to whether you can ask it — or if the person you’re asking is too busy.

Desk-side you can tell if someone is heads-down and hold fire — remotely, you can’t. Waiting for the tick to turn blue, and “typing …” to appear isn’t conducive to finding the answer out quickly.

It also hinders learning — when you’re surrounded by others you can listen in, you can learn by osmosis in hearing others chatting about work, clients, and trends. You don’t have this at home.

The Army-of-One

These two elements bring about a scenario where instead of asking a question, someone thinks, “I’ll just crack on” …. and this cracking on will be done in relative isolation.

It can mean that individuals behave as such; as individuals.

It risks creating a siege mentality where isolation means plugging away without feeling confident to ask a question and trying to solve the problem solo instead of getting support from your team.

Lockdown as a norm

Much as we’d loathe to admit it, periods of lockdown will be a part of our society for a long time. The coronavirus will keep mutating, and we’ll need to keep adapting accordingly; we can expect the need for periods of isolation to become normalised.

As such, understanding how to make these shifts as seamless as possible is essential. You can’t predict flux, but you can prepare for it — and the start of 2020 provided a stark highlight as to where preparations were either lagging or non-existent across all industries.

Breaking down barriers

So how do you get around it? How do you prepare? Accessibility is key, as is transparency when someone might be heads-down — the situation that is very evident working together in an office. Drop a note around the team saying you’re going dark for an hour to concentrate on something — and if anyone has a question, ask it now, hold fire, or go to someone else.

Keeping lines of communication open is essential — and this starts at the top. Everyone should be made to feel just as comfortable asking a question across IM or email as if they were to ask it across a desk.

Simply listening. It seems obvious but ensuring everyone has time to talk through challenges — including home / mental health / personal where confident to do so — is critical. This could be in the form of regular, scheduled 1:1s or from those leading teams and accounts proactively checking in to see where help can be offered.

Returning to the office

Of course, once it’s safe to do so, bringing the team back together in an office is an obvious solution to the problem. BUT, essentially, it has to be done on their terms. Mandating a return forcing people outside of comfort zones if they are nervous about developments.

Instead, keep the office door open for when the team want to go in — be it individually or as a group, deciding between them when they want to work together.

It’s an approach we’ve taken, and one which has worked well. The team based in London spends a few days a week together as that’s how they like to operate. I come in when they run out of coffee and the company card needs a trip to the Nespresso store just down the road on Regent Street. I’m Head of Caffeine.

Thinking of each other

It’s a possibly terrible cliché to end with, but at the core of maintaining the right culture is everyone thinking of how the others are getting on. Look out for the signs that someone needs a chat.

Put yourself in their shoes and imagine how their working day looks and how it aligns with their personal life.

And think of how you can make it better — not necessarily with the grandiose, but with the personal. When lockdown hit, my credit card statement included a stove-top coffee maker, some cacti, and a ukulele. We’d asked the team what would make their home life more fun. What would they want that they wouldn’t otherwise spend a hundred quid on?

They might not have been big ticket, but to the team, they meant much more. It showed we were thinking of them and how a small touch makes a big difference.

Granted, it also forced us to listen to AC/DC on the ukulele a couple of months later, but we’ll gloss over that. And, to be fair, it was actually bloody good.

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