Just over 2 years ago, in April 2020, we published an article anticipating the end of the Pandemic, entitled “The Moment This Is Over Will Be A Moment People Remember Forever.” In it, we naively estimated that social distancing and virtual work might continue for “weeks or months to come” and predicted that when we’re all finally able to be together again, in an office with people we haven’t seen for months (which turned out to be years in some cases), it will “feel new and delicious. The conditions will be ripe for great experiences.”
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. Whenever it happened for each individual organization, when people first saw each other again at the office or at an in-person offsite, it did feel “new and delicious”, but also awkward, scary and—perhaps—a bit like a step backward.
With in-person meetings threatening to become the norm again, it’s becoming ever more apparent that a lot has changed. And now that we’re past the initial euphoria of being able to be in the same room together again, leaders need to make some tough choices about how and where their people interact going forward. Several factors make those choices particularly vexing:
- Many people want things to go back to the way they were and forget that the pandemic ever happened; while many others who seized the advantages of working and meeting remotely (and liked it a lot) now fear that they’ll be forced to give it all up.
- Most traditional office workers now 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 initially encountered in their use.
- The war for talent has become more pitched than ever, as companies deal with a talent pool that has many options and new expectations about where and how they work.
- Having experienced both in-person meetings and virtual meetings now, it’s hard to say that one is significantly more effective than the other.
For many, many organizations, virtual meeting technology is what stepped up and kept the lights on when they were suddenly locked out of face-to-face interactions. And yet, it seems like too many leaders are wondering about its on-going importance now that offices are open again. “People want to be together”, they say, “not kept apart on Zoom”. They ask questions like, “Since most of us will be together in the room for the meeting, how do we involve the handful of people who want to continue joining remotely?” They still consider face-to-face to be the default mode for important meetings.
But what if that’s been flipped? What if that’s the equivalent of people, in the early days of e-commerce, swearing that they’d never buy something online? Or stating firmly when ATMs were new that they’d never do their banking through a machine? Or insisting that they could never give up having a keyboard on their phone?
Are we stalling our own progress?
A Washington Post article from 2016 (“Humans once opposed coffee and refrigeration. Here’s why we often hate new stuff”) talks about this phenomenon: “Humans have a habit of stalling their own progress. From coffee to mechanical refrigeration to genetically altered food, history is littered with innovations that sparked resistance before becoming fixtures in everyday life.”
Is that what’s happening today with virtual meetings? Are we simply resisting something new? Are we nostalgically pining for “the good old days” of the boardroom meeting? Are we allowing emotion to override reason?
For those who have traditionally worked in an office, virtual meetings are likely to be a fixture in their business life going forward. 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 now misguided and too late. For those who want to go back to the way things were, you can’t—the proverbial genie is out of the bottle. Talent must be served. Slick new technology that has been proven to work can’t easily be packed away and put back on the shelf. It’s time to let go of the old world and embrace the new one.
The question shouldn’t be, “How do we enable some people to participate remotely when we have in-person meetings?” It should be, “Do we need in-person meetings at all, and if so, when?” 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?” It should be, “How do we fully leverage technology so that effective collaboration happens whenever and wherever people need it?”
Why resist? Why risk alienating employees? Why risk making your ‘workplace’ less appealing to new hires than those with whom you’re competing for talent? Why pay the extra expenses and tire your people out by forcing them to travel into the office or out to an offsite when that’s not necessary?
What it means to stop resisting
Instead, leaders should be choosing carefully when people need to be together (meeting for the first time, getting to know each other, socializing), accepting that for most other purposes together or apart is moot, and absorbing the fact that the former is more expensive, less efficient, and far worse for the environment than the latter.
This is what talented professionals want, and what the ones you need to hire want even more. They won’t necessarily tell you they prefer in-person to remote, or vice-versa, but they will tell you that they’d prefer the flexibility and empowerment to choose either. People don’t generally like “meatloaf Tuesday” because who knows before Tuesday what they will feel like eating? They also won’t like collaboration being forced on them on Thursdays or daily between 10 and 2, because who knows what they will be doing at those times and which mode of interaction will be better suited?
The best of both worlds is to offer unrestricted choice. To treat people like professionals. To let them sort it out for themselves; whether and when they need to be together. Then enable their choices with good technology and by teaching them effective meeting methodologies. Judge the results based on their performance and productivity. Is the right work getting done? Is collaboration happening? Are targets being hit? Is morale up or down?
Leaders ask if they will be able to preserve their culture, their distinct identity, and their sense of team if they don’t force people back together. They should also ask what happens to their culture 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 2 years, or when they’re back to commuting for hours per day because someone told them they had to.
Culture will survive virtual meetings, people will choose to be together when it makes sense to, and they will love the times when they are taken out for dinner or for explicit team-building experiences.
Culture may not survive a misguided attempt to turn back time.