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Virtual ‘Teams’ no substitute for real thing – Stefan Stern

Virtual ‘Teams’ no substitute for real thing – Stefan Stern

In the second part of our interview discussing the new work normal, management author and journalist Stefan Stern continues to explore the relative merits of working from home while stressing the need to maintain ‘physical proximity’ within an office environment. 


“We’re in the era of knowledge work where you need proximity of human relationships. I worry about the death of the office chat and the argument that people should be paid less. If anything, workers are producing more for employers” 

In the second part of our interview discussing the new work normal, management author and journalist Stefan Stern explores the relative merits of working from home while stressing the need to maintain ‘physical proximity’ within an office environment. 

Empathy for managers 

SS: It’s hard for managers. The London mayor Sadiq Khan recently mentioned that he had been underperforming because his routine of going into town had been disrupted and he felt cut off at home. You can understand that for a job like his, it must be odd to be stuck at home. Quite a lot of managers will feel like that – delegating and empowering individuals is harder as they can’t get that face-to-face interaction with their teams or meet for that half hour cup of coffee. 

Proving doubters wrong 

SS: Management is about paying attention to people in a non-threatening way, so we can be more honest: here’s the role and this is how you can get it done in the best way. Whether that means two days at home, three in the office etc. Those bosses who were very sceptical in the past have been forced to recognise their businesses have not fallen over, work has got done, so you don’t need to be trapped in the office. And of course, there’s the health benefit of not forcing people to spend so many hours a week travelling.

Mixing it up

SS: It’s good to talk about a mixed model as it’s quite a mixed picture. If we start with the positives, it’s been pretty remarkable to see how many seem to have adjusted to new ways of working. Even the C-Suite sceptics have realised that working isn’t a soft option or a bit of a skive, and have found that you can get things done with teams who are spread about. And you don’t need constant supervision to work from home or the physical presence of boss. We need to be a bit careful not to pat ourselves too much on the back, and the claims of ‘five years acceleration in three months’, or that we don’t need offices anymore, are a little bit over the top. The mix is the interesting thing, the blend of approaches is valuable and hard to get right, but I do think teams are still going to have to meet physically sometimes. 

Zooming in   

SS: We’ve seen with Zoom fatigue that it’s actually more demanding to participate fully in a Zoom session than in a meeting where you can give yourself that bit of downtime. It’s like email overload. Zoom is incredibly useful and amazingly successful but it can be very frustrating so you need to get the mix right of online and offline. You can’t just abandon people, you have to build some sort of supportive structure and routine for people. We’re not going to get it right straight away but we always get excited about new technology and then the reality sinks in. 

Room for improvement  

SS: I have been very impressed with how well people have adjusted and how the seamless transition has been to remote working. It’s a great achievement and very positive for flexible working in the future. If you think about Hollywood you’d have TV writers room who would bash it out together, the point being that it’s a real room so you can pick up non-verbal cues, body language and silence. Would you ever sit in silence in a Teams call? In a room you can get people to write things down and absorb material. 

‘Physical proximity’ 

You mustn’t underestimate the value of physical proximity. While it may be tempting for CFOs to look at rental costs in expensive cities, and there is a hard financial logic to that, not everyone can work from home so easily. It might make sense in tech roles such as coding where you don’t need to be in an office. But for other businesses too much Zoom is very tiring, participation requires more effort making up for the fact that you’re not getting other data like body language, atmosphere, non-verbal cues and sounds. This is incredibly rich information. 

Travel reduction 

There was the unspoken view that working from home wasn’t serious. This was always wrong and a dismal view of people who had to be watched. If you’re hiring intelligent mature individuals, then they will manage their time efficiently and meet deadlines. Even CEOs have had to be home and have realised the benefits. Although it’s been tough for airlines, hotels and taxis, business travel has been reduced, which is no bad thing.  

Read part 1

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