I still remember vividly the first day of my career in the late 90s. Walking into the marble entrance hall of my accounting employer, fountains tinkling, receptionists immaculately dressed, up in the glass elevator and into the panelled room to join my ten fellow graduates for our induction briefing. We were given laptops of course (big heavy paving slabs), but it’s the physical sensation of walking into that hallowed office that sticks most in my memory.
And so, it has been through the rest of my working life – my career marked indelibly by memories of a series of physical offices (employers’, clients’). Up till now.
New ways of working from home
Like so many of us, I have been largely working from home since late March. During that time, we have won and delivered client engagements without ever stepping foot in the client’s premises. We have new team members who have never been to a physical RSM office. Our office is beginning to feel curiously foreign when I do go in.
And yet business carries on. RSM continues to function effectively as a company. We win work, we deliver client engagements, we collaborate and work together. Except of course we aren’t together. This has led me to ask some basic questions about the experience of work in the era of the coronavirus, and the crucial role of technology in forging that experience.
I have a sense that how we relate to the organisations that employ us is fundamentally changing as a result of the remote working forced upon us by the coronavirus lockdown. We are realising that they are not defined by their bricks and mortar but by their human relationships, interactions and processes. Those relationships are now intermediated very largely through technology.
When I ‘go to work’ in the morning I no longer step through the office door, I fire up Teams. When I chat to my colleague I no longer perch on her desk, I start instant messenger. Technology is no longer just a supporting tool, it is the very essence of how we work and defines how we think about our jobs and our employers.
Creating a sense of belonging
Can technology replace the office experience and the accompanying sense of community? This is now the crucial question for employers. Because survey after survey shows that that sense of belonging is what employees value – particularly those whom marketeers like to categorize as ‘millennials’ or ‘gen z’. If employers can’t answer this question, then they run a serious risk of losing out in the market for talent to those who can.
My own answer to that question is ‘yes - but’.
I say ‘yes’ because in many ways we are fortunate that the coronavirus hit now rather than ten years ago. All companies now have access to a bewildering array of productivity and engagement tools that can help staff to feel connected. These range from the obvious such as Zoom, Teams and Slack, to the less obvious such as Asana (collaborative project management), Miro (collaborative whiteboards) and Mindmeister (collaborate mindmaps). And when I say ‘all companies’, I mean it – as many of the tools are freeware, at least up to a certain number of users.
Now here comes the ‘but’. The range of possible solutions is so huge that staff need guidance and direction to find the right tools for the job. CIOs and HR directors must collaborate to select the right solutions to fit their business’s corporate culture, the nature of their business as well as the corporate appetite for risk (not all of these online solutions will be around forever, and data retrieval can be questionable). This guidance on ‘official’ collaboration solutions is essential – without it you can be sure that staff will start accessing online freeware anyway to fill the vacuum, and uncontrolled chaos could ensue.
Technology solutions to the question of belonging and corporate culture are there, but it is a fast-moving space and needs careful thought. Above all, it needs an exchange of ideas between HR and IT on how the ‘employer brand’ and corporate ethos can be reflected in and enabled by remote technology platforms. The tools are there to get it right, but it needs careful reflection on the organisation’s ethos to arbitrate between them and then put in place the right training and communications plan to ensure that the sense of belonging we had in the office is reproduced – in different ways – for the era or remote and virtual working.