Bringing the human touch to the online workplace

During COVID and the associated lockdowns, most business interactions were restricted to a few square inches of real-estate on someone’s screen. A CIO I know well said it was the lockdown that made him realise how much he needed interaction with his colleagues to be effective. Indeed, most of us were used to having a presence in the office—walking around, enjoying ad-hoc chats and water-cooler discussions, updating colleagues at the lunch table, whatever. Remote working brought all these spontaneous human interactions to screeching halt and not a lot has replaced them.

Has remote work made us more efficient? I don’t think so, but it has certainly made us think more about communication and how to regain what we’ve lost.

Over the past year, I’ve gathered a number of ways CIOs and CTOs have attempted to resolve some of these issues. Below are four ways that have worked and helped to regain some of the human presence that was lost during lockdown:

1.     The doctor is in. Like Lucy from Peanuts, have a regular conference call planned and in everyone’s diary. When I set these up, attendance varied from none to twenty, but when people did drop by, work was only about 20% of the stuff we nattered about. Also, whilst it was scheduled for thirty minutes, it often went on for significantly longer, indicating that people were eager to engage.

2.     The ‘always-on’ call. Designate a team or an individual to always have a channel open. I’ve done this with outsourced functions, where they can immediately interact with a member of the employed team without having to email or call. It’s particularly useful for agile working with distributed dev teams.

3.     The cafe. There are systems out there now that allow a persistent presence; we’ve been using Kumospace. People pop in whilst doing something else, on the off chance someone else might pop in as well. We also used it recently to provide the much-missed informal chat sessions we normally have at our conference. It was the first time I’ve seen people stick around in a conference call, virtually moving between groups and conversations like in IRL. Some said it was almost as good as the real thing.

4.     The regular update. We suggest to our CIOs and CTOs that they have a regular session in their diary, usually once a week, to catch up with the CEO one-to-one. They should have these meetings even when there’s nothing on the agenda to talk about. I know a CIO who keeps a set of Pictionary cards to hand in case conversation lulls. Even for the CEO, there’s time for a little fun! (It couldn’t hurt to have regular meetings with the rest of the Board as well.)

I am often asked about innovative technology for our new ways of working. I don’t see any game-changing new systems out there; most are simply a version of video conferencing. So we need to make do with what we’ve got. Similarly, none of the above ideas are massively innovative. But with some effort and thought, we can approach, if not replace, the human touch of office life.

Look out for another post on the challenges particular to the hybrid office.