Farmers and managers after the home-office lockdown might face a common challenge - how can they deal with it?
In the past weeks and months, incredible things have been achieved in a wide variety of areas: Professionals have been keeping medical care on the verge from collapse. The food supply has worked thanks to the tireless efforts of truck drivers, sales staff, farmers, and harvest workers. Parents have been caring for their kids as teachers and entertainers, while at the same time doing their actual work. This pandemic has shown how complex our economic systems have become, and that it only works if many people reliably fulfill their small role in this big system. At this point I would like to start my blog post by saying "Thank you" to all these people. What we often take for granted is not God-given. In many companies, hundreds of thousands of employees were sent to the "home office" within days, and they kept their companies running from there. Clerks as well as board members. The fact that this was possible at all was due to the tireless work of many clever minds in our IT departments. I would like to take this opportunity to thank these mostly invisible colleagues: without you, many of our companies would simply not have worked!
But now to the actual topic. What do chickens have to do with leadership? Last Sunday, my wife and I were out and about on our bicycles, enjoying the beautiful weather. We stopped briefly at a chicken farm to buy eggs from the vending machine there. By chance we met the farmer, who was taking care of his chickens. An interesting conversation followed. He told us: "I come here three, sometimes four times a day to look after the chickens. In the evening at half past nine I come here for the last time to make sure that everyone is in the chicken house. Otherwise they will most likely be torn apart by foxes overnight. Most of the chickens go into the henhouse by themselves as soon as it gets dark. But there are always a few that need special treatment. I have to take care of them personally. I'll catch them and bring them in." I'm smiling.
I listen to him, and the thought occurs to me that I as a manager will feel a little bit like him in the upcoming „end-of-home-office-lockdown“ phase. Our employees have done an incredible job in the last few weeks: from their private living rooms and dining rooms they have kept a global corporation running and on course. And I notice from many conversations that the past weeks are valued differently by different people and colleagues. Many of them feel the same way I do and want to go back to the office, meet colleagues "physically" again. Have coffee corner discussions. See emotions in faces instead of just hearing telephone conversations. Others like the homeoffice approach and say "I am more productive here than in the office". And still others fly completely under the radar, and you wonder what they are doing all day long.
Recent times have shown that home-office can have many facets. When we return to the office soon, we will not only have a completely new situation due to the risks, but also due to the different experiences and changed expectations of us as employees and managers. The return to office life will not simply work according to a master plan that is rolled out top-down, but will require some tact and sensitivity in dealing with our employees. Personal discussions will be necessary to understand the thoughts behind individual risk assessment. While some will feel safe if distance rules and wearing masks are implemented according to recommendations, there may be others who suspect corona under each toilet seat. There is much that we do not yet know about the ways in which this disease is transmitted. Therefore it will be a balancing act to bring our teams back together, which will require a lot of communication and confidence building. Confidence that the benefits of getting back together will outweigh the residual risks.
The world in our offices after Covid 19 will certainly not be the same as the world before. Our employees have shown what is possible from home offices. I must admit I was positively surprised at how well our team handled the situation. Nevertheless, after these months of field testing, I am not convinced that "New Work" really does look like a place where any of us can always work from anywhere in the world. And when you do come into the office once in a while, you take any desk somewhere, and just are part of the happy family again. Especially with the ongoing discussions about returning to the office, it is clear to me that the personal work space in the office is a high value for employees that should not be underestimated. It's not just a place where you put your computer. It is also somewhat of an anchor, security, identification. When this element falls, we need clever alternatives to generate exactly this anchor, this security, this identification in our offices. Personal interactions with people are so valuable in terms of inspiration, creativity and confidence building. I do belief many of us have been able to experience this in recent weeks.
After these months of home-office lockdown, I am highly motivated to return to my office. But not to follow some prophet of a "New Work" and "Everyone has a right to a home-office" movement. On the contrary. We now have to process our experience first and then look for our own, individual way, which combines valuable elements of the "pre-Covid 19" presence-office time with our new learnings. From the company's point of view, but also from the employee's.
My wish for all of us is that we master this crisis and get our economy and our companies running again with not too many problems and collateral damages. And I hope all of our "chickens" finally find their way back to the henhouse safely.
All the best and stay healthy!