It’s September 11, 2021. I’ve flown from New York City to Casablanca to work with a team I’ve known for a decade. They’re in the tourist business and have been devastated by COVID. The last time I visited was March 2020 at the very beginning of the pandemic. Customer cancellations were pouring in. Now eighteen months later, there’s some light at the end of this longer than expected tunnel with business trickling back.
I’m here to attend their first company-wide offsite. The two founders were able to keep most of the team employed with some help from the Moroccan government. They’ve been staying busy improving processes and keeping in touch with prospective travelers mostly from the United States. But it’s gotten a bit “long in the tooth” as the Irish would say (a.k.a rather old). They’re eager to get back to what they do best.
“It’s odd. We’ve kept in touch on Zoom and had some one-on-one in-person meetings. But it’s so different with everyone together,” this co-founder was struggling to capture the emotion of the moment. “The conversations are different. It’s like we’re filling in the gaps we didn’t even know existed.
The gaps we didn’t know existed: opportunistic connections
At SNP we’ve talked for years about the importance of opportunistic connections. Passing in the hall and being reminded of a task or piece of information that was missed during the last team meeting. Or a cross-functional peer who gets informed during unscheduled moments. Not to mention all the social updates we took for granted. Making those informal connections at work is powerful. During COVID, those moments are gone. As a senior member of our team said this week, “We’ve been working in our silos and didn’t even know it.”
On my return trip to New York City, I talk to another founder based in Berlin. His business provides mobile, 3D maps for mountain climbers and extreme skiers. They just had their first in-person leadership team meeting. “It was crazy,” he explained. “We’ve been fighting over a wide range of topics over the past year. But during this offsite, we resolved all of them in forty-five minutes. The same words but being face to face is different.” He’s a seasoned leader but even he was surprised by the power of being in person.
Approaching hybrid and creating informal connections at work
As we approach some form of hybrid work, we’re hearing this more and more. Surprise and delight with getting things done, with three-dimensional faces. Reading body language. Sensing the visceral emotion of being in person. The FOMO we didn’t even know we felt during the past eighteen months, is being highlighted as we find ourselves working part-time from home with some increased frequency of going to the office or attending in-person team meetings and offsites.
We’re all struggle with this next stage of work, determining how much time we spend in the office versus working from home.
Here are a few things to consider when moving to a hybrid model:
- This is permanent. Don’t fool yourself. And even if it’s not, best to think it is.
- Find ways to get informal face time scheduled with your teams. Make informal connections at work happen.
- When you do, make time for casual interaction. Think of opportunistic moments.
And as a leader, you set the tone. So focus on these three things:
- Your company mission and values to guide you through this hybrid moment. Lean on them. They are what bond your team and will pull you through the FOMO that will continue to some degree.
- The team versus the individual. The book, Will It Make The Boat Go Faster by Ben Hunt-Davis MBE & Harriet Beveridge, comes to mind. Rely on common beliefs and commitments to the team. More than that, demand it.
- And finally, focus on outcomes versus management strategies of the past. Most of your team will continue to be out of sight for most of their work time. Don’t let your insecurity get the best of you. Track and publish outcomes and judge the work based on that.
On a practical level, you will need to balance a mix of offsites, in-person team, and leadership meetings, with this so-called hybrid model. Meet more regularly. Structure opportunistic moments where cross-functional teams can work together, both formally and informally. Value the informal. And keep reminding the team why you exist as a company and team. Your purpose.
Surprisingly it comes down to FOMO, which reveals itself in this transitional COVID moment. And you thought it was only anxiety, loneliness, and fear. Yep, one more thing to add to the mix. The learning continues.