Monday 23rd March 2020, 9am.
I’m at my desk, in “the TV room” at home, which I have claimed in a military manoeuvre. It has undergone an upgrade over the weekend from “where I work when at home” to “the office”.
I click the “Google Hangout” popup alert and in a few seconds I am presented with a striking array of familiar faces. We have 22 people working in Infotex. Not all are full time, but today everyone is on the call. I can see a wall of anxiety on my desktop and I am not sure what to say to it. So at first I waffle on about how this is all unprecedented and we must brace ourselves for a commercial shock. But unlike many managers out there, I am able to turn to something more concretely positive: the silver linings at our disposal as an online business able to continue to operate more or less unaffected. How there is an opportunity for us to show leadership and courage, and to advance our online services in new ways, as the internet is now about to come to the fore.
We start to have a general chat. James picks up the theme and adds that it’s as if we just pressed fast forward on the things we have all believed in for years – the remarkable ability of the Internet empowering individuals and organisations to communicate and collaborate in ways that are so much more effective than ever seen before. We observe that the very meeting we are all having now is, well, comfortable and extraordinary in its quality. A reassuring facility in uncertain times.
This concept hits me with a force – that in a world which has suddenly become utterly unpredictable, we need to create some new certainties. The handrails and toe holds of life are about routine and certainty. I tell the team boldly “right we will meet here online every day at 9am for 15 mins for a catchup and general chat about things, then let’s take things one day at a time”. I do this as I sense everyone, me included, is going to need a new structure.
After three days of 9am catch ups, I start to meet resistance. Everyone is facing multiple challenges at the start of each day, with numerous Hangouts, Zooms and Meets, plus lots of production operations to get through. “Let’s try meeting at lunch time from tomorrow onwards”, I suggest on the day 3 catch up. There is then a typical Infotex discussion – friendly but firm, with plenty of opinion and sense of humour – about when lunchtime is. ‘Turns out some go for lunch as early as 12, and some as late as 2. This is not as disorganised as it sounds, it’s all about making sure we have people available all of the time for our clients when they need us. “Right”, I say, determined not to be outmanoeuvred, “we’ll have our catch ups at 11-45 daily – no one can say it’s too early, and no one can say they’re off for lunch”. And so it begins.
Lockdown continues and like thousands of small businesses all over the country we are now experts at working from home. We have had the Company Catchup at 11:45 every working day since March 23rd. The team has worked hard throughout to support our many clients with updates to their websites, as they all adapt to their changed worlds. Some clients have been exceptionally busy, with online sales many times greater than ever seen before. This produces challenges all round – one client, for example, quickly ran out of the small bags they use to sell to consumers, as their flour business was mostly selling to trade in large bags. Another client had to adapt their shops to become pick-and-pack centres and had streams of demand from customers wanting deep freezes and more audio visual equipment. Many of our clients had to shut down and just needed us to update all their messaging to tell customers about their new arrangements.
Like our clients, we are emerging from the mist and thinking about future plans and what will be the new normal. Already we know that we are never going back to the way we were before March. So how do we want to organise ourselves in the future, in a post-Covid world? We decide it’s time we did a survey, so Katie polls the team. She asks them to talk from a personal perspective (what they want for themselves) and from the company’s (what they think is best for the company’s future). The results, perhaps unsurprisingly, reveal how none of us can yet see very clearly into the future… but they do also show a distinct preference for working from home.
Meanwhile we make the office “Covid Secure”, although it remains mostly empty, and we offer our unused space to three small businesses that are struggling their way through the pandemic and are in need of working homes. My grown-up children offer to re-paint it so that it will feel fresh on our return in the Autumn.
When term starts, we reopen the office for a handful of those who want to go in part time, which feels like a reassuring step in the right direction.
With no sign yet of Lockdown 2, we decide to do a proper plan for 2021, which calls for a repeat of our June survey. Same questions, different answers this time. It seems about half the team believe they will work best if they can come and go to the office flexibly when restrictions are lifted. The other half want to keep working at home. There is much less indecision.
|Return to work in office?||Jun||Nov|
The Company Catchup has sustained throughout the summer. Even as lockdown eased, with calls to “Eat out to Help Out” and “Get Back to Work”, bolstered by our June survey results, we decided to hang on to our newly formed habit, reluctant to let go of all the benefits we are feeling. The Catch Up has found its own rhyme and reason:
Mondays – we pick up from the weekend. Then our production manager Katie runs us through all of the projects going on across the business, and highlights key events – launches, workshops, client meetings, internal sprint reviews.
Tuesdays – The week is underway and scheduling has been finalised the day before, so Cameron our Support Manager highlights how things are on the front line of support – any major maintenance upgrades, clients facing operational challenges and needing priority support.
Wednesdays – There will have been digital marketing and development meetings in the morning, so things can turn a bit geeky. We hear from Tim our Digital Strategist about cool stuff he is doing with clients to help them improve website performance. And Chris, John, Richard and the developers all chip in with updates on technical stuff they are up to.
Thursday is People Day – we raise admin matters – holiday plans, documentation, etc. And this is when we might have a guest speaker – our shareholders or creative partners for example.
Friday is think about the weekend. I tend to turn to our designers (the art department) to bring some colour and light to the conversation, and remind us of the importance of nurturing the artistic soul in our world of design and technology. We are blessed to have Jonny as our head of design, supported by Alice, they are a winning combination team.
By now we have also been successful in winning new business – engaging with, and selling to our clients online, and now working with them creatively. Out went the old one or two day workshops, involving car and train journeys and fabulously complicated logistics to get the necessary people together for quality time. In replacement we are seeing 2-day workshops achieved in several 2 or 3 hour remote sessions , with all the people we need to be there – Infotex and Clients – always able to attend, and with the luxury for our designers to be able to sit in on tech meetings, and our developers to sit in on design meetings, which so often in the past had been difficult to resource.
So, slowly, we feel, we are finding our sustainable path through this new world.
Lockdown 2 (or is it 3, or 4?) is now well underway. This time round, the whole nation, and nations abroad, seems more subdued. Our intention, stated in September, to re-open the office in January, was abandoned before Christmas, by then we knew it wasn’t going to happen. The Company Catch Ups have become about more than just routine and certainty, they’re about keeping well-being and companionship up too, in a world where human connection is at risk of slipping.
There are no rules. I have heard of all sorts of ways that businesses are helping employees navigate this new landscape. Each company and organisation needs to find what works best for it. As always with the adoption of new technology, it’s important not to let your natural tendency to want things to stay the same hamper your ability to adapt and grasp the positives.
For us, we will re-open our offices at the end of June and everyone will have a place to come to work. But as a company we have seen the benefits of working remotely and we intend to build on these learnings. For example, meetings will continue to be video based by default, so that they are always attended by the right people and the logistics can be frictionless.
The UK now has a road map and we can, at last, plan against a framework that will see an end to the lockdown and the most severe restrictions. All the indications are that there will be no “after Covid”; we are now in a “living with Covid” world. But regardless, and whatever restrictions remain on movement and social contact, we have all been propelled, as James said in our first lockdown meeting, into using the Internet with more imagination than we thought we had, for the improvement of how we run our lives.