When I was a young lad, I often saw cartoons where a character would walk on a banana peel, spin around in the air and fall into a manhole that just happened to be waiting for him. It was a trite toon, but it never failed to make people laugh.
Back in the not-so-long-ago era of working in an office, a shared context–be it cultural, organisational or functional–made it easier to discuss and share ideas as well as resolve them informally. No matter how small or large the organisation, and no matter how complex its corporate culture, this modality of communication becomes second nature in a matter of few months.
You fall on a few banana peels. After a while, you figure out where they are and you avoid stepping on them. Landing on your bum wasn’t the worst part–it was the look of disdain in your boss’ eyes that said it all. You were supposed to pick up the banana peel, not trip on it.
The information and communications technologies which we have come to rely on–such as: email, social media platforms, video conferencing and anonymous forums–will come to hold a vital and irreplaceable role in the human psyche in the years to come. One of the chief challenges of relying on solely on technology to solve our communication dilemmas has become even more apparent since we all started living our lives on the internet. There’s no point in hammering on about the importance of creating a digital culture–because tech companies have been doing it since the 1970s.
The banana peels are still everywhere. It’s just that now we have to deal with a lot of different bananas in a rainbow assortment of colours. Why? Screen fatigue, impersonal communication, wonky connections, and tuning out just because. The same reasons why we didn’t fully convert to tech before the pandemic still hold true today.
Firstly, there are numerous unseeable and unknowable differences that exist between distant localities, leading to misunderstandings and unspoken tensions. Before the pandemic, the communication strategy for global projects tended to include a travel budget that allowed for face-to-face visits, team meetings as well as expatriation benefits for key personnel. This was vital in fostering a sense of loyalty and belonging to the organisation. When we work from home, our ‘colleagues’, who are not actually our colleagues, end up being the people in our immediate vicinity. Where do our loyalties lay in such a confusing environment? Are we turning to all the wrong people for the woes we face at work?
Nothing in our education system or in the known history of the world has prepared us for this type of work culture. In the short-run, when it seemed temporary, we all tried to make it work because we had to. But as work-from-home becomes the definitive new normal, the real question of how to create a conducive corporate culture has still remained unanswered. Thought leaders bang on about building a digital culture, but even before the pandemic hit; there had already been significant backlash regarding the impersonal and frivolous nature of online communication.
The question of how to best staff a particular project rarely arose when only one locality was involved. The location is often chosen because it is the ideal place for both the team and the execution of the project. While the pandemic has opened up remote work as a viable hiring opportunity, a great deal of sensitivity is required to make the most efficient use of human resources in such an impersonal environment. If you were the sort of person who thrived on impersonal communication, hooray for you–but the rest of us still need and long for that human touch.
The scale and availability of never-before-seen hiring resources has led many employers down the path of remote hiring. However, one of the key issues with this approach is that the risk is high and the benefits are few. The main risk with this approach is the short-term nature of the hiring decision. After all that was invested in developed economies into creating a judiciary as well as building an infrastructure that would encourage investor confidence, are we heading back to an era where the short-term is all that matters?
For people who commenced their employment journey during the pandemic, this is their ground zero. But anyone who has ever worked ‘on the ground’ with a team–regardless of whether it is large or small–knows that the product or service delivered isn’t always what was anticipated at the very onset. This risk remains and is further amplified by our current default modality of work-from-home. So how do we overcome this risk?
When a project or a team is split over several time zones, cultures and languages, there is very little room for iterations. One of the ways to mitigate this risk is to define everything up front so that everyone working on the project has the same understanding of the goals and their individual contributions to what is still very much a team.
This phase in human history is temporary. We all need people. We need to be part of a community–and not just an online one. I foresee an old trend returning–one where we begin relying on our neighbours and those in our immediate proximity again. We had stopped doing that with the advent of the sharing economy and now we’re perhaps heading back to basics. Long walks in the park nearby, making friends with the guy who sells you your coffee, and spending more time with that significant other than you used to.
Most humans are not engineered to live on technology. Just give it time–you’ll see what I mean.