Discover more from The L&D Dispatch
What I miss about the office
And why I'd never choose to go back full-time
I have a confession to make.
This isn’t a popular thing to say in 2023, and I know many of my colleagues will disagree with me, but I’ve learned something about myself over the last two weeks.
And what I’ve learned is… I quite like working in an office.
As we wrote in a previous newsletter, Mind Tools is well on the way to becoming a fully remote company. We closed our Horsham office earlier this year, our Denver team has been remote since day one, and our Edinburgh location is likely to follow suit in the near future.
Until very recently, I’d viewed this evolution as unambiguously positive.
On the few occasions I’d ventured into our office since Covid reared its ugly head, I’d generally found it difficult to get things done. The majority of my working hours are spent talking to clients or trying to get my head around complex ideas, and a distracting open-plan environment is conducive to neither of those tasks.
As a result, I’d come to view the office as a workplace of last resort: an option which should only be entertained once all viable alternatives have been exhausted.
When my wife and I moved house a few weeks ago, I wasn’t worried. I told myself I could work from my parents’ place while we were renovating our flat, and that I wouldn’t need to return to the office full-time. There was no need to panic.
Then my parents’ internet connection went down, and I was suddenly out of options.
Reluctantly, I dragged myself to the train station early the next morning, ready to commute to the office like it was 2019.
And what surprised me was… I didn’t hate it. In fact, I’d even say I enjoyed working from the office. Here’s why:
🚂 Commuting in 2023 isn’t like commuting in 2019
For a year before I moved to Edinburgh, I used to commute into the city every day for work. This involved getting up early to catch a train, then jostling with other passengers for a seat. On the days when I was slow off the mark, I’d end up standing for the hour-long journey in and out of town, which wasn’t the most auspicious bookend to the working day.
While some companies are ordering people back into the office, it doesn’t seem like many of these people are taking the train. Instead of fighting for a seat every morning, I now find myself with an array of options to choose from, and plenty of space to stretch out my legs.
This novelty will undoubtedly wear off over time, but I’ve discovered there’s a strange sense of purpose that comes with commuting — one that the journey from my bed to my kitchen can’t quite match. The act of commuting also forces me to get outside and take in some fresh air before work, which I’ve discovered I’m much less likely to do if given a choice.
👋 It’s harder to fall into silos when you’re sharing a room
On my first day back in the office, I was greeted by two colleagues whom I hadn’t seen since the start of the year.
After greeting each other and catching up, we all settled into our own set of tasks, much as we would have done if we’d been working from home.
Crucially, though, we could see each other completing these tasks, and hear the conversations we were having within our respective teams. This led us to ask each other questions and share perspectives about areas of the business that, day to day, we would otherwise have little cause to consider.
For me, one of the biggest effects of remote working has been that my communication at work feels more transactional. This isn’t to say that we don’t make time for one another, that we only talk about work, or that we don’t have fun. But at the end of a long day, joining one more Teams meeting is generally the last thing I want to do, even if it’s for an informal chat.
I’m fairly confident that some of the conversations I’ve had in the office over the last two weeks wouldn’t have happened online — a scheduled virtual coffee isn’t the same as a spontaneous in-person one. This is why, when we do get do together as a company, the focus is generally on socializing and spending time with one another.
🖇️ Certain tasks are just easier in person
During the second week of my return-to-office experiment, I spent a day working alongside my Learning Experience colleague Gemma Towersey. Gemma had come into town to meet one of our clients, whom she’s been working with closely for a number of years. The client was visiting Edinburgh, and planned to stop by the office to discuss an ongoing project.
After their meeting, both Gemma and the client commented on how much easier it was to have these types of conversations in person, where they could quickly review and action feedback. I found this striking in an age where tools like Teams, Slack, and Miro have made it possible to collaborate virtually in real time, though perhaps still with more friction than sitting side by side at a desk.
🤔 On the other hand…
I want to be clear that I’m not advocating for a ‘return to office’ push, or apprehensive about Mind Tools becoming a fully remote company. While I’ve painted a fairly rosy picture above, there are flip-sides to each of these coins:
Commuting may be a little nicer in 2023, but it’s still out-of-hours time that I’m not spending with my family and friends, exercising, or pursuing other interests.
It may be harder to fall into silos if you’re sitting next to colleagues from different teams, but it’s a lot easier to get distracted, or drawn into conversations that pull you out of ‘deep work’.
Some tasks may well be simpler in person, but they may not be so much simpler that they justify the time and costs (both financial and environmental) associated with travelling to an office.
My point here - one that sounds obvious, but wasn’t to me until recently - is that there is no ‘right’ answer to the question of fully remote vs. hybrid vs. fully in-person. Each option has its benefits and trade-offs, and what works for one organization may not work for another.
On balance, I think the pros of remote working outweigh the cons. But after the last two weeks, I think I’ll now feel a little differently on the day we finally close the Edinburgh office.
There wasn’t much L&D in this week’s Dispatch but hopefully you’ve enjoyed the diversion! If you’d like to share your own thoughts on remote vs in-person working, or the implications for L&D, then email firstname.lastname@example.org or reply to this newsletter from your inbox.
🎧 On the podcast
It’s been a while since I hosted the podcast, but last week marked my not-so-triumphant return to the airwaves! Thankfully, what Ross G described as a ‘6/10’ hosting performance was more than made up for by our guest, Anamaria Dorgo, founder of L&D Shakers.
In this episode, we discuss the benefits of online communities, strategies for building and maintaining them, and what successful communities look like in an organizational context.
Check out the episode below. 👇
📖 Deep dive
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Paul Leonardi highlights what he views as the primary challenges to managing the adoption of generative AI in organizations.
Firstly, the pace of adoption means people have less time to learn from one another and observe how the technology is being used. Secondly, the nature of the tools is that they are constantly evolving - what they can do tomorrow may be different to what they can do today.
To help organizations address these issues and enable employees to take advantage of new technologies, Leonardi has devised the STEP framework, based around four interrelated activities:
segmenting tasks for either AI automation or AI augmentation;
transitioning tasks across work roles;
educating workers to take advantage of AI’s evolving capabilities and to acquire new skills that their changing jobs require;
evaluating performance to reflect employees’ learning and the help they give others.
Leonardi believes leaders and managers (and, dare I say, L&D) have a critical role to play in this third piece:
‘Learning is the real imperative of successful AI use. Employees must learn and relearn how to use LLMs and other AI tools as they change, how to apply the new capabilities those tools provide to their work, and how to conduct new tasks that add value to the organization. Because employees need to learn with and from others, it becomes essential to adjust how they are evaluated and rewarded to ensure that they are motivated to help one another.’
Leonardi, P. Helping Employees Succeed with Generative AI. Harvard Business Review.
👹 Missing links
As a card-carrying ‘Techno Optimist’, Marc Andreessen believes there is too much doom and gloom surrounding technology and its impact on human life. In this essay, Andreessen lays out the positive case for technology, along with the core tenets of Techno Optimism. I don’t buy all of Andreessen’s arguments, but the Manifesto is an interesting read and a welcome change of pace.
According to survey data from the Chartered Management Institute, as many as 82% of new managers in the UK are what it calls ‘accidental managers’, who have been promoted into the role with no leadership or management training. The data also suggests that nearly a third of UK workers have quit a job because of a negative workplace culture, underlining managers’ role in calling out and reining in toxic behavior.
On a recent Teams call, I was asked if I could un-blur my background. The person I was speaking to was autistic, and he told me that the effect generally gives him a headache and makes it harder for him to concentrate. After the call, I wanted to find out more, and stumbled across this blog post by David Waller. In the article, David explains that this experience is common for people who are neurodiverse, emphasizing that a reasonable adjustment (removing the blur or using a static fake background) makes a huge difference to the quality of his working life.
👋 And finally…
All I’ll say about this week’s ‘And finally’ is that it comes courtesy of Mr Owen Ferguson. Enjoy! I think…
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