Martyn Drake: Don't start with the obvious questions around hybrid working

Issues around what office space you might need or how many days people should come in are not the most important matters

Martyn Drake
Martyn Drake

Even before the pandemic, one of the most frequent responses I would get to the “what went well” question at the end of board away days would be the recognition of how rarely this particular group of people would normally get time just to talk and of how valuable it had felt to do just that.

But creating an agenda, literally with a blank space, just to talk, takes confidence. It goes against every instinct and what many of us understand to be best practice, and it’s certainly not something I’ve always done. 

In my early days in consulting, as in my prior days as an executive, I would prepare people before exec and board meetings to be crystal clear on the decisions they wanted, the recommendations they were making, the alternatives they had explored and the sharpest, tightest pre-reads they would need to send in advance.

I would fill agendas to the limit and chair or facilitate them with clockwork precision to churn out decisions and actions like some kind of production line.

And what I discovered was that, while it might be a great approach for highly effective meetings, it’s not actually a great approach for highly effective teams; for relationships; for understanding; for exploration; for creativity. 

What’s great for our productivity isn’t always as great for our humanity.

This experience speaks directly to the observations many of us will have made over the past 18 months of virtual meetings.

Months where we’ve not even had the coffee chat or the stroll between rooms together to cover anything more than the topics in hand. 

Since Covid struck and meetings moved online, agendas have become even more structured, time even more productively allocated, conversations even more functional and transactional.

Many of the spaces to simply kick back and chat disappeared overnight. 

Rarely, in that whole period, did we create any opportunities for serendipity, for those moments of spontaneous creativity within a rambling conversation, for ideas and inspiration to emerge from the randomness of unstructured discourse with another human being.

And we missed it. Even us introverts have been coming back from our first face-to-face days, surprised at how worthwhile they were, simply being around people again, hanging out over lunch, chewing the fat.

It would be a travesty to lose the flexibility and productivity of the virtual models we’ve adopted over the last year and a half. They are so much more productive, so much more efficient. 

But it would equally be a huge missed opportunity to simply replicate or resuscitate that high-production approach in the physical time we can spend in each other’s company again. 

We have online meetings for that stuff, and they work really well. And we can get far more from our in-person interactions than mere productivity. 

We can get ideas, inspiration, creative thinking. We can get a space to genuinely bounce off and explore. We can get a time, just to talk.

So, my suggestion is this.

As you start thinking through your new options around hybrid working, don’t start with the obvious questions, about days of the week, or how much freedom, or what desks or offices you might need.

Start with how your people might need to use their time when they’re together; what mode they will need to operate in; and which space, whether on or offline, is most conducive to that mode.

Start from there, and you might just finish with the best of both worlds.

Martyn Drake is founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting

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