I’ve just experienced something I have not felt for two years – an actual face-to-face sector conference. There was laughter, clapping, side conversations and no-one was on mute.
People commented on how revived and energised they felt. Some observed that they listened more attentively than they would have done on Teams or Zoom, where the lure of their phone may have distracted them.
This followed three days of being in the office. I know – three whole days.
I bumped into people I haven’t seen for months. We talked about long Covid, the quality of the coffee, grandchildren that had been born and loved ones who had been lost.
It was, in short, incredibly refreshing to connect again. But then again, I’m an extrovert.
As I got on my face-to-face soapbox, a colleague pointed out that they did not want to go back to the old ways of doing things.
Their life had more balance; they were happier. We are not, in short, Goldman Sachs. Point taken.
Satya Nadella, chief executive of of the software giant Microsoft, calls this the “hybrid paradox”. People want the flexibility to work from anywhere, yet also crave in-person connection. It’s not an easy circle to square.
Many of us have had a period of experimentation to “test and learn” over the last six months. Perhaps we hoped that by now we would have a eureka moment and send the email round to tell everyone the answer.
But we are still living through this change and will need to continue experimenting, listening and learning.
This matters because how we work is central to our culture, which is the foundation for creating the impact and change that charities seek to achieve. The labour market is as competitive as I’ve known it.
Many organisations are carrying vacancies while demand rises, so “brand offer” is central to attracting talent. At the heart of that is our values and relationships as charities.
Talking to colleagues, I’ve been concerned for some time that virtual working has supported vertical bonding, ensuring relationships within a team are strong. But horizontal bonds (relationships between different teams) have frayed.
You can have a disagreement with someone, shut your laptop and get on with your day. There is no awkward moment in the coffee queue the next morning where you may be forced to talk it through in person and make up.
And while there have been many benefits for improving diversity and inclusion, such as enabling charities to recruit from a wider geography and people to better share childcare, I’m concerned that hybrid working has not created the same benefits for all.
There is some evidence that inequalities have widened, with middle class workers more likely to be able to work from home, while younger people need to be in the office because of their home environment.
For me, the answer is not either/or for virtual or face-to-face working. Instead we need to be intentional and mindful about why and when we need in-person activity. To bring people together for “heads up” not “heads down” work.
So the “out of office” auto reply will be replaced by the “in office” auto reply.
And at Scouts we have introduced a certain number of “all-together days”, because we believe people need to be together to spark creativity, innovation and teamwork.
Our ways of working have a vital role in helping us to achieve our best. Paul Polman, the former chief executive of the consumer goods company Unilever, said that “energy management is more important than time management.”
That was what I found at the conference: it gave me energy and catalysed my thinking in a tangibly different way from online.
This is already proving to be one of the great challenges as we move from pandemic to endemic. How do we make sure we have sustainable ways of working that drive energy and wellbeing?
It’s a challenge we must overcome. The alternative is working ourselves to the point of exhaustion just to reach the next holiday or break in the hope that will top the battery up, as Acevo's Alan Lally-Francis eloquently expressed.
And critically, we need to be clear how this will improve the lives of the beneficiaries we’re here to serve.
We should embrace the moment: taking the best of what we’ve gained in the past two years but also regaining some of what has been lost.
Matt Hyde is chief executive of the Scouts