Virtual working the great equaliser

By Rachel Shaw

August 5, 2020 

Before the now infamous year of 2020, it seemed that in internal communication, it was a constant uphill battle to convince stakeholders of two things. Firstly, that collaboration/communication technology can improve productiveness and not be a distraction and that secondly, it can help change corporate culture for the better. But with lockdown, everything changed.

Just to be clear, I do not work for an internal communications software company or any type of collaboration platform for that matter, but I have long been an advocate of helping to connect people and providing them with the tools to do their jobs well. Before lockdown, I can remember various tools, platforms and technologies that would market themselves by coming into offices for a demo, making sure that they had their well set up stalls at conferences and holding the odd webinar or panel discussion to draw you in. I don’t know how successful they were, as, in the end, as we all knew that a new tool meant less budget, more training and employee resistance, often the default was to run a mile, especially when our stakeholders couldn’t understand the need when employees were present in an office environment. But when the office was gone, and people were disconnected, what other choice did they have but to turn to these tools? 

I am still a little amazed that it has taken a global pandemic for some stakeholders to finally see their value. Indeed, some have been forced to admit that their system of having only a 10th of the laptops they needed for their workforce and no technology in place just wasn’t going to cut it when the government decreed we work from home. Turns out the pandemic was the burning platform these stakeholders needed to embrace change. And change it did. To give you a flavour of the extent that technology use increased during lockdown, Zoom alone reported an increase of use by 2000%. Impressive.

Part of this resistance to technology was fueled by the underlying fear that your employees would be less productive at home, a fear that has proved to be unfounded. A report by Deloitte recently detailed how working from home during lockdown had not decreased productivity and that on average, employees had embraced new technology to stay connected. I find that there are fewer distractions to get on with tasks and I focus better than I would in an open-plan office. That’s not to say that I don’t miss the social aspect of being with colleagues (virtual coffees aren’t quite the same) and the quick on the spot questions that can help your thinking along, but the argument that working from home is entirely unproductive is, in essence- fake news. 

Aside from the lack of decreased productivity, a key cultural change I have also noticed while working virtually is how communicating through video conferencing and chat tools has become an equaliser across levels within a company, and with external stakeholders. Long gone are those stomach-flipping stressful meetings in a cold office room with a long table separating you. In today’s working world, the dress code seems to have unanimously become more casual (whether you are a CEO or middle manager) and instead of stumbling through awkward icebreakers about the weather, we can now discuss our common experience of lockdown- how we are coping and adapting. What a difference this shift has made to how interactions within the professional environment are being conducted, developing a new working culture that reminds people that everyone is human and has a lot to be dealing with. I’ve found that it makes interactions much more comfortable and conversations flow easier than before.

Video conferencing software has also enabled a huge array of people from across the world during lockdown to connect and collaborate, whereas before when the meetings occurred at a designated location, they were unable to attend due to travel complications, childcare logistics or other reasons. But with our current situation, a few of those blockers have been minimised, giving more people a chance to contribute. 

There are so many positives to how the lockdown has affected our way of working. Hopefully, when we do return fully to offices (if we do), we don’t lose this cultural shift by returning to those hierarchies and formalities that tended to stifle creativity and diversity. Instead, I hope that the evidence speaks for itself and that allowing your employees to work from home does not mean they will be less productive and that we can harness the power of collaboration tools further to reach better talent, more creative thinking and help our employees with achieving a more manageable work-life balance. We have learned, through lockdown to be human again, let’s not lose it. 

Rachel Shaw is a change communications consultant at Afiniti working on large scale change projects for clients. She works to harness the power of storytelling and creative assets to both create a desire for change and successfully embed the change within the organisation's employees.