Business is an improbably ‘human’ endeavour and must remain so – even in a lockdown

News 10 months ago, Reading time: 3 min



So, this is what a national emergency feels like. Interesting.

Apart from the eldest generations among us that still carry their dark memories from before the midway point of the 20th Century, the rest of us have been pretty well-shielded from this kind of thing. 

We’re used to experiencing or engaging with crises in a relatively ‘detached’ manner – from afar and with the help of technology: via screens; through financial donations texted in to the source of help. “Yes it’s awful; thank God someone is dealing with it…”

This is the first time since the Blitz that a crisis has forced our entire nation to radically alter the way we live, behave, socialise and – yes – work. 

While almost any combination of the thousands of technologies that have emerged in past years means most elements of work can now be easily replicated by people operating out of their homes, the vital element we’re likely to struggle to reproduce is culture.

This blog isn’t about to explore that most indefinable and nebulous trait of most successful organisations – we’ll leave that for another post another time. No, the purpose here is to remind leaders everywhere that however much you had a personal hand in creating and sustaining the environment that knitted your people together as a unit; whatever steps you took to create the unique feeling they experience when they arrive at work of a normal day – your work culture is also reliant on hundreds of invisible, organic and human inputs.

The complex chemistry of motivation, competition, friendship, support, rivalry – maybe even edge – that exists when your teams meet and collaborate in person is unique. Trying to recreate those sparks and triggers using only the current ‘on-trend’ team collaboration digital tools will be tough. 

What can you do about it? Perhaps not that much. During this period of us working from our own kitchens, we’ll lack the opportunities for the beautifully random ideas that emerge when people from different teams happen to be making tea for colleagues at the same time. 

When you’re designing the processes and schedules for your daily and weekly check-ins with remote teams and individuals this week, remember that the happy, ambitious drive your colleagues may have felt in the office only weeks ago relied more than you recognise upon individual relationships and odd clusters of personal chemistry.

Without resorting to the sort of ‘forced fun’ we’ve seen in recent days on Linkedin with whole teams photographed on a Zoom screen – each individual seen grinning from their bedroom or lounge wearing a silly hat – you might want to build in opportunities for people to engage in personal or non-work conversations. You’ll also be wise to avoid trying to get your teams to account for every minute of the day as it’s possible the ‘off-time’ spent discussing last night’s TV when they were together every day were among the team’s most productive moments.

Right now it’s a sure bet that, in the words of the 200,000 hastily written blogs we’ve all been flooded with in recent weeks, most of us have ‘mastered the art’ of working from home. We’re set up with a screen and all the apps we need to get the actual work of our working day done.

What we’re missing is the human interaction. Towards the end of 2018 marketing technology analyst firm Gartner revealed that for the first time marketers were spending more on marketing technology than on people. Investment and budgets for platforms, tools and apps were outstripping spend on internal staff and agencies.

It will come as no surprise that among the widespread global industry responses to that story, few observers felt the lost human collaboration or creativity were prices worth paying for with perceived increases in speed or efficiency.

All the technology in the world built in to your business’s operations for the next few months as teams work from home, will leave something missing. Technology neither drives, nor transcends culture. Culture is created and spliced together by people. Getting this part right might be the biggest challenge we all face in the business age of Coronavirus.