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Around about March 2020, the world of work changed for most of us. The swarms of bleary-eyed commuters with their heads bowed in servitude to their phones, books and newspapers, fed by their choice of music or podcast, disappeared off the face of the earth.
All that was left in the wake was a handful of critical works who, bound by their front-line worker status, trudged wearily to their local train stations and bus stops to find the usual fight-to-the-death for a seat battle no longer existed; those accustomed to a perpetual stop and start of the morning drive were now enjoying a traffic-free cruise to work akin to cruising down Route 66 with nothing but the open road in front of them. It didn’t last. As I write this in February 2023, those swarms are recovering and the stop & start car journeys are back, albeit slightly diluted. The commuter beast is no longer in-slumber. Whilst it will likely never be what it was, for many the stresses of commuting have returned.
However, for most of us we are now working from home far more than we ever did. For some of us it’s a full time and permanent change. For others it is a “hybrid” combination of some days at home and some days in the office. No matter what your working pattern is, a lot more has changed since March 2020 other than where we park our backsides each day.
Working from home undoubtedly brings some obvious benefits. Reduced or completely eradicated commuting time and expense, more flexibility for family commitments, impromptu visits to the gym or walks along the river; the benefits are there for us all as individuals to qualify. Yet as Newton taught us, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction; specifically in this case, with benefit comes disbenefit. Things have changed and we haven’t really considered just how negatively the new world of remote working is impacting our productivity and our health. How so? Allow me to explain!
“I’m going to talk to you and I’m going to do it now!”
Take yourself back to the days of being in an office. You’re in a meeting with a client and they’re telling you that your current project is going badly. They’re unhappy, things haven’t gone to plan and you’re under pressure to get things back on track quickly. This is your moment; this is your time to calmly and clearly discuss your remediation plan. Just as you’re midway through responding, a colleague bursts into the office and whispers in your ear “Hi Rory” and then leaves the room. “Okay… that’s a bit strange” you think to yourself but you try to ignore it and carry on. Six seconds later, they’re back in the room whispering again “Do you know what the plan is for Project X next Thursday?”. Once again they turn and leave the room. Eight seconds later, they’re back. Like a mosquito that just won’t quit, they’re buzzing in your ear; “I only ask because I need Mohammed to work on my project on Thursday, too”.
However, this time someone else has walked in with them and whispering in your other ear telling you about a critical issue on another project that needs your immediate attention. This is now getting tricky. You’re trying to speak to your client but your colleagues keep barging into your meeting and talking at you. Now the first person who interrupted you is getting frustrated because you haven’t responded so they’re back again but this time they stand directly in your line of sight and put both hands up, tilt their heads and apply a facial expression that implies “So? Your answer, please”. All of this is going on at the same time as you trying to focus your attention on your customer in the meeting.
This scenario is laughable and would simply never have happened. Never. Yet, it does now and it happens every single day of our working lives. Our increased reliance on software such as Microsoft Teams to communicate has hijacked and destroyed our ability to focus; it has removed all courtesy from our interactions with one another. We have become selfish, inconsiderate and entirely impatient. Teams even tells our colleagues when we’re on a call or in a meeting but somehow it has become acceptable to be one of those people barging in and interrupting the meeting. Allow me to be bold; this has to stop. We must all regain our consideration and our ability to quantify the criticality of our question. Are lives at risk? Is this so urgent that it requires interrupting a meeting? Or, in reality, can you pop someone an email instead?
Lunch is for wimps
Ill-fitting suit, red braces, slick-back hair and a love/hate relationship with that Wall Street character. He was ruthless, he spoke proudly of greed being good and despite his obvious character flaws, I have always had a shameful appreciation for that character. However, my name is not Gordon and I actually quite enjoy a lunch break! So, is lunch really for wimps or should we make time for a break?
I know I am not alone. I know my diary is not the only diary that has back-to-back meetings for seven, eight or nine hours a day. But why? My mind drifts back to a fabled time when I felt like the busiest person on earth but I still had time to eat, drink and think. Alas, not anymore. There have been countless days when I have not managed to eat until 4pm, but again, I know I’m not the only one. So, why? To me, it is quite obvious – those five minute, impromptu conversations with colleagues in the office have now become 30 minute scheduled meetings that often take a week to actually materialize and when they do, I’m almost always late. For someone who has a genuine issue with tardiness, this is hard to admit. We have become robotic in our methods of communicating and now even the shortest of discussions appear to warrant a meeting, yet in the old days, they did not and that is because we often leant back in our chair, asked a workmate if they have five minutes, et voila! Conversation organized and completed. I miss those days.
Fine, things have changed but what has changed so drastically that so many of us spend the majority, or all of (worse still, more than all of!) our working days in online meetings? Meetings are now scheduled between 12pm-2pm and frequently done so because “that’s the only time people are available”. Yet, we should not be available because we should be resting, eating, exercising or doing anything but working. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to sacrifice a lunch break but I just don’t want to do it (not do I expect my team) to do it on an almost daily basis.
If you have reached this point, you may well be thinking that I am anti-WFH. Well, I’m not. For the past 20 years of my career, I have enjoyed a productive combination of working in the office and from home… the only difference is that we did it and did not give it a name. It just worked. It can still work. However, we need to become more considerate of one another. When someone is in a meeting, they are in a meeting so do the courteous thing and leave them in peace. Think back to the old days of three years ago – it would take something incredibly critical to interrupt someone in a meeting. You didn’t do it then, so do not do it now; it is selfish and inconsiderate.
Perhaps we can plan ahead better – as Project Management professionals, we should be the ones setting the standard for pre-empting when we need to speak to people. Of course, even the most committed planners will still need to speak to someone at short notice but that has always been the case and we can all live with that. We should ask ourselves whether we really need all seven of those people in our meeting. Similarly, we should not be afraid to question the meeting organizer whether we really need to attend. Speaking frankly, I am not professing to have all of the answers but I want us all to start being more considerate.
Oh, and for the record, I am guilty of committing all of the sins I have outlined in this article. In fact, I am just as selfish as the next person when I want my answers! We are never going to go back to the old days and that’s just something I have to accept. This has been thrust upon us with no warning and represents a genuine seismic shift in how we work. Take a moment and consider it; we really have evolved our ways of working at an unprecedented pace so it’s to be expected that many of us are struggling to make it work. So, I end as I started, I believe it is time to re-scope phase 2 of Project WFH. Let’s be creative and considerate because we really are all in this together.