Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…
- Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi
Good art captures and reflects timeless truths. I’ve always loved those lines of Joni Mitchell’s because they’re so universally true: it often requires the absence of something to appreciate it.
Just last week a colleague and I were facilitating a session with a dozen executives from three different companies. During a break, some of the participants were talking about how good it was to see each other, and how much they had missed having in-person meetings during the pandemic. That led into a larger discussion about how much they now appreciate being able to spend time with co-workers, individually and in groups, having not been able to do it much for a couple of years — and also lamenting having less opportunity to do it now than pre-pandemic, since most companies are operating in a more “hybrid” way than before.
What’s the big deal with “in person”?
I’ve heard some version of this conversation many, many times over the past year, as we’re all figuring out the balance of in-person and virtual work post-pandemic. It doesn’t surprise me. We human beings have operated almost exclusively face-to-face with each other for all but the tiniest percentage of our time as a race on earth. Think about it: Homo Sapiens has been around for about 300,000 years. It’s only been in the past 500 years or so that literacy and transportation (letter-writing, ships and fast horses) made it even remotely possible to do business at a distance in any capacity (think: The British East India Company). Then, around 150 years ago, telegraphs, railroads and then telephones made it a whole order of magnitude more possible. But still, even in those times, the vast majority of the day-to-day work needed to be done by people working together physically in the same location. It has only been in the past 20–30 years, with international phone coverage, email, broadband access, and videoconferencing, that real daily work at a distance has become possible. That’s one-hundredth of one percent of the time we humans have been around! No wonder it feels so right and good for us to work together in person.
Build it in
If you’re a leader, I suggest you remember and honor that. Even if your folks’ jobs are such that they don’t have to come together much in person for practical reasons — if their work doesn’t require physical proximity with customers, or high degrees of collaborative effort with colleagues — remember that being with other people is deeply wired into us in terms of what feels normal and comfortable. It’s how we connect and understand each other, it’s an important way to build trust, and it’s especially necessary when we’re exploring new ideas or figuring out how to operate in new ways. So, even if your team is primarily virtual, build in times for your team to be together face-to-face, and make that time a combination of fun, expansive thinking, and problem-solving. I suspect that your colleagues (even those who aren’t very people-focused) will appreciate it…and you’ll all work better and feel better as a result.