Author: Farook Naji, Head of Consultancy, Silverbear
One term that has come up a lot since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic is ‘the new normal'. When it comes to our daily lives outside work over the last 14 months, ‘the new normal’ has taken many forms. As we have gone through numerous cycles of escalation and de-escalation of restrictions we’ve had zoom-quizzes, banana-bread fads, eating out to help out, changing Christmas plans, and plenty of al-fresco dining.
However, in the workplace, the new normal took hold swiftly and has remained pretty constant throughout. Our business, our colleagues, and our clients all adapted quickly, and it would be fair to say that removal of the office has delivered some benefits as well as numerous challenges.
Within the consultancy team at Silverbear, the challenges of remote working have had two aspects. The first, which will be a common theme for many of us, is the lack of face-to-face interaction and collaboration with internal teammates. The use of whiteboards and seeing faces can be replicated with technology but a big part of the continual learning experience is lost without immersion in a room where conversations are happening all around you. To counter this, we adopted a few new processes within and across teams at Silverbear. Developer and Consultant Support ‘channels’ on Microsoft Teams are used heavily so that colleagues can raise questions/problems and leverage the collective knowledge within the company. In some ways, this is an improvement on previous practices which involved finding a single colleague to ‘pester’.
Daily 15-minute team catch-ups have also helped replicate the informal interactions which are so missed. Common feedback has been that teams feel closer now than they did before the pandemic, as there is always an opportunity to get together. This has been particularly important for colleagues who have joined the team during the remote working era, and importantly it has opened opportunities to add talent from locations that we hadn’t considered before the pandemic. It continues to surprise me that some settled members of our team have not met their teammates in person. In the words of one member of the team: “I still have no idea how tall my colleagues are!” …relief for some of us anyway.
The other aspect of the new normal has been the loss of in-person client meetings. This has posed a different set of challenges, particularly for business consultants who relish the human interaction of workshops and on-site engagements. Our early forays into delivering full-day requirements gathering workshops online were daunting and sometimes fraught affairs. However, our consultants and our clients all proved to be resilient and adaptable. The most important consideration was how to maintain a high level of engagement and concentration over video conferences and how to prevent long-term burnout of stakeholders working through months-long discovery phases. A few adjustments to the traditional format proved effective, such as significantly reducing the duration of individual workshops (but increasing the frequency), scheduling breaks, and use of visual aids/virtual whiteboards. Agreement of ground rules such as ‘cameras on, mics off’ can help workshops run much more smoothly.
While virtual workshops continue to be a challenging endeavour to both deliver and participate in, there are a few benefits that have come about unexpectedly. Always having a recording of workshops has provided increased traceability of workshop decisions and enabled catch-up for stakeholders unable to attend. Scheduling of the workshop calendar has been a little easier when locations are no longer relevant, and participants are able to easily ‘show-and-tell’ as well as share relevant supporting materials without forward notice.
Speaking to colleagues and friends about their experiences of remote-working over the last year, I’ve found that individual experiences have been varied and while some have enjoyed the change to work-life balance others have struggled with the increased isolation. Going forward it will be important that we all keep an understanding that people are individuals and will experience the working environment differently.