Co-location: the new normal

Sep 14, 2017

I was reminded of Dilbert’s quip, “Change is good! You go first!” as I dived head first into a sea of changes in the span of the last two months: a new job, a new boss, a new city, a new apartment, a new way of working, to name just a few. Each, by no means insignificant but it’s the last of these that has been most challenging and – over time – potentially, the most rewarding. Some background: I’ve had the luxury and privilege to work from home for the last 16 years. IBM supported this and I was purposeful in selecting roles that enabled me to demonstrate impact despite working remotely. The flexibility contributed to my overall work-life integration especially during those years when I had toddlers at home. Now, my daughters are more grown up and I am more ready for the work-from-office environment or co-location, a prerequisite for my new role (as Talent Advisor for the VIO) in a new city (Bangalore versus Mumbai). And so I find myself thrust into a workplace that is more conventional (in the sense that most people work from office) and, also more unconventional, in terms of the collaborative agile culture that is fostered in my new Business Unit.  

Broadly speaking, our work can be categorized as:

  1. Thinking work, where one is trying to figure out how to tackle an issue or planning an outcome
  2. Doing work, where one is executing an activity, and
  3. Meetings work, where decisions get discussed and, sometimes, taken in collaboration with others.

Thinking work often requires a quiet space and an uninterrupted flow. For me, this has been the biggest casualty of working from the office. At home, I could shut out the world. I could adapt my environment to better thinking – my favorite armchair, a mid morning snack to get into the flow, instrumental music in the background… . In office, I must endure more noisy surroundings of chattering colleagues in an open office, frequent chai/coffee breaks and birthday cake cuttings that interrupt my ruminations. I miss the quiet time. 

  But that’s only half the story. I’ve had more than a couple of unexpectedly productive impromptu brainstorming sessions with colleagues. I’ve bounced half formed ideas and received immediate and relevant feedback that has helped change the direction of my thinking – usually, for the better. I’ve been invited to contribute to other’s ideas and occasionally, added value by simply reframing a problem for a colleague. So, while my individual thinking work has diminished in terms of not getting into a flow, being surrounded by colleagues in office has helped me to break out of thinking blocks more effectively than if I were reflecting on them independently.
In terms of doing work, though I am an individual contributor, a lot of my work involves facilitating change in partnership with others. Building relationships, seeking first to understand, then to be understood in order to influence and advocate is a key part of my “doing” work. Being face to face is definitely an asset here: there’s the informality of being able to chat over a cup of coffee versus having to schedule a formal telecon; there’s the closeness and authenticity of talking face to face that cannot really be matched virtually (although with zoom and other video based tools becoming so ubiquitous, one can almost replicate the intimacy of a face to face conversation – significantly better than the disembodied voice on a phone). My physical presence also makes me more approachable to my colleagues. As a Talent Advisor, I want the Talent to seek me out when they need advice, confide in me so I can support them better; being physically accessible is surely helpful in this regard. But there are some thorns among the roses. For one thing, there’s very little privacy in the office: I need to book a room (and these are usually few and far between) if I want to have a private conversation. Most discussions can be overheard by those in surrounding cubicles and this may sometimes diminish the potential depth and frankness of a conversation. I also find it easier to type out notes of key discussion points and agreed actions while on a call and this tends to make the interactions more productive in terms of driving outcomes and impact. So, remotely, I can better combine relationship and task orientation.
Meetings work or, more specifically, managing meetings effectively is a skill. Gaining even limited mastery of this skill in a remote setting does not automatically guarantee success face to face. In fact, I’ve realized I must unlearn some things and re-learn others. I’m determined to give it my best shot as I have no doubt that the potential for leadership and for influence is significantly higher when we are operating in a face to face environment. (btw, so is the potential to become completely irrelevant but hopefully, we will not go there!) In the meeting, one needs to be a better reader of body language, one needs to know when to push and when to stop – overall, one needs to enhance ones’ listening ability (including reading between the lines). In contrast, in a remote environment, the greater emphasis lies in presentation skills, in speaking up, in creating visibility for the invisible. For both remote and face to face, the pre meeting preparation continues to be very important. I know I have my work cut out for me on meetings work and I believe two months is still early to comment on impact and effectiveness (or lack thereof)! My embrace of a new way of working is still very much a work in progress. But while I started this blog with the intent to weigh the pros and cons of each (remote vs face to face), I end it with the realization that each can be super effective; the opportunity we have is to leverage our way of working and adapt to make it work for us. I will continue to share my journey and if you’re going through the same experience, I hope it will help you navigate more effectively; if you have not made this change but always worked from office, I hope it will make you more empathetic to your colleagues’ plight.
Anita Guha

Anita Guha

VIO Talent Advisor in IBM India

Anita Sinai Guha, a graduate from Harvard University, is the VIO Talent Advisor in IBM India. She comes with deep experience in training, organisational development, learning and knowledge management fields. Her experience spans a range of industries including pharmaceutical (at Merind, Mumbai), shipping (at NYK, Tokyo), beverages (at Tata Tea, Kolkata) and IT (at IBM, Bangalore & Mumbai). Anita is a recipient of the Young HR Achiever Award at the World HR Conference in 2003. In 2007, she received a 3 month Chevening Scholarship to study Leadership & Globalisation at the London School of Economics, UK. In 2009, she was recognised with an HR Youth Icon Award and later the same year was awarded the WILL Women’s Choice Award for her “deep passion, outstanding commitment, and high delivery in the field of inclusivity and gender equality.”

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