The personal approach works best in business - George Mackintosh

As someone who sold video conferencing systems in 1990 and set up a conference call service in 1992, I’m well qualified to talk about the inadequacies of virtual meetings! Even back then I’d sketched out a “hierarchy of meetings” conceding nothing betters a face to face. On reflection maybe I shouldn’t have sold out of that business and waited to scoop the pandemic opportunity! But we all have to ask the question: how would you rather interact with people in business? I’d say person-to-person – physical always trumps virtual in my book.
Papple Steading, East LothianPapple Steading, East Lothian
Papple Steading, East Lothian

Our experiences since March 2020 have changed the way we work and how business is done. In part that’s good: fewer commuter miles, less emissions, greater productivity, and improved wellbeing. But what’s being lost? How do you build team cohesiveness, brainstorm, agree strategy, solve problems and negotiate shared goals?

Our corporate big shots are having a tough time coming to terms with this virtual world. While some seem to be having an identity crisis – “this business is running without the power of my personal charisma” – others are deeply worried about productivity and togetherness. But woe betide the boss who tells ‘em to get back in the office 5 days a week - just think of the former head of KPMG. Given recent press reports, perhaps different though if you head-up masters of the universe Wall Street Firm, Goldman Sachs. For most post-Brexit managers, a certain delicate touch is required when handling precious and scarce human resources. So how do you (metaphorically) bang heads together?

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Well, not in the office. Think about it. You’re in a team of 10 and you agree to work Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Others will work Thursday and Friday. Hey, they now all can’t come in because we’ve downsized our office accommodation. So, no chats over the water cooler and no sitting by Nellie. Remember that old British colloquial phrase? Yes, learning the job by observing how an experienced worker does it. We’re not talking about blue collar industries. They have to go to a real workplace. We’re talking about the white collar lot: accountants, salespeople, HR managers. How will they learn their soft people-facing skills? I know many business chiefs are worried about this. IBM was a great promoter of home working as they slashed back on regional offices. A decade of declining revenues and a lower share price proves that hasn’t worked out well as was hoped.

One possible solution? Spend more time on taking time to go off-site. Plan team meetings, executive summits, off-site partner meetings. And how can this be budgeted, if money was the only factor in making this decision? Easy: businesses will be spending less on office space and they’ve succeeded in offloading office incidental costs to their home working employees such as photocopier ink and staples. Find a place, plan a sensibly distant date and regularly bring your teams together. Embrace the countryside. Squeeze into the 2 or 3 or 4 days the sort of things that made office life fun. That’s spending time with colleagues, sharing and solving challenges, hearing things from the horse’s mouth, doing activities and breaking bread together. Make this something the team does more than once a year. They deserve it.

George Mackintosh is the Founder of global software business Eggplant, and Director of Papple Steading in East Lothian

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