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Last week, I gave a keynote talk at Agile Manchester, based on a previous blog post. The talk was more detailed and had a new framing; this post summarises what I shared.

Office life before 2020, with an animated image from the office TV show with people dancing.

Before the pandemic, office life was predictable and expected. Most people went to a central place to work and understood the rules of behaviour.

This wasn’t true for everyone; some organisations have always been distributed. Some people, myself included, have been working in a hybrid way for a long time, and those people were often discluded from the in-office culture and sometimes forgotten about. So, this new hybrid world feels like everyone else is catching up.

The Big Return to Office

After a lot of pro remote working press, we are now hearing many companies mandating that people are back in the office, often for three days a week.

Prompting some negative and positive news stories.

Headlines showing return to office making lots of people unhappy
Headlines showing reasons you want to go back to work. Text saying But others less so

I am not going to argue whether we should or shouldn’t be back in the office. There are many pros and cons, and it depends very much on people’s personal circumstances.

This means we need to be intentional about how we navigate this environment, where people are not physically in the same space all the time. We still don’t really know the rules, but we can start defining them.

My original exploration was about how people share information, keep connected and bump into things in a hybrid environment, and since then, I have turned it into a framework to help with thinking through this.

We need to talk about walls

Before I go any further, we need to talk about walls.

a slide with the title "let's talk about" and a dog saying "walls"

(Advert from 1993)

Walls did a lot of heavy lifting in offices where everyone was co-located. They were used for information sharing, staying connected, bumping into information and places to talk around.

Walls and an image of a big wall full of cards and sticky notes, and two smaller images of people in front of the same wall.
Photo of the portfolio wall at GDS that I looked after in 2013, a guardian interview about the wall and visitors taking photos.

Look, I love Miro, but the answer is not online whiteboards

Miro and other online whiteboards are brilliant for collaboration, workshops and thinking through ideas. But they do not replicate what a physical wall did in a co-located workspace; they are not easily discoverable, and we don’t bump into them in the same way.

OK enough preamble; here’s the good stuff

Principles for Sharing

Go to where people are
Little and often
Repeat, repeat, repeat

Go to where people are

We move through spaces, either physical or virtual, and this is different in a hybrid workplace. In co-located spaces, that might have been the physical wall everyone saw when they walked into an office; when people are in different places, that won’t be the case.

Find out where people are hanging out and meet them there, whether physically or virtually, or create new places to be. This might be in digital spaces they regularly visit, like workflow boards, documentation tools, meetings, team habits, or physical spaces. Think about how to be inclusive and reach everyone, regardless of their access needs.

Little and often

We can’t take in a lot of information all at once. If you have ever been given a big onboarding pack and expected to remember everything, you will know the feeling of having too much information.

People can get overwhelmed by the amount of information shared about organisations. If the information is too detailed, people tend to glaze over. For example, a team’s Jira board is impenetrable for people outside the team. Find ways to share snippets of information, both synchronously and asynchronously, that people can follow up on if they want to.

Repeat, repeat, repeat

People need to hear things many times to remember them, ideally from different people. You cannot say something once and expect anyone to remember it; make repetition a habit. Try also to say things in different ways to reinforce messages and keep interest.

A Framework for Thinking

I have combined everything into three areas to consider explicitly. These are relevant to any organisation, and they require some extra effort and experimentation with a hybrid or fully distributed workforce.

Maintaining
and reinforcing
team memory

Joining-up
across the
organisation

Creating
opportunities for
serendipity

I have created these A4 pages to organise the rest of the talk’s content and included some ideas on how to achieve them; the printable PDF links are under each one.

pdf download

Maintaining and reinforcing team memory is now also a workshop and Miro board, which you can get on the Miroverse.

The links

Active memory: Habits, patterns and norms / workflow / whiteboards / IM tools / Weeknotes / Blog posts / Show and tells

Transactive memory: Capability Comb / Team Manual / Deliberate practice / Hackathons

Long-term memory: Project stories / Team Timelines / How Teams Remember

Joining-up across the organisation

Aligning everyone
Shared purpose and direction across the whole organisation.

Organisational operating cadence / huddles / newsletters / stickers / video backgrounds / away days

Joining-up teams
Collaboration across team boundaries towards common goals.

The Team Onion / Weeknotes / Blog posts / Show and tells

Bridging silos
cross-organisation support, learning, sharing and scaling practice.


Communities of practice / Show and tells / away days

Does the organisation have
A clear cadence that helps align and situate everyone
Messages and communication that reaches people where they are Support for joining up across teams and organisational silos
pdf download

The links

Aligning everyone: Organisational operating cadence / huddles / newsletters / stickers / video backgrounds / away days 

Joining-up teams: The Team Onion / Weeknotes / Blog posts / Show and tells

Bridging silos: Communities of practice / Show and tells / away days

Creating opportunities for Serendipity

Serendipity
Unexpected and fortuitous outcomes that come from chance encounters.

Assisted Serendipity
Creating the space and opportunities where serendipity could happen within and around the normal working day.
Random coffee / Time together /
Non work slack channels / Lean coffee meetups / Show and tells / Commensality

Are there opportunities for
Teams to put their work and ideas in the open for others to see

People to have the space and time for the potential of serendipity 

People to meet others outside of their normal day to day work
pdf download

Finally, a big shout-out to work friends

Friendships underpin a lot of what makes work pleasant and companies successful.

Companies don’t have ideas; only people do. And what motivates people are the bonds and loyalty and trust they develop between each other.

Margaret Heffernan, Forget the pecking order at work

They also help our resilience, and we don’t do so well without them.

Find ways to form meaningful connections through things like

  • Commensality (eating together)
  • Social time
  • Playing games together
  • Serendipitous moments
  • Random coffee
  • Walking outside and talking
  • Buddies and small groups
  • Spending some time face-to-face

-o0o-

All of this takes investment and effort; it always did. It was in our commutes, building costs and in-office interruptions, but for hybrid working, that investment should now be in different places.

The full slides from the talk are here; if you’d like to book the talk, please get in touch.