So obviously everyone’s talking about how we’ll never return to sharing offices and how virtual work is at least as good as sharing space, and without the commute, too.

I’ve always been an advocate of people coming to the office, and at the start of this I felt like a dinosaur, having to learn the customs and quirks of Teams and Skype and Zoom.

Now I’ve had a chance to think about why I want to get back to sharing physical space, and it has to do with my whole experience of post-graduate development. Everything I’ve learned about work has been from, or at least tested by, working alongside people, for sustained periods, and not just between being “invited” into the meeting and being expelled by the host.

  • Being in meetings with clients and learning how my colleagues control a conversation
  • Watching peers (and being peer-reviewed when I’m) facilitating adults learning, to see what works and understand what might work better
  • Travelling to sites with my colleagues to find out what makes them tick and what they’re worried about
  • Sharing an office with a great client handler and learning the art of telephone conversations
  • Being in the room when an opportunity presents itself to ask about a project I’m not currently on, or to be invited to be part of something
  • Having someone who can be a critical friend, and can call you a dick, when you’re heading off-beam
  • Catching the hint that someone’s pissed off, just from a tone of voice as you pass them on the way to the kitchen
  • Chewing over an idea on a lunchtime walk with an ice-cream

I’ve had 16 weeks of remote working. Of playing at “meetings”. Of having “virtual pub” sessions. Of trying to catch up with my team by Skype.

None of it has come close to my experiences over 30 years of proximity to people I cherish, respect, hate, admire and am in some way different enough to learn from.

If you love WFH, that’s cool. But think about how you became “work you”. What opportunities did you have to watch other people and to learn how to act, and how you definitely don’t want to act? Who would you be if you’d spent the intervening time interacting through a screen?

If this is the future for everyone, what will the youngsters who haven’t already had the chance to learn do to bridge that gap? For some, it will drive innovation: a chance to kill off bad or lazy business practice just like COVID-19: by isolating the host and letting it die.

But don’t be surprised if our junior staff lack the things that you take as common sense, because they haven’t shared an office with a shouty telephone manner, or a long car journey with a cautionary tale, or just had one of a million opportunities to learn what works, and what clearly doesn’t work, when it comes to working with people.

I cannot wait to get our gang back together, to get back in the room, to feel the buzz of collaboration, to hide from someone I know needs my help.

This has been fun, but it’s no replacement for real life.

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