In March 2020, the world stopped, people stayed home and worked from there, and suddenly virtual went viral. Tsheli Lujabe reminds us how much of a change that was for so many people and organisations – and why even a year on, we should focus on keeping our mindset the same, whether we’re working virtually or in person.
A few months before the first lockdown, I heard voices across organisations and between individuals that articulated our self-limiting beliefs and implicit biases about working virtually:
- “Face to face is best because you can create intimacy and body language tells you so much - you cannot do that as well virtually”
- “Working virtually is Plan B or simply an add-on to face to face working”
- “It is difficult to develop trust when working virtually”
- “Virtual work is best for tasks rather than for facilitating processes with groups”
- “Virtual working is not as colourful or dynamic as working face to face”
Lots of statements about why we can’t do it. Very few about why we can.
Late January that year, I was working in Delhi on a client culture programme. I was facilitating a session on ‘How we get in our own way’. I invited the participants to put their phones on selfie mode and take a look at themselves and be aware of the person they see, who is their best friend when they are showing up at their best. I asked them to take another look and notice that the very same person they are looking at is the person that gets in the way and can be their worst enemy whispering messages into their ear about what they can’t do and saying ‘what if you fail’. But what if you tried and succeeded?
That same week, Covid was spreading rapidly in China and we had an additional culture workshop programme planned in Beijing. We were challenged to redesign what was originally to be a three-day face-to-face programme and facilitate it virtually for 100 people. There was no time to think about what couldn’t be done – we had to think about what was possible. With our client we co-created this experience and continued to deliver the program virtually through to 2021. The positive energy and can-do attitude was and remains a powerful force.
Learning and always improving our practice for our benefit and the benefit of our clients.
Prior to March 2020, we had been offering elements of our programs and services in a virtual format as part of our blending learning approach, and in the course of all of this change, my colleagues and I got together virtually in order to sharpen our skills. We partnered with Ghislaine Caulat, an expert in virtual working. This session was dynamic, engaging, colourful, with close connection, intimacy and trust as we continued to evolve our practice. We learned together, and sharpened our practice full of ideas of what we could do to build our expertise and expand the work we are already doing. I recall how I felt when Barack Obama was elected and from his speech, the words YES WE CAN still ring loud in my head and make my heart beat stronger as hope, what is possible, and opportunity chimed.
- We can have a strong virtual presence and be present virtually
- We can create and build trust in the virtual environment
- We can work in small groups in break-out sessions virtually
- We can do mindfulness exercises virtually
- We can be off mute and interrupt each other virtually
- We can listen at all levels (feeling, facts, intention) virtually
- We can annotate, interact, be creative virtually
- We can do silent brainstorming (sounds like an oxymoron)
And now reflecting back, we can and we did experience all of the above and impart that through our practice to our clients.
As leaders, we hear and heed the call to innovate and do things differently in order to get a different outcome, improve performance and develop.
The challenge with Covid has been to open up our minds, hearts and guts. Have the mindset that enables us to be at our best when working virtually. Virtual working is not Plan B. Virtual working is part of our expansive portfolio of different ways of working that are available to us. The mindset we need to be at our best when working virtually is the same mindset we need when working creatively and innovatively.
Covid has changed the way we work – and has created challenges as well as opportunities. Yes, it’s not always easy. But I have seen that with collective leadership we have been able to make ‘can do’ messages louder than the ‘can’t do’.
What remains clear is that we have no idea what the world we emerge into will be like in a few weeks, months or a year’s time. We have seen that over the last 12 months – it’s been like no other change we have experienced in our lifetime.
What is also clear is that we will not go back to the way that it was.
With virtual now mainstream, I look forward to leading and co-creating our new emergent world with you, my virtual friends and colleagues.
As we emerge into a new hybrid world of work and virtual is our everyday, you may be interested in these articles:
As ever, do get in touch if you have any comments or would simply like to feed back.