Coming Together Without Falling Apart
It’s clear now that Covid, like influenza, is here to stay, forcing organizations to reimagine their workplaces for a workforce that is not only more empowered but increasingly mobile.
For starters, this means acknowledging that Covid has changed everyone’s expectations about the future of work. Anyone who disputes this notion must take a look at what’s popularly called ‘The Great Resignation’. As described in a recent article in the Washington Post – only one of over 280,000,000 Google search results on the topic - the realization that remote working actually works has resulted in greater leverage for knowledge workers and a tightening of the labour market. Former commuters opt for job opportunities that are not only more flexible but that come with better salaries and even, in some cases, signing bonuses.
As for innovation, it was hard to do even before the pandemic turned the world upside down. It’s built on breakthroughs, and breakthroughs require intense collaboration. Before Covid, that meant lots of in-person workshops and engagement with customers, clients and colleagues. Teams push themselves hard to meet client expectations with ideas that have convention-busting potential. Even though breakthroughs don’t happen on demand, the competitive pressure facing our clients compels firms like ours to make them happen on schedule. That’s challenging enough in person. Doing it virtually and remotely has sometimes been like herding cats in a sandstorm.
You might be tempted to say that since innovation is itself disruptive by nature, a firm specializing in it would be more prepared than most to deal with Covid’s massive interruption of business as usual. That would be wrong. It’s one thing to plan a disruption; it’s quite another to be completely blindsided by it.
A Values-based Agenda
One of our core values is ‘working together even over winning alone’. So in an effort to invite the entire team into the process of designing the future of work at Normative, we decided in July to create a conference called TogetherCon. The theme was ‘Being Together’. We live in a time where it’s become incredibly easy to send a message or talk to anyone, anywhere. On the flip side, it’s significantly harder to communicate clearly, build meaningful relationships and develop the trust that allows a group to share ideas, intentions, and commitments together.
Starting from the premise that we're not trying to be the company we used to be, the idea was to come together to agree on how to safely and comfortably return to the physical space while creating environments in which people who are not comfortable with that can remotely participate as equal partners. We wanted our teams to work together to understand what being together really means in the post-pandemic world of work.
Practically, we hoped that TogetherCon would help us develop empathy, understanding, and trust for each other to support leaning into our values in Q4 2021. This helped us work towards one of our current goals; “Pursuing our Mission with Focus and Passion”.
It was critical for us to ensure that this event not only reflected our core values but also reinforced our value proposition: Evidence-Driven Innovation. We deliver that to clients through a rigorously iterative process of customer validation that de-risks innovative ideas as early in the process as possible and right up until market entry. If it works for our clients, why shouldn’t it work for us? So we made sure to capture the value of our discussions and activities by collecting evidence from participants and then informing our decisions with what we heard. It was our way of walking the talk.
Participation and Performance
As leaders, we could have just mandated that people participate and then given them their marching orders. But we wanted people to invest in the process. Had we mandated it, people would have participated, but participation is not performance. Our approach was to create an event that made it as safe and comfortable as possible for people to want to invest their discretionary energy in designing their collective future.
With that in mind, we designed for three ways of participating: in person, remotely, and as a hybrid of both. The physical event took place at Toronto’s Yorkville Sonesta Hotel. We asked those who participated fully in person to ‘default to remote’ in their behaviour. Those of us who had the privilege of being in physical space needed to check that advantage and create opportunities for those joining virtually to participate with equal agency.
Remote attendees joined by video, voice, and chat. To facilitate communication, we encouraged people to go wild with the emojis, chat channels, GIFs and the “Raise Hand” button to create a shared physical-virtual space for listening and learning from each other. And for the hybrid attendees, both sets of guidelines applied. Needless to say, for anyone attending in person, all of the appropriate Covid protocols were followed.
This was the first time we had ever organized an event of this nature. There were tactical learnings and strategic learnings. At the most basic tactical level, we learned how to get people together for a team event in a physical space under the adverse conditions of a late-stage pandemic. Check that box.
We learned to design a gathering like this in a way that reflects our values – and our value proposition. Regarding the latter, it was critical that we be as evidence-driven as possible. So even if people disagree with your decisions, they at least understand the inputs and constraints that informed them. That way they'll be more likely to see how you got to your decision, even if they disagree with it.
We learned the importance of designing from first principles. For example, we went through five different hotel bookings before one actually stuck. Our first principle was to get ourselves together in as nice and safe a place as we could so that we could be together, as opposed to saying, it's going to be awesome at hotel X, only to learn later that it fell well short of our needs.
We learned the importance of making everything optional. Don't require anybody to participate in any one thing, but rather look at it from a different perspective: how do we remove the barriers so that people can choose to participate in as much of it as they wish? Then people will have positive experiences because they can lean in and feel that they have been giving their discretionary energy to something of their choosing.
We learned the value of inviting external voices into the tent. We had a guest speaker, Carmen Medina, who is a former deputy director of the CIA. She addressed the importance of diversity and inclusion, not just in terms of representation and equality, but in terms of the capability that you build when you have diverse perspectives and how that leads to competitive advantage.
We learned the importance of creating an environment that supports pushing the boundaries while allowing people to invest when they are able, rather than invest to the point of burnout. You want people to regulate their own energy investment like an exceptional athlete who knows her body and when she needs to rest and recover. Knowledge work is no different. And highly professional knowledge work is not industrial league hockey. It’s NHL level stuff. You need to be emotionally as well as physically trained for it.
We realized how much we missed hallway banter. In the virtual environment of an online meeting you tend to skip over the small talk and get right to the business at hand. So after months of having no in-person contact, people were just thrilled to be able to socially reconnect. Especially those who had joined since the start of the pandemic. For them, this was the first time ever meeting their colleagues in person. For some it was quite emotional.
The response we got from our team after the conference was gratifying. Some examples include:
“TogetherCon was a groundbreaking event that really incorporated the company's commitment to adopt to the remote work culture we see evolving."
“Really great way to solidify Normative’s values in practice and in person.”
“An awesome opportunity to start defining the future of work.”
“Such a joyous experience to be in good company and feel a sense of community and togetherness, freed from the intentionality of pandemic life and work, to be spontaneous, to go with the flow of group activities."