By Steve Wilkinson
On 19 March 2020, I gathered my laptop and notebook and headed off to work remotely from home. I wasn’t enthusiastic, as I've always preferred the informal contact with others that an office-based environment enables. However, over the last few months, various individuals across JNCC have put considerable effort into making home working a success and we have learned a lot. The experience has changed my personal perspective and I think more remote working is here to stay. What the future holds is a live and ongoing debate within JNCC as well as many other organisations, and this blog is intended to contribute to those discussions.
A bit of history
I first came to work at JNCC in 1997. Back then, the organisation occupied three floors of Monkstone House in Peterborough, the office was packed, and many staff had their own personal office. It felt like a real hub of activity. Fast forward to early 2020 and despite staff numbers having almost doubled, our footprint in the building had been reduced by a third, it is completely open plan and many people are working at least a day a week at home. The more distributed working means that the "buzz" around the office is significantly less but, in spite of this, I still see the physical co-location, and informal contact this engenders, as a key part of staying in touch with, and influencing, what is happening across the organisation.
One of JNCC’s strengths has always been its innovative use of technology and data. It has continuously sought to stay at the front of what technology could deliver and has been very fortunate in having staff who can see the next opportunities and drive their delivery. An example is developing and encouraging more remote working. Laptops with full remote access to the network have been standard for years in JNCC and include both Skype and MS Teams installed as standard.
The earlier investment in our technical setup was so good that the organisation hardly missed a beat in shifting all staff to work from home. We were lucky. As I write this, almost four months after lockdown began, many big organisations are still struggling to roll out videoconferencing on creaking IT infrastructure. This will be impacting both productivity and personal well-being; we are social animals with an estimated 55% of communication being visual.
However, not only did JNCC continue to function, it improved in several areas. The mixed model we had previously been running for meetings with some people physically present in the office and others joining remotely is against the prevailing advice, namely "if one person is remote, everyone is remote". Lockdown meant that suddenly meetings, including of our Leadership Team, felt much more equal with everyone interacting in the same way. Previously, staff open meetings were mostly attended in person by people at two sites and had relatively little staff input; in the virtual world there are many more questions and interactions through typed messages, perhaps because these don’t interrupt the flow of the meeting. Working from home also means it is easier to have personal or confidential discussions without needing to book an already oversubscribed meeting room. Finally, of course there is much less travel and a significantly lower carbon footprint as a result.
The potential feeling of isolation and the absence of a physical tearoom was something we were very aware of, and considerable effort has been put into establishing a set of "channels" on MS Teams to encourage social exchange and virtual coffee breaks. This has really helped those working at home for the first time, but also made those who were already working remotely feel more connected than ever and improved cross-team relationship building.
Despite all this, inevitably, there have been some challenges. Some people have not been able to work effectively from home for a variety of reasons and we don’t yet know how productive the remote working arrangements have been, or what the long-term effect will be on the culture of the organisation.
Our first remote conference
All this is great, but a critical role of JNCC is its convening function; bringing together different individuals and organisations to share experiences and develop shared knowledge and approaches. Lockdown has meant this function needs to be carried out remotely.
Last week, with some trepidation, we ran the first of our remote conferences: a meeting on the use of satellite technology to assess soil moisture. These conferences aren’t just about running a set of presentations which would be straight-forward to replicate on-line. They are more about the discussions, making links and contacts, and creating new ideas. The challenge was whether these behaviours could be replicated in the virtual world. The teams involved put considerable effort into assessing the available tools and planning exactly how things would run.
The result? The meeting was considerably more successful than we would have anticipated had it been run in a more traditional way. Some of the key benefits were:
- Higher calibre speakers – with no need to travel it meant a much smaller commitment from guest speakers and we were able to secure input from the real leaders in the field.
- Larger numbers and more geographically distributed attendees – 151 people from 78 organisations across 22 countries participated, which is much greater than would have been possible if the workshop had been held physically. For a short and specialist event like this the additional travel costs would have made some attendance non-viable.
- Better record of discussions – most of the contributions to the meeting were typed rather than spoken, which meant there was a complete and totally accurate record of the discussions and connections with no additional overhead.
There is no doubt we will be running a lot more of these!
Social is still important
I don’t want to paint a picture of a future world akin to that described by some science fiction writers where we interact solely through the internet. The transition to remote working at JNCC has succeeded, in no small part, because we already know each other. As new staff join JNCC, and even just to maintain the integrity of existing teams and relationships, there needs to still be actual, real, physical interaction between people. But I think we may adjust how this is done. There may be less emphasis on general attendance at the office but more organised days and events to hold physical team meetings or bring the whole organisation together. Maintaining social cohesion needs to be considered as staff are recruited or relocate. Periodic physical face-to-face interaction will be a critical part of the jigsaw.
Our challenge is to decide how JNCC can operate most effectively in the future, striking an appropriate balance between traditional office-based working and more dispersed arrangements. Over the next few months we will be thinking carefully about options and we have already started to get staff views on how they want things to evolve. Whilst some staff are already saying they don't want to go back to how things were, remote working doesn't work for everyone.
I don’t know exactly what the future looks like or how fast we will move there. But I do know that lockdown has really let the genie of remote working out of the bottle and I’m pretty sure it isn’t going back in. Demand for lowering carbon footprints through reducing travel and tougher fiscal settlements driving down estate costs are only going to increase the pressure. If ever there has been a time when I am glad to be working within an agile, innovative and technically enabled organisation it is now. And perhaps acceleration of adoption of more remote working, assuming we can get it right, could be one of the real positives to come from the Covid pandemic and part of ensuring a green recovery.
If you work with JNCC and want to know more about our experience with remote working please get in touch
(Image: @ Allan Drewitt, Natural England)