• Keith Wells

Do you know each other well enough?

I was reminded yesterday that their wedding was only the 14th time that Prince Charles and Lady Di had ever met. This is not to go Royalty-bashing, or to discuss the merits of arranged marriages; but there's a serious question in there.

Of all the changes forced on businesses by Covid-19, the shift to remote working is often quoted as perhaps the most surprisingly positive. There is a sense that this might last. It's making people think about the absurd loss of time in every day known as 'commuting', and it's making management teams look again at that huge expenditure line call 'real estate'. Technology is enabling much more to be done than had been anticipated.

But remote working is also one of the greatest difficulties for leadership. Two recent conversations show the different facets of that. One was with the CEO of a business that is, they are realising, dependent on 'working together' meaning exactly that. Getting the best from teams made of creative, project management, financial and other (often conflicting) skills needs sensitivity at the best of times. But it's made a lot easier by the people in those teams having chance conversations, impromptu get-togethers and the constant opportunity to build understanding and relationships with each other.

If we separate 'leadership' and 'management', this CEO's Executive Team found dealing with the latter far easier than the former. "Looking at the numbers" was, she felt, straightforward and an easy routine. Similarly the other factual operational aspects of the business. "Excel is Excel," was her view, and it didn't make a huge difference whether that was in person or in Microsoft Teams. The more we talked, the more it became apparent that most things to do with the 'here and now' could be managed through these remote channels - if not perfectly, then adequately for now.

The more serious challenges come with the 'softer' aspects and how to build towards a shared future. ("Whatever that might mean," as someone might have said.)

Which was where my second conversation picked up: people development. The more a business is delivered through its people, the more critical to its future this becomes, so 'remote' working can actually be harmful. If we take the dictionary definition ("having no connection with or relationship to") we can see the dangers. Technical understanding and professional development might be delivered to the WFH office, but the opportunities to see, hear and learn from experience - either one's own or other colleagues' - are invaluable and irreplaceable.

Leaders will have to work harder to protect and nurture the elements of their business that do most to sustain their differentiation and attractiveness. The "greatest assets that come up and down the lift every day", the culture that is "the glue that binds us all together', the brand that is "our promise kept" - all of these come through people and their commitment to each other. They build and solidify through exposure and repetition, so leaders need to find ways to create those feelings.

A survey just published claims that only 4% of employees want to return full-time to the office once all Covid-related restrictions are eased. If that's true, the "true power of relationships" that Tom Peters described is going to be put under even more strain. And that, we believe, would make most businesses even more vulnerable.

It's worth thinking about Nietzsche's opinion in the context of a business: "It's not a lack of love, it's a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages".

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