If there is one thing that the last two years have reinforced for me, it’s that I’m inherently an introvert.
My wife can’t understand this. “But you go on stage and do talks and go to networking events. You’re an extrovert.”
But these aren’t the same things. On stage, speaking or hosting, is a way in which (whilst I have nerves) I can have control in social settings. On stage you are imbued with social power that makes it easier for my type of introversion.
Networking events I go to, but I’m a fish out of water and have to work really hard. I’ll gravitate to people I know, which isn’t really the point.
The pandemic has also taught me that I find big, open plan offices very discomforting. There is no private space. Everyone is in the open. There’s just too much to take in.
Now this isn’t to say I don’t like people. I do. I adore the company of others. Just not too many of them at the same time. The move to a working world where I have lots of time with other people, but in the relative privacy of Teams meetings, has been a revelation.
I used to think that I didn’t like working from home, but what I realise now is that I didn’t like working from home alone. And working from home would invariably be days spent without contact with other people. Fallow periods in my freelance work. Or “concentration time” to get things done deliberately removing distractions.
That sort of working from home I hated. I got bored. I couldn’t focus. I was lonely.
Looking back on my career to date, the best office space I ever worked in was for the first year of my time at the BBC back in the mid-1990s. The now-demolished Woodlands offices were partitioned into smaller spaces occupied by specific teams. Our team of about 7 had a space for us, and a door that could close. We also happened to be next door to the tea bar, so we would get “passing trade” – people popping in to ask for something en route to refreshments. Some people just wanting to have a chat.
But then the efficiency of open plan came to pass, the walls were demolished, and we all ended up in vast expanses of office space stretching for as far as the eye could see.
As we enter into the next phase of what’s next, ideas of individual preference against the needs of groups and organisations are going to be continually leading to trade offs and compromises. I will go back into offices, but will I hope try to make sure that I use the time in ways that make it productive. My worst fear is that the rest of my working life will be a series of organisations expecting me to travel regularly to spend time in unhelpful physical spaces to do what I could be doing more productively from my own space at home.
But not only are people’s preferences different, so is their access to resources. I’m in the hugely privileged position to have a space at home dedicated to my work. That wouldn’t have been the case back in the days when I was at the BBC and living in shared houses. That’s obviously the case for many people today.
People are different. Organisations often homogenise. I don’t think that what we have learned in the last two years will allow that homogenisation to continue even if there are strong calls at the moment from politicians for that to be the case. Being aware of these differences, accommodating them, not imposing one’s own preferences on those that you manage… we are going to continually learning in the next few years, and the answers are far from clear.