Let me take you on a journey, from Birmingham to the city of Mumbai. As the plane descends onto the runway, the first thing that strikes you is the sheer scale of corrugated iron and blue tarpaulin roofed huts. The sprawl of the nearby slum wraps itself around the airport, tightly consuming every square inch of surrounding space the airport has to offer. The slums of Mumbai tell a story in themselves, micro-economies that flourish in a city that offers you everything from high tea at the oppulent Taj Hotel, to the gritty energy of Leopold Cafe. As you brace for landing, be prepared for a city that will wrap you in it’s every emotion.
Welcome to Mumbai…
You may be mistaken in thinking this is a travel blog. It is and it isn’t!
I was reflecting on a business trip I took to Mumbai last year and the impact current events may have on travel in a post-pandemic world. Even if we wind back a few months to a pre-pandemic world, the emphasis on international business travel has been steadily declining. At a time when our working teams are more blended than ever, the cost of international travel has become more challenging to justify. However there is an argument that it’s actually needed more.
Naturally, the current crisis has seen an exponential shift to home working. However as I read articles, posts and even companies pledging home working commitments, will this come at a cost when it comes to relationships, creativity and the many other benefits of face-to-face working? A video conference, a phone call and even an email, is a poor substitute for some of the most crucial aspects of productive working.
The purpose of my trip
The primary objective of my business trip to Mumbai was to lead a team in solving a technical issue that would have severely impacted the critical path of a project. I was also keen to use the visit to build on the already established relationships with my team. In my view, both objectives were just as important as each other, but unfortunately in today’s world its harder to justify the latter.
This is a trusted team that I have known well for many years and a team dynamic that I thought I understood well. However, I was pleasantly surprised by my misjudgments! Some of the team dynamics were impossible to gauge remotely.
Outside the meeting room you see individuals work their magic on the office floor, negotiating, supporting and motivating the team. The casual conversations and playful exchanges are key to promoting healthy and productive team working environments. It takes certain individuals to drive the right culture and promote a way of working that not only delivers results, but promotes inclusion – which in itself is one of the key ingredients of “the team” recipe.
Inside the meeting room, the ability to use a whiteboard, look over each others shoulders to analyse data and get a feel for how ideas/solutions are being responded too is incredible. You really feel the emotion of a room and how people bounce off each other, which are key indicators to shape a creative energy that drives an outcome. After many days of troubleshooting it was an outdoor tea and biscuit break on a warm and humid Mumbai afternoon that we hit upon an idea. Just to be clear, there are not many things in India that can not be solved over a hot cup of chai (tea) and the obligatory parle-G biscuit.
The Parle-G is a rectangular shaped, malty and slightly sweet “gluco-biscuit”. India’s most popular biscuit is recognisable by its decorative border with its name firmly stamped in the middle. The Parle-G is the perfect accompaniment to tea as it has a reputation for sucking all the moisture out of your mouth.
It’s this opportunity and ability to look at problems and work as a team that made the real difference. The issue we ended up solving was key to the success of a multi-million pound project and it’s the Parle-G that you can’t share remotely, that we have to be grateful to.
There are several characteristics that contribute to building relationships from trust to cultural awareness and these also have a bearing on how we develop our own interpersonal skills. These qualities can’t be built remotely they have to be built on experiences with real life contact and emotion. Innovation and creativity thrive in these types of environments.
Those all important relationships are called upon when you need them most. The support from your team, colleagues and leadership team is really defined by what you establish outside of the meeting room.
Depending on where you are reading this blog, I don’t necessarily need to take you to the other side of the world, to give you a reality check on the importance of face-to-face working. The principles in my message apply universally anywhere and everywhere.
Those unexpected 5 minute “water cooler” conversations, bumping into a colleague in the hallway and even exchanging a few words over a desk, all contribute to fuelling our productive machine. Incidentally I once secured a job, not by what I said in the meeting room, but by the snippets of conversation we shared in an elevator – this gave my interviewer a real view of me and my experience.
Businesses and people today are responding to an unusual event. Unseen in our times, but as we adjust to this temporary shift, we do have to remember it is only temporary. We will learn lessons, but inevitably the world will find its balance again and hopefully in a better state. What we have learnt from how we have responded to this pandemic, should contribute to shaping a better work/life balance.
I usually end my posts with key points to take away, but I don’t think this one merits it. I honestly don’t know how office based working, be that locally or even globally will look like in a post-pandemic world. How we exit this pandemic will have a huge impact on the direction of travel.
My key message here is not to lose sight of the direct and in-direct benefits of face-to-face working – how these contribute to our goals at work and how they shape our personal development.