Since returning to work in January, I have spent nine days travelling within the UK, attending conferences, events, trainings and making site visits for a consulting client. These have been the first opportunity to leave home on business since the middle of March 2020. I’ve loved it. But will it continue?
Let’s be clear. Going anywhere for the last two years hasn’t been sensible. The risks to health from Covid-19 have been real and serious.
Selfishly, the impact of the worst effects of long Covid on me would have been disastrous. If I’m too ill to work, I don’t earn my income. The bills go unpaid. No sick pay, no government help. Less selfishly, I would never have lived with myself if I’d been a one-man super-spreader.
But now, with all the progress we’ve made, the return to in-person work is possible. Of course, we are all — individually and organisationally — going to have to decide what stays online and what should be done in real life (IRL), and why. Some want as much human connection back as possible (I won’t lie, I’m in that camp) and some want us to spend the rest of our lives at home on Teams, Zoom, and the like. As in all things, reality will be a balance between the two, as Matt Hyde of The Scouts so brilliantly wrote recently — you can read his thinking here.
What concerns me now is whether that choice about returning to IRL is being taken away from us by short-sighted organisational thinking. I’ve heard quite a few leaders of volunteer engagement (and others) saying that even if they wanted to attend an in-person event or learning and development opportunity, they can’t because their employer has banned attendance at anything that costs money for the foreseeable future.
There are three serious implications that immediately come to mind from this position:
- At a time when the jobs market is pretty buoyant, investing in the learning and development of our people will be crucial to attracting and retaining the best talent to our work. Banning people from attending conferences workshops, events, and the like will simply result in your people going elsewhere, leaving your organisation less capable of attracting and retaining the talent you need. Ultimately, this will probably cost you more money eventually.
- If your people can’t go and learn from others, network and make connections, then how will they gain the insights they need to change, adapt and grow their work to the benefit of your mission? Sure, reading a report or watching a webinar on your own will help build your knowledge, but not as much as being able to debate and interrogate that source material with others, something much more effectively done IRL as so many elements of communication get lost online (e.g., body language).
- If our organisations fail to invest in learning and development, then the infrastructure to support that activity may disappear. Local venues who host events will close. Local and national instructor bodies will wither away. For years, our voluntary sector infrastructure has been told they need to earn more of their income. They’ve adapted accordingly. Now we’re going to pull up the drawbridge and hang them out to dry, whilst lining the pockets of the likes of Zoom and Microsoft?
In saying all this, I am aware of the budgetary squeeze the pandemic and current world situation has brought to many organisations, my own included. I am aware of the need to avoid returning to the environmentally harmful behaviour of the past. I am aware of the need to behave responsibly and safely in a pandemic that hasn’t yet ended.
Likewise, I am aware that we are social creatures. Being with others in our DNA. We are not designed to only engage with others through a window on our computer desktops. We learn more from spending time with others, that’s why coffee and lunch break conversations and interactive workshops always rate highly on event evaluation forms (except for the online events!).
As I said earlier, we have to find a balance between online and IRL as the pandemic (hopefully) fades. Being left without that choice because of short-sighted financial worries could cause long-term negative effects from Covid-19 beyond those we have already experienced. We mustn’t let that happen.
What do you think?
Do you agree with me?
What perspectives do you have on these issues?
Please share your thoughts with a comment below.